Tokyo (AsiaNews) - Emphasising Africa's potential, its development, and not merely the aspect of foreign aid. This is the logic that characterised the fourth edition of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, TICAD, held from May 28-30 in Yokohama, Japan. The purpose of this forum, the calibre of the participants, and the theme under consideration made it an exceptional observatory of the "signs of the times" for sub-Saharan Africa.
Tsuneo Kurokawa, head of the section for Africa of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, emphasised that "unlike China, which in recent years has become one of the leading donors for Africa, the strength of TICAD consists in the fact that involves other parts of Asia and international organisations".
The idea of founding an international conference to be held every five years came from the government of Tokyo, but from the very beginning (1993) it has been organised together with the United Nations and the World Bank. The meeting just concluded was the fourth (TICAD IV), and the most heavily attended. Responding to the invitation were 51 African nations (all except Somalia), 17 African organisations, 12 Asian nations, 22 donor nations, and 55 international organisations, with a total of about 2,500 delegates. These included 40 presidents or prime ministers of African countries, twice the number of those present at TICAD III (2003).
The two people who contributed more than anyone else to determining the character of the conference this year are Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda (71), and Sadako Ogata (81), president of the JICA. Although he was as discreet as always, Fukuda came to the forefront of media attention for what the journalist called the "marathon of mini-summits": in two days, he met one by one with 40 leaders of African nations, dedicating 20 minutes to each one.
Ogata's image did not appear on television, but her contribution to the organisation and results of TICAD IV was enormous, because of her role as president of the JICA. The JICA is an independent administrative institution, founded in 2002, with the objective of contributing to the social and economic advancement of developing nations, and of facilitating Japan's international cooperation. In reality, it is the "brains and hands" of the Japanese government in the area of aid to developing nations. In addition to its headquarters in Tokyo, where about 1300 people are employed full-time, there are 19 branches spread all over Japan to accommodate and organise volunteers. In 2003, then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi asked Ogata to become the organisation's president. Since then, observes Tsurukawa, the JICA has taken on a new face: its preferred area of activity is sub-Saharan Africa, and its aim is to help it to develop according to the characteristics of the local culture and personnel.
The fact that the Japanese government would entrust this responsibility to a 77-year-old woman is surprising only to those who are not familiar with her life. Ogata holds multiple degrees, and decades ago worked as an official at the UN headquarters in New York. But in December of 1990, when she was already retired, she was unanimously appointed as UN high commissioner for refugees, a post she held until 2000. During those years, she was constantly travelling to visit refugee centres in Kosovo, Thailand, Turkey, and above all in Africa, consoling women and children and above all taking stock of the situation. Ogata, a practicing Catholic, finds strength for this kind of commitment in her Christian faith.
TICAD has also increased notably in quality: its emphasis has been shifted from simple aid to development; the rapid changes that have taken place on the continent have indicated the new strategy. Since 2002, Africa's economy as a whole has grown by 5 percent per year, such that the region is beginning to be called a "growing continent".
"The new history of Africa that we must create together", Fukuda said in the closing address at the meeting, "will be a history of growth. In order to take advantage of this opportunity, the most important thing to do is to develop infrastructure". Robert Zoerllich, president of the World Bank, is of the same opinion. "I believe that in 15 years, Africa could become the new hub of global growth".
The change in the situation is due to two factors: the end of internecine warfare in various countries on the continent, and its abundance of valuable materials that has drawn investment from China and India, among others. TICAD 2008 has come to the conclusion that a fundamental change must be made in the relationship between donor nations and Africa. Kurokawa said: "Donor nations must not only consider Africa as a place that must be helped, but must also consider positively what they could receive from Africa". But the responsible participation of the African populations is necessary. This was emphasised by Maria Cabral, foreign minister of Guinea Bissau, who said that the decisions of TICAD IV "will create a different situation only if African nations themselves commit to following its rules". The new formula is "aid for development". And Africa still needs substantial aid, because the old problems of extreme poverty (42% of the sub-Saharan population lives on less than a dollar a day) and disease (AIDS, malaria, and the lack of medicine) have been joined by two new ones: food price inflation, which harms the poor populations, and global warming, which interferes with African agriculture.
The international conference concluded with the publication of three documents that are a sign of hope. These are the "Yokohama statement", which focused attention on the theme of the international food price inflation and its negative effect on reducing poverty in Africa; the "action plan" for the next five years, aimed at improving grain production in Africa; and the "supplemental mechanism", meaning a special body that will monitor the implementation of the plan. In reference to this latter decision, Asha-Rose Migiro, vice secretary general of the UN, said: "I believe that this time, they have taken a good step forward". This was accomplished primarily by the Japanese government, which has promised to double its official development aid for Africa with monetary and technical assistance. The figures are fairly generous: 44 billion yen for education, 43 billion for health, 37 billion for infrastructure, 30 billion for sanitation and water, and 26 billion for agriculture.