Japan and Africa: Development Aid or Equal Partners?


China’s investment in Africa has become a quite well-known phenomenon over the past few years, especially as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, it should not be forgotten that Japan has also been playing a significant role on the African stage. After the Cold War, European investment in African countries had decreased, instead prioritising former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe. At this time, Japan filled the void by increasing its engagement with the African continent, demonstrated by the establishment of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993.

TICAD was the first of what is now an established format, the “Africa plus one” summit. Many countries, ranging from the UK to Russia and Indonesia, have since followed its example. However, TICAD was never an exclusive dialogue between the Japanese government and the governments of African countries. Instead, the summit is co-organised by the African Union (AU), the UN, its Development Programme UNDP, and the World Bank. In 2019 (TICAD 7), Germany and Turkey also became involved.

Originally, the summit was held every five years in Japan. Following a request from the African side, the format was changed to every three years, with the location alternating between Japan and Africa starting with TICAD VI, held in Kenya in 2016. At its outset, TICAD was mainly concerned with development aid. However, since 2008 with TICAD IV, the focus has shifted towards business and trade. This trend is reflected by the increasing number of private companies engaging with TICAD, for example by participating in, and making recommendations at the event’s Public-Private Roundtable Meeting, and consequently by bringing private investment into Africa. Furthermore in 2019, TICAD 7 for the first time recognised private companies as official partners

At TICAD VI in 2016, Abe promised USD 30 billion combined in public and private investment. In 2019 however, no promises regarding public investment were made, though USD 20 billion in private investment was pledged. Whether this is a concretisation of the shift away from development aid towards recognising African countries as full-fledged economic partners, or whether it has to do with Japan’s own stagnating economy is a question up for debate. Most likely, it involves a bit of both. Regardless of its motivations, Japan is clearly engaged in strengthening its ties with African countries, especially in the private sector. 

In particular, TICAD 7 took place under the theme of “Advancing Africa’s development through people, technology and innovation”. At the summit, UNDP representative Achim Steiner stated that UNDP is keen to stimulate the “private sector to invest in SDGs-enabling activities, especially in Africa, which is at the heart of our development work.” The TICAD philosophy of private investment, technology and innovation is thus envisaged as beneficial for achieving the SDGs. 

Other bodies have pushed similar agendas. There is the World Bank’s Digital Moonshot initiative for example, calling for Africa’s digitalisation which was also embraced by Japan. At the World Bank Group – IMF Spring Meetings in 2019, Japan pledged to uphold this agenda during its presidency of the G20. The United Nations Economic and Social Council furthermore sees technology transfers, knowledge sharing and capacity building as requirements for development cooperation in the post-2015 world, all areas fully embraced by TICAD 7.

Capacity building is targeted concretely with the African Business Education (or ABE) initiative, started in 2014. The initiative offers education to young Africans with the aim of boosting the private sector, not only through business, but also via government activities and R&D. TICAD 7 mainly emphasised security capacity building, announcing Japan’s New Approach for Peace and Stability in Africa (NAPSA). This entails the training of 60,000 people in the security domain and related areas, such as police officers, public prosecutors, and judges. Japan will also train 26,000 people in sectors related to health care, as part of its efforts to promote Universal Health Care.

The COVID-19 crisis has created some difficulties for Japan’s engagement with Africa. For example, many representatives have been sent home from the continent by their companies. This results in less private engagement than anticipated and hoped for. Nevertheless, government engagement has not waned, with the Japanese government donating USD 1 million for the battle against the coronavirus in Africa, as part of the Africa Joint Continental Strategy for COVID-19, an initiative launched by the AU.

Japan has several reasons for its interest in Africa. One of them is the great importance of soft power in Africa to the Japanese government. This in view of its aims to reform the UN Security Council, of which it is still excluded as a result of Japan’s defeat in World War Two. Securing African votes could help Japan reach this objective. African support is furthermore essential in establishing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) framework which, if successful, would cement Japan’s leading position in global politics. On top of this, Africa has the fastest expanding market worldwide and the continent is home to an abundance of natural resources. Japan is keen to tap into this market, while also securing resources, especially as Japan’s own natural resources remain scarce.

Thus, Japan has good reasons for its interest in Africa. Yet, the narrative of development aid seemingly clouds this, misrepresenting Japan’s real intentions on the continent. For example, a 2017 promotion video for Japanese infrastructure featured that Africa will “reach its true potential” when Japan and Africa connect. On the other hand, African countries also have interests in Japanese investment, as they do in its Chinese counterpart. China is in fact able to offer a lot more, with Xi Jinping promising USD 60 billion in financial support to its partners on the continent in 2018 at China’s own “Africa plus one” summit, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Therefore, gaining the favour of African countries will certainly be a challenge for Japan. 

Nevertheless, Japan is also cooperating with other countries. There is the cooperation with India in African countries for example, marked by the establishment of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) in 2017. Both Japan and India’s FOIP outlook are in fact more focused on Africa than those of countries like the US and Australia. One paper argues that since India-Japan collaboration in Africa is premised upon achieving an inclusive and rules-based order, the two countries could work together with the EU, which has always been eager to promote these values. Moreover, Africa is one of the regions targeted by the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan. Thus, EU-Japan cooperation in Africa is something we may expect to hear more about in the future.

For the moment though, Japan may want to think about getting its story straight. Is the country giving development aid to a continent that desperately needs it, or is it trading with equal partners? The transition is likely to make it difficult to stick to one narrative, but if Japan is serious about wanting to engage in bilateral and business relations with Africa, it may be in its own interests to drop the development rhetoric altogether. 

Author: Elias Bouckaert, Junior Researcher, EIAS

Photo credits: ALB