Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program, said that doing business in Africa could even provide an impetus for revitalizing the Japanese economy.
“In advanced economies like Japan, my own country and Europe, the demographics are that we are not going to be growing our populations and our demand,” the former prime minister of New Zealand told Asahi Shimbun reporters. “So the growth of markets is unquestionably in developing countries, and Africa is the latest region to ride the wave of growing demand and growing middle class.
“So I think there are huge opportunities in Africa for Japanese companies.”
She said that continued aid to build infrastructure, improve education opportunities and train workers in Africa will also be crucial.
Clark was speaking on the opening day of the Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama.
Leaders from 51 African nations and representatives of international organizations involved in African development are attending the three-day conference.
At the opening ceremony, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to extend up to 3.2 trillion yen in public- and private-sector projects to assist African development. He stressed that private investment was needed in Africa, and that cooperation between the private sector and government was important for that purpose.
Clark said the landscape of African development has changed “like night and day” since Japan hosted its first TICAD meeting in 1993. She said many African nations are now eager to get on the fast track to becoming emerging economies.
She cited the example of Ethiopia, which struggled with devastating famine in the 1980s, but now has one of the fastest growing economies supported by efficient agricultural production.
The emergence of new players on the African development map, including China, which has aggressively engaged in “resources diplomacy,” has greatly changed the atmosphere.
“In general, we can say that development cooperation is quite a crowded place. There are many actors from the global south. As partners, they are growing in their numbers and the scale and size of what they can do,” Clark said. “That means that for the advanced economies to continue to play the role they have in development, they will have to keep in pace with that.”
In the months leading to this year’s TICAD conference, Clark said she was concerned that Japanese businesses may lack the enthusiasm to invest in Africa.
“China, for the last few years, has been talking of locating possibly 80 million jobs offshore in Africa. That’s a lot of jobs,” she said. “Will Japanese companies see the potential of Africa?”
Nevertheless, she said she was confident that Japan will continue to play a key role in African development.
“China in total size of economy has surpassed Japan ... it’s a changing world. But Japan is still, by any standard, going to be a very large, very significant economy,” Clark said.
She also said she looked to Japan’s continued initiative in assisting parts of Africa that are currently hit by conflict, such as Mali. These activities include helping to build livelihoods for youths and women, and encouraging community dialogue between different ethnic groups.
“It’s basic building blocks, and if these things don’t work, you start to have trouble,” she said.
Japan has also contributed $92 million to reduce the impact of climate change. The Japanese funds helped 20 countries develop their own strategies on dealing with the effects of global warming.
Regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include halving the number of people in extreme poverty, Clark acknowledged that some of the goals will not be met by the target year of 2015.
But she said the goals should be considered “successful” in accelerating progress in alleviating such chronic problems as child and maternal mortality, HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, and achieving primary education for children.