Monday, September 04, 2006

We (and I Mean Japan) Should Worry More about Africa (Even If You Don’t Care)

(The Japanese version will have to wait. I need a life.)

We should care about Africa. And when I say “we”, I mean Japan. And “we” mean, usually, Sub-Sahara Africa. And that is how I will be using the word Africa in the rest of this post.

Africa registers infrequently on the Japanese psyche beyond that of dedicated NGOs and individuals. This is not surprising; Africa has never been our bailiwick. The modern history of Africa has been the history of its relations with its colonial masters Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States. Thus, it is only in fairly recent years that our attention has turned to the region, as our traditional ODA recipients in Asia have taken off economically, and some of them have turned into donor nations in their own right. Our bid to join the UN Security Council lends an urgency to this shift, if still less than substantial, given the 47 General Assembly votes that are at stake.

The centerpiece of our diplomatic efforts has been The International Conference on African Development, held every five years since 1993. Japan has brought in the UN and other international bodies as cosponsors, and activities continue to maintain momentum during the intervening years. Still, such efforts rarely break out onto the national scene, and remain for the most part in the ambit of the dedicated, or obligated.

But there are good, selfish reasons to be more concerned about Africa. Africa is an important source of several rare earths and metals, crucial to the IT and other high-end products that we rely on to maintain our central place in the global economy. And demand for these precious inputs will only continue to grow. As production of oil and natural gas goes, Africa is trails the Middle East (this includes the Maghreb, geographically, but for the purposes of this post not, part of Africa), the former Soviet Union and South America. But they are serious players. More significantly in the short run, these are uncertain times for the oil market. Given the tightness of the global oil market and the restrictive and destabilizing factors that are like to prevail there over the foreseeable future, even hiccups in Nigeria or even a producer as minor as, say, Sudan could have repercussions that jolt the market and embolden producers to take measures that further alter the uneasy equilibrium.

And here are a couple of specific, non-oil issues that will play out in the coming years:

South Africa: South Africa has so far managed a uniquely successful transition away from some of the worst excesses of colonialism, i.e. Apartheid. South Africa is a working democracy where rule of law prevails. Its thriving economy draws in millions of people from its less fortunate neighbors. It dominates the continent in a way that more populous, yet far less diversified/sophisticated Nigeria cannot. Yet it carries several time bombs that could yet derail its progress, as has happened in so many of its neighbors; rampant unemployment, particularly among the young and Black, the persistence of the economic divide between the races, and the 1-2 million or more guest workers, immigrants and refugees stretching its social and economic capacities, to name the most obvious. This is an environment where divisive issues such as land distribution could precipitate a slide back down the J-Curve into the self-perpetuating cycle of instability that we have seen in so many African nations. And of course, there is AIDS.

AIDS: With the HIV-positive population reaching into the 20-40% range in key, predominantly non-Muslim nations, including South Africa, the world may have stumbled onto a macabre, most unwelcome way out of that population explosion that has been the root cause of environmental damage, disease, poverty, communitarian strife, genocide, and other ills that have wracked post-WW II Africa. Needless to say, the “solution” comes with its own baggage as it devastates the productive, child-rearing populations of whole communities, nations.

A few years back, there were serious suggestions that some of Africa should go back to the drawing board as sovereign nations, but that talk has seemingly died down. But the problems remain. I am not sure how TICAD and other things some of us are doing out there really help the situation. But it’s time the rest of us began worrying, if not to care.

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