Japan Confronts Africa's Hunger

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Mindful of Africa's economic potential — and particularly its natural resources — Japan has lately joined China in assiduously courting African governments in development partnerships. But a key issue for the 40 African leaders gathered in Yokohama for the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) is food, the rising prices for which are threatening to roll back the impoverished continent's development gains.

Grain prices have doubled over the past year, while fertilizer prices have tripled, generating food riots in a number of African countries and mounting pressure on governments to spend more of their national budget on feeding the poor. But while such spending may alleviate short-term hunger, it also fuels inflation, risking further unrest — and derailing hopes for economic takeoff in some of Africa's most promising economies.

Japan's deep pockets may be part of the solution. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda noted on Wednesday that the country had already established a network of international agencies to help double rice production in Africa to 14 million tons over the next 10 years. Japan has also committed to doubling official development assistance (ODA) to the continent by 2012: Tokyo will provide up to $4 billion in yen-denominated loans to Africa over the next five years, and will inaugurate a $2.5 billion fund within the Japan Bank of International Cooperation devoted to doubling private investment in Africa. (The symbiosis between ODA and Japan's private sector has a long, successful history, as its track record in Southeast Asia demonstrates.) Japan also plans to distribute 20,000 tons of its own rice reserves to five African countries.

Surging food prices may represent a short-term crisis, but they could also bring a long-term opportunity for Africa's 80 million farmers. Realizing their potential, however, requires cash from donor countries in order to get the necessary fertilizer, seeds and irrigation. Even more important is investment in the transport and storage infrastructure to bring crops to market — currently, as much as a staggering 50% of many of Africa's harvests spoils before it reaches consumers. "Africa could still double or triple food output but this would require major help to do it," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute and special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Financial shortfalls have exacerbated the effects of the food crisis, and African leaders and international organizations are urging immediate action. "The limiting factor is the follow-through of the high-income countries," says Sachs. "And this is where I hope Japan will play an active leadership role to overcome the current stalemate. It's not even a stalemate, the current lack of fulfillment of the commitment."

A test of that leadership will come five weeks from now, when Japan stages the G8 summit at Hokkaido. As host of the gathering of leaders of the world's leading industrialized nations, Tokyo has agreed to highlight the global food crisis as well as issues such as climate change and African development. But as Sachs warns, the proof will come in the delivery rather than the pledging of assistance.