By Pete Guest
(Newsweek) In the courtyard of a small compound in Geta, 1.7 miles above sea level in southern Ethiopia, members of a local farming cooperative pound and sift barley, the chaff picked up by the vicious wind that blows across the mountains. Behind them, taped to the wall of their packing house, is a poster bearing two kanji characters, hand drawn in marker pen: Kai and Zen.
Loosely translated as “changing for the better,” Kaizen refers to a Japanese management philosophy, pioneered by Toyota, that emphasizes constant innovation and improvement in business. It is an incongruous sight in a region dominated by small-scale agriculture, where incomes barely scrape above the $1.25-a-day poverty line.
The village, a two-hour ride by four-wheel drive through a landscape of rough farmland and forests stripped for firewood, is home to a few scattered projects run by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Each is the product of just a few thousand dollars of investment, designed to turn subsistence farmers into small businesses that can sustain themselves financially using management practices imported from Japan.
A few miles away, cement dust rises over the red dirt hills. A Chinese company is building a multimillion-dollar paved road that will connect the remote village to the nearby town of Walkite, and onward to Debre Zeit and Addis Ababa. The road, says Badrum Shekur, the barley cooperative’s chairman, will change the economics of the region, linking farmers to urban markets even when the annual rains make the dirt tracks impassable.
It is an illustration of the contrast between the strategies of the two Asian giants in Africa, and of the challenges that Japan faces as its prime minister, Shinzo Abe, pushes for greater influence on the continent.
In May 2013, Abe announced a total of $32 billion in public and private funding for Africa, including $14 billion in development assistance and $6.5 billion for infrastructure projects. In January, he made a highly publicized visit to the continent, meeting leaders and promising huge investments. It is a dramatic shift, and one that analysts say is a direct response to the strategic challenge posed by Chinese interests in Africa.
After rattling its saber in a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Tokyo is taking its rivalry with China to Africa. Ethiopia, the seat of the African Union and the diplomatic heart of the continent, is likely to become the front line.
“Japanese aid to Africa until very recently was more of a philanthropic endeavor than anything strategic,” says Shihoko Goto, an expert on Tokyo’s international affairs at the Wilson Center. “Given the challenge that China is posing to Japan, I think it really has felt the need to not just provide assistance on the ground but for it to be more visible.”
For decades, Japan has been a quiet partner in African development. Its bilateral aid arm, JICA, has adeptly walked the fine line between assistance and interference, running small but generally effective interventions in agriculture and education, staffed by technical experts or the Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, which is loosely analogous to the U.S. Peace Corps. Practicing the softest of soft power, Japan became one of the largest but least visible donors to Africa.
China, by contrast, pursued a nakedly acquisitive course, exchanging enormous infrastructure projects for access to resources. That the infrastructure was needed in countries with crumbling roads and intermittent power supplies is not disputed. Whether the bargains the Chinese made were fair is another matter. [continue on next page]