NEW JAPANESE INITIATIVE AIMS TO NARROW
"DIGITAL DIVIDE" AND COMBAT DISEASE
--- by Marc Castellano
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori unveiled the details July 14 of an extraordinary $18 billion package that will help developing economies, mainly in Asia, bridge the so-called digital divide the gap between nations that have benefited from the proliferation of information technology and those that have not. At the most basic level, the landmark initiative, which includes $3 billion to fight infectious diseases, represents Tokyo's commitment to the success of the summit of the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial nations plus Russia on Okinawa. The digital divide and the problems of infectious diseases in the developing world are key agenda items at the global forum.
The package's $15 billion aid component for IT development to be disbursed through both official development assistance programs and non-ODA channels over the next five years will be directed toward four priority areas. First, money will be earmarked to increase public awareness of IT opportunities and to facilitate government policymaking and institution-building in this field. Such activities might encompass work on strengthened legal systems and new mechanisms to prevent crime in cyberspace. Second, the plan will target the development of human resources. Tokyo will help developing countries train more than 10,000 engineers and other IT experts, mainly through technical cooperation. The third area of focus will be communications infrastructure. This includes the construction of interregional and intraregional networks as well as the installation of in-country wireless and traditional land-line systems. Finally, Tokyo will promote the use of IT in a broad range of aid projects. Such efforts might involve using computer and communications technologies to provide remote or distance services, including training and medical care.
To facilitate implementation of the ambitious assistance plan, Tokyo will build 30 core IT centers in developing countries to provide training and information. The Japan International Cooperation Agency, the grant and technical-assistance arm of Tokyo's aid establishment, will convert its office on Okinawa into a base for disseminating development-related information and launching distance-education programs over the Internet. In addition, Tokyo will work with such multilateral groups as the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank, participating in their IT initiatives where appropriate.
The infectious-disease portion of the aid package is intended primarily to find ways to eradicate or at least to prevent the spread of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), malaria, polio and tuberculosis. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS estimates that worldwide, the number of people living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) or AIDS reached 34.3 million in 1999. Last year alone, 5.4 million people contracted HIV, and 2.8 million more died from associated diseases. Developing countries are home to the majority of the victims, with sub-Saharan Africa shouldering a disproportionate share of this devastating problem.
Malaria, polio and tuberculosis kill some 3 million people a year, mostly in poor areas of the world. Tokyo's position is that infectious and parasitic diseases are life-threatening problems in developing countries. At a broader level, social and economic advancement is impaired by the ravages of such diseases.
Accordingly, Tokyo aims to strengthen the health sectors of poor countries through programs that develop human resources and deliver policy advice. To this end, health-care providers will be trained in the control of infectious diseases and in public health. Other programs will finance the distribution of drugs and medical equipment and fund checkups, vaccinations and safe drinking water.
The aid plan also has a component for research activities, including the development of vaccines and experimentation. In addition, Japan will encourage so-called South-South cooperation in order to foster the exchange of health-related information among developing nations. Another thrust is support for various nongovernmental organizations that are working to help the Third World combat the spread of infectious diseases. Grants and technical-cooperation assistance provided over five years will finance the infectious-disease effort, although ODA loans may be provided if needed.
Japan has been the world's largest supplier of development assistance since 1992 (see JEI Report No. 23B, June 16, 2000). In an effort to highlight its commitment to regional and global leadership, Tokyo has introduced one very generous aid package after another in recent years. In response to the 1997-99 East Asian financial and economic crisis, it unveiled the $30 billion Miyazawa Plan in the fall of 1998 and a host of other assistance programs the following year (see JEI Report No. 30A, August 6, 1999).
More recently, Japan has been working to rally support for the G-7's $70 billion debt-relief initiative (see JEI Report No. 27B, July 14, 2000). The IT/infectious-disease package, which will be formally presented at the G-8 summit, marks Tokyo's latest attempt to demonstrate to the world especially Asia that it is a good global citizen, determined to help close the growing digital divide between rich and poor and to eradicate infectious diseases.