In Praise of Denmark

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My week long trip to Ethiopia wrapped up yesterday and I would be remiss if I did not offer a word of praise for the people who made this possible for me: the Danes.

Denmark is a country of only about 5 million and has an Gross National Income (GNI) of $311 billion. Yet a staggering 0.8% percent of its GNI is allocated for foreign development assistance. This makes Denmark one of only five countries that have internalized a United Nations goal that at least 0.7% of developed countries’ GNI be dedicated to foreign development assistance. By comparison, the amount of official development aid as a percentage of GNI is 0.38% for France, 0.27% for Canada, and 0.16% for the United States.

Denmark’s generosity, though, is not driven entirely by altruism. Rather, foreign aid is seen as a way for Denmark to punch above its weight in global affairs. It was this impulse that drove Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to establish the Africa Commission, which met in Addis Ababa last week and was the reason for my coming.

The African Commission is made up of a number of foreign leaders and dignitaries including Deputy UN Secretary General Asha Rose-Migiro, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and the African Union Commissioner Jean Ping among others. They met in Addis to discuss ways to increase employment opportunities for Africa’s bulging youth population. The need is great. Some 46% of Africans are between the ages of 5 and 25, a vast majority of whom are uneducated and underemployed.

The current government of Denmark is center-right, which was reflected by commission’s singular focus on ways in which the private sector can be incentived to invest in African youth. (Indeed, the traveling Danish press made hay over a statement by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen that the previous government engaged in fluffy, “aid socialism.”) Despite this focus on the private sector, civil society was not shut out of the meeting. The Danish government sponsored a parallel African Youth Panel, which included some 60 dedicated, innovative and amazingly bright social entrepreneurs from all across Africa. After a week of hashing out ideas among themselves, the youth delegates presented the Commission with their own recommendations.

The Commission will meet again in Copenhagen in May 2009 and offer a final set of recommendations on how to increase the effectiveness of foreign development assistance. I will certainly stay on the story.

Finally, on a separate note, the African Commission is clearly top foreign policy priority for Denmark. But the country’s biggest moment in the international spotlight comes in December 2009, when world leaders meet in Copenhagen to discuss a successor international climate change treaty to the Kyoto Protocols, which are set to expire in 2012. It was pleasantly shocking to me as an outsider to witness the extent to which climate change permeated nearly every aspect of this meeting. This includes the carbon offsets the government bought to fly me there to thematic discussions about how climate change will affect employment opportunities for African youth.

I already pointed out Denmark’s relative aid generosity. Other countries could do worse than following Denmark’s lead on climate change as well.

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