Opinion | Time to debunk the myth of the helpless African

There’s no shortage of prejudices about Africa: inept and unable to help themselves; immobilised by famine; stuck in a quagmire of corruption, dictatorship and ethnic conflict.

But, there are good reasons why we should disabuse ourselves of these prejudices. In the first place, they give a distorted picture of the peoples of an entire continent. Secondly, because our prejudices blind us to the opportunities there are in Africa.

This autumn, Børnefonden completed a survey of African youth together with our partners in Child Fund Alliance. Nearly 2,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12 from 17 African countries were interviewed, and the results show a generation of Africans that is anything but helpless.

Their answers show that African children have a clear idea of what they want to be when they grow up: two out five want to be teachers or doctors, and nearly half want to attend post-secondary school.

There’s no denying that Africa suffers from famine. And it’s true that the continent has enormous problems with poverty, lack of jobs and poor infrastructure. But, it isn’t true that Africa’s children are stuck in a quagmire. They want to make something of themselves.

The children participating in the study were among the world’s poorest. They live in areas where the next meal can’t be taken for granted – yet neither distribution of food nor better health initiatives top their list of priorities. They yearn to be educated.

Asked what they would prioritise if they were allowed to be president or prime minister for a day, more than half answered that they would improve their countries’ educational systems. Education was four times more popular a priority than food distribution, which was the top priority of 13 percent, and ranks third overall.

A poll initiated by the Danish NGO, ‘The World’s Best News’, published in Politiken newspaper on 15 November 2011, revealed that Danes have an antiquated view of how things are going in the developing world. “Danes’ understanding of the developing world is stuck in the 1980s,” the results of the poll concluded.

We need to change this. At a time when Denmark should be looking for new markets and growth opportunities, we can’t afford to let our distorted image of reality let us overlook an entire continent.

While Europe was hibernating last year, Ghana, for example, was growing at a rate of 10 percent. Africans are trading with China. China trades with anyone, and when growth in Europe declines, growth moves on to the new markets of the BRIC countries and to Africa.

In times past, slow growth in Europe was a catastrophe for the impoverished countries of Africa. Today, they couldn’t care less, because there are plenty of other countries to trade with. The sooner we realise that Africa is a continent on the move, the better the chances are that Africa could wind up saving us.

There is light ahead. In the countries of western Africa where Børnefonden works, there is a company known far and wide. This Danish company is called Fan Milk, and it owes its success to a combination of Danish dairy know-how and Ghanaian demand for dairy products.

The company exports dried, surplus milk from Denmark to western Africa, where it is used to make yoghurt and ice cream, a process that saves transport and labour costs. Fan Milk began operating in Ghana in 1960 and today has expanded to seven countries in the region.

Earlier this month, Danida Business invited Danish businesses and NGOs to meet to discuss potential markets in developing countries. And the development minister, Christian Friis Bach, is shaking up the way Denmark looks at developing countries. No longer are they first and foremost recipients of aid – they are equal partners.

There are a number of institutions out there to help Danish companies break into the market in developing countries. One of them, IFU, in 2010 was involved in 700 partnership projects in 85 countries. This is an opportunity the nation’s companies need to latch on to.

At the same time, companies also need to be better at using NGOs to serve as bridge builders to allow them to reach markets that are linguistically and culturally different from Denmark.

Børnefonden has been active in Africa for more than 40 years, and we know the young people who will be working in tomorrow’s jobs.  We, and organisations like us, can provide Danish companies with local knowledge and we can help tailor educational programmes to suit the needs of Danish businesses.

Denmark has the knowledge, and it has the experience. Our study shows that Africa’s young people know what they want, but they lack opportunities. Investing in African jobs is the best thing we can do for them – and for ourselves.

The author is the CEO of Børnefonden, a Denmark based development organisation helping 70,000 children, families and communities in the world’s poorest countries.