Dhaka, Bangladesh
Does Finland have all answers?

Does Finland have all answers?

Writes Jon Henley

Western Europe’s last naturally caused famine ended 150 years ago this winter. In a poor and backward part of the Russian empire called Finland, more than a quarter of a million people – nearly 10% of the population – starved to death. Last year, on the centenary of its independence, Finland was ranked, by assorted international indices, the most stable, the safest and the best-governed country in the world. It was also the third wealthiest, the third least corrupt, the second most socially progressive and the third most socially just. Finland’s judicial system is the most independent in the world, its police the most trusted, its banks the soundest, its companies the second most ethical, its elections the second freest, and its citizens enjoy the highest levels of personal freedom, choice and well-being. The Nordic country’s 5.5mn inhabitants are also the third most gender-equal in the world and have the fifth lowest income inequality. Their babies are the least underweight, their kids feel the most secure, and their teens perform the second best at reading (only third at science, though). In a century and a half, they seem to have done rather well. And so, as the Guardian embarks on a new series investigating the things that are going right in the world, it feels natural to start in Helsinki. “If you look at where we were then and where we are now, I think, absolutely, you can talk about a Finnish miracle,” said Bengt Holmström, a Helsinki-born Nobel prize-winning economist not much given to exaggeration. “How and why did it happen? Now that’s a question.” There are limits, of course, to the usefulness of this kind of exercise: no two countries – their circumstances, their histories, their people – can be the same. Learnings may not be transferrable. The magic sauce that made Finland would not produce the same results in, say, France. It is true, too, that shown the long list of social and economic measures by which their country can only be judged a success, many Finns snort: emerging slowly from a long recession, with unemployment at 8% and a populist, nationalist party garnering up to 20% of the vote, the country’s not what it was, they say. Often, the response – only semi-joking – is, “You mean other countries are worse?” But inquiring after the sauce’s recipe of, among others, an economist, a philosopher, a sociologist and an ex-president, intriguing ingredients emerge. To begin with, the geography – and its consequence, the climate.“We live,” Tarja Halonen, Finland’s president from 2000 to 2012, says carefully, “in a cold, harsh and remote place. Every person has to work hard for themselves. But that is not always enough. You have to help your neighbours.” Bruce Oreck, who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Helsinki (he liked it so much he stayed), says this has been “a profound, long-term influence. It’s made Finns self-reliant, private, but also dependent on a highly co-operative society, where rules matter. It’s cultural, but it’s become part of the chemistry.” Of all the Finnish words that are hard to translate into English, the one Finns cite most is sisu: a kind of dogged, courageous persistence regardless of consequence. It is what, in 1939-40, allowed an army of 350,000 men to twice fight off Soviet forces three times their number, and inflict losses five times heavier than those they sustained. But there is another that is, perhaps, more revealing, says Sirpa Kähkönen, an award-winning historical novelist. Talkoo means “working together, collectively, for a specific good”, she says.“Getting the harvest in, stocking wood, raising money. It’s about co-operating. Everyone together, equally.” Co-operation, but also relative equality, are recurring themes. Ruled for almost 600 years by Sweden and a further century by Russia, Finland was “generally and democratically poor”, says Kähkönen. “There were no serfs, but no wildly wealthy aristocrats either. Society was not hierarchical.” Since long before independence in 1917, says Riitta Jallinoja, a sociologist, “gaps between the social classes in Finland have been smaller than usual. Even the industrial revolution here was modest: no Rothschilds, no Fords, not even a dynasty like Sweden’s Wallenbergs.” Even in today’s clean, functional, visibly prosperous Helsinki, that still sort of holds.“You can be walking down the street next to the richest guy in town, and you really wouldn’t know,” says Oreck. In Finland, insists Halonen, “You don’t look up at people, and you don’t look down. You look level.” The country’s most successful current firm, games studio Supercell, creator of Clash of Clans, paid over €800mn in tax, producing seven of Finland’s top 10 income tax payers in 2016. Along with the rest of the country’s 10,000 or so highest earners, the amount they pay is published in an annual list, on “national envy day”. Finland is big on civic duty, but also on transparency. The success of the country’s free national education system, established before independence in 1866 and regularly ranked among the world’s best, also has its roots in a more egalitarian society, says Jallinoja: “Education was the key to advancement.” Not only that, says the philosopher and professor emeritus Ilkka Niiniluoto, but the whole country is actually “a social construction created by university professors.”

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