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Innovations from Finland

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Dec. 30, 2011, 3:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Lidia Wolanskyj

Lidia Wolanskyj

The embassy of Finland and International Centre for Policy Studies in Kyiv present Finland: A country of only five million people with a strange language, notorious drinking binges and folk songs that are mostly in a minor key. But it’s also a highly successful country of considerable creativity and innovation—not all of it related to cell phones. On Nov. 28, “100 Innovations from Finland” was presented in Kyiv by its author, Ilkka Taipale—a politician, doctor, activist, pacifist and an icon of Finnish social policy—and professor Vappu Taipale, a renowned physician and CEO of the Finnish National Research and Development Center for Welfare and Health—STAKES in Finnish—from 1992 to 2008.

Taipale has roots in Ukraine. His great-great-grandmother was born in Balta, Vinnytsia Oblast today, and, for her wedding, she was given a serf as a gift. The serf was later freed in Finland and buried near the family grave.

Taipale is, in his own words, “a specialist on the lumpen proletariat, the dropouts of society.”

Initially, he says, “nobody was interested in this book in Finland. It’s like clear water: you can drink it everywhere from all the lakes in Finland. But after Nokia City made a mistake, combining the clear water pipe and the waste water pipe and making thousands of people sick, they really appreciate clear water now.”

Today, the book is available in 11 languages with 6 more on the way, including Arabic “for Arab revolutionaries.”

The secrets of Finland’s success:

#1 is consensus, togetherness. “We don’t have a two-party system, we actually have a three-party system,” says Taipale. “One party is always out of government, and the other two share power. And they change around. In city councils and executive bodies, ever party is proportionally represented. Even the labor market is trilateral—employers, workers and the state—and together they make agreements.” This approach began during the Winter War against Russia in 1939. Torn apart by a very bloody civil war in 1918, the country understood that it had to unite to fend off its aggressive neighbor.

#2 is open democracy. Finland has a unicameral parliament but its communities and municipalities are strong. They have tax power. Helsinki gets 18.5 percent of its residents’ salaries as a city, making it half independent of the state. “The principle of openness, that all you are governing, all your documents have to be open to everybody, came from Finland more than 200 years ago,” says Taipale. “And it went into the Swedish Constitution around 1770.”

#3 is equality. Today, the country has a woman as president, a woman as mayor of Helsinki, and a female speaker in its parliament. “Maybe a little too much equality,” Taipale chuckles. “I was on two parliamentary commissions, civilization and the constitution, and the chairs were both women. And at home, there’s a woman. But I have to say that we, the men, made the laws to establish equality with the help of women. And we’re happy.”

Gender equality has always been strong in Finnish society: on family farms, the wife and husband traditionally worked together. “My grandmother never went to school because they were too poor,” says Taipale, “but she taught all the girls in the family, ‘Educate yourselves! This is the way to stand on your own feet.’”

During World War II, many European women entered the labor market to keep the factories going, but when the war ended, they were pushed back into their homes. In Finland, however, women stayed on the labor market, which meant that something had to be done with their children. The Taipales, for instance, had four children and their mother worked constantly.

By the late 1980s, Vappu Taipale had been appointed Minister of Social Affairs. This was when the first serious social innovations began. For the first time, families with children could choose whether they wanted to have a home care allowance, to be paid to be stay-at-home parents, or to have their children placed in a high-level kindergarten. This benefit has been universally available in Finland for 20 years now. The result? Nearly all children under two are taken care of at home. And nearly all children between two and school age are in kindergartens. Moreover, the public services are strong in Finland, they are trusted, and there’s no real competition with the private sector.

“This makes our labor market more effective because mothers and fathers don’t need to worry about their children,” says Taipale. “Young children are very important for our society and our birthrate is one of the highest in the European Union—although it is not very high, about 1.8 children.”

#4 is free education. Not only is education itself free, but the state pays students to study, through a student allowance. “This really is very important because it develops all talents by providing all children with opportunities to grow where they are talented,” says Taipale. “For instance, in the OECD’s PISA competition, Finland has stayed in the top three since 2006. One reason is that teachers’ education is at a very high level—university degrees. Many people complained, saying ‘Oh it’s not possible, it costs too much,’ but it’s not true. Finland’s social budget is below the EU average.”

Add universal social and health policies, then if you break your shoulder and go to the hospital, you will only pay 100 euros, 50 euros of that for surgery. In the small private sector, the same treatment would cost 7,000 euros. “We are happy taxpayers,” says Taipale. “I pay 47 percent of my pension and salary in taxes, but our four children got a free university education.”

Stricken after the soviet invasion in 1939-40—indeed, one of the key clashes was the Battle of Taipale—, the country began a policy of sharing what it had. It started with very small child allowances, very small universal pensions, and residence-based social security, meaning that anyone living in the country got something. “This created the dynamics of our society,” says Taipale, “and if you listen today, the ILO and the UN both say that you have to start with small allowances to poorer people and children.”

#5 is Finland’s nongovernmental organizations—some 70,000 of them. But this is where Finland parts ways with other countries: its NGOs are financed, not just by the state, but by gambling. All gambling and all Finnish casinos are in hands of the “NGO mafia,” as Taipale calls it, not the underworld mafia, and their profits go to NGOs. Finland also has a tradition of subsidizing political parties, even at the local level, while parties have to inform the Minister of Trustees about how they collect money for elections and all donations over EUR 2,000 have to be reported, along with their source.

“And the last secret? We don’t have any enemies,” says Dr. Taipale with a smile. “We’re not afraid of the Russians. The Winter War was enough.”

The downsides facing Finland

#1 is the unemployed—young people who have no education and no work. “That’s our time bomb,” admits Taipale. “It’s over 10 percent of young Finns. The lowest group in our social hierarchy is single men: unmarried and divorced men. Men without women. So I’ve been looking for new innovations for the second edition.”

When asked why so many young people, despite the opportunity of a free university education and highly qualified teachers, still choose not to study and engage in socially aggressive behavior, Taipale responded, “Partly because those youngsters have problems in their home, in their environment. They may not have support or may have some difficulties with learning. Learning abilities among adults have been only discussed in the last two decades. When we had agriculture and we had simple industrial work, you needed muscles. Now all those jobs have been automated. We don’t have enough simple work. It’s a self-service society. In Japan, you can still see people pumping gasoline. Not in our country.

“So these people are left out because our educational system is a bit too theoretical, people cannot work with their hands,” continues Taipale. “There’s nice 3 percent theory in my book. We have about 3 times more murders than England or Holland, but 3 times less than in 1930s. One man made a study of murders in Finland and concluded that most of the murderers are unemployed single men. 3% of our population, 40,000 men, cause most of the problems. So if we offer strong social incentives to get them into a better situation, we could cut our murders in half.”

How about corruption?

Before the current party system was set up, 5 percent of all public construction money went to political parties, in the late 1950s and 1960s. Nowadays, say the Taipales, there are few instances of bribery and kickbacks and most of them are fairly small-scale.

Although laws are strictly enforced, the mentality of Finns matters more. Salaries for doctors and teachers are quite good. “We don’t have state hospitals, we have municipal hospitals,” says Taipale. “It may not have been called corruption but it used to be that 10% of money went to sales promotion, that meant travel for doctors. We had 1,000 psychiatrists and 100 of them attended congresses of the American Psychiatric Association, paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. That’s nearly over. Now you have to publish in medical journals.”

Stopping for a moment, Taipale muses: “The next the book you should provide in your language is Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better? They compared all OECD countries and all the US states and showed that, if you have more equality in salary levels, then you have fewer social problems. That’s the most important book I have read—after mine, of course.”

Lidia Wolanskyj is with the International Centre for Policy Studies in Kyiv.
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