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OECD Deputy Secretary-General Mari Kiviniemi: Sticks to facts and fears protectionism

OECD Deputy Secretary-General Mari Kiviniemi: Sticks to facts and fears protectionism

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo:

Former Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi has spent nearly a lifetime in Finnish politics. As OECD Deputy Secretary-General she has spent most of her time advising the world’s governments on development and growth. At year’s end it is over. Now she wants to help Finland prosper as leader for the Finnish Commerce Federation.

Mari Kiviniemi has a lot to say about Finnish politics, the need for structural change, new jobs and the fear of growing populism – not only in Finland but across the Nordic region, in Europe and the rest of the world. She is worried about how facts sometimes are no longer taken seriously. She believes policies must be evidence-based, evidence combined with knowledge from practice and dialogue with those it concerns.

The fact is that trade leads to growth, and that economic growth must be regulated and distributed in order to be sustainable. She talks about ‘inclusive growth’, as it is now called in OECD lingo. 

“I think that this is the Nordic model. This is what we are doing all of the time.”

She warns against increasing inequalities, how the world’s richest get richer on the back of the middle classes and the poor. 

“We see this gap widening in the Nordic region too, not least in Sweden, but also in the other Nordic countries. We must be particularly careful to include refugees and immigrants into society.”

She is passionate about being able to use her knowledge in a way that can help develop Finland.

“It is not only as a politician that you have influence,” she smiles.

Many others can influence political decision making, as she knows from experience. Even in government it is not always easy to execute the politics you want to promote. During her time in government, impenetrable layers and silo mentality were obstacles to structural changes. She mentions transport as an example. This is no longer the case, which makes change easier to achieve.

The OECD’s nicest office

We are sat in a plush corner office with a lot of natural light and a view of the garden, one of the nicest offices at the OECD according to the secretaries assisting her. This is what she will be leaving when the leaves have fallen from the trees of Paris’ posh neighbourhoods. She lives two kilometres from her job, and walks to work. She loves moving about, running and doing house work. She has a husband who likes living in Paris, and children who are old enough to be independent from her. She will miss Paris, she admits, when the time comes. 

“I have to say that my job is to be as much outside of Paris as in the office. I arrived back from Beijing in China this morning, and I am travelling to Italy at the end of the week. This is part of my job, being able to spread information and launch reports. And as an OECD representative I meet high level representatives and participate in high level seminars and conferences. But of course, parts of the job must be done from here too. Sometimes I spend all week here,” she says, smiles and adds that many people at the OECD travel a lot.

“The experts who work on particular countries must travel a lot too. Often you have to go to a country to be able to analyse its situation. You must discuss issues with everyone, and you cannot do that only over Skype.”

Not long ago she was in Norway to present the OECD’s country report, which highlighted housing costs and infrastructure investments, the focus points for this analysis.

“But it is clear that Norway too has challenges when it comes to inequality, only not to the same extent as in many other countries.”

“We will miss her,” they say in her antechamber. “Everybody likes Mari.” Perhaps not surprisingly, with such a long career as a representative for her country and now a travelling advisor for other governments, she is a person with social antennae and an open mind. 

Growth and well-being

She must also identify with the job as an ambassador and spokesperson for the OECD? 

“It is easy to agree with the information we provide, because it is evidence-based. 

“Not everything is based on evidence, of course – we analyse all the information we gather. Our policy recommendations are partly based on evidence, on best practice, on what works and on dialogue with country representatives. So the recommendations are well founded and trustworthy.”

Four years at the OECD is a long time when you think about how fast society is changing. Which changes has she been observing during her time here?

“I think we have managed to keep our reputation as a neutral organisation. When it comes to governments, politicians and senior employees who we meet, I have a feeling that our relationship is the same as when I first started, but that the general atmosphere is much more challenging, due to increased populism.

“We need to spread our message in a more efficient way, because obvious truths are based on evidence – like the fact that free trade is the source of growth, and that innovations that are spread globally increase productivity.

“But perhaps we have not been mindful enough when it comes to focusing on our policy recommendations in order to make growth more inclusive. Free trade is not the only advice we give. A level playing field and international regulations are also needed, and there is a need for policy development recommendations on a national level.”

Is inclusive growth a sign of a new policy from the OECD?

“I see what you mean, but for many years we have said that national policies must include education and labour market measures. Yet is it right to say that there is a greater need to look at several dimensions beyond economic growth. We have developed methods to measure well-being more broadly than simply looking at economic growth, because we have seen that growth has not been equally distributed in a way that has benefitted everyone.

“My feeling is that inclusive growth is a very Nordic story. This is the policy which the Nordic region has carried out. We have also shown that rich countries can have hight growth levels, while remaining inclusive. My feeling is that the story of inclusiveness is simply giving a new name to the Nordic model.”

She is less clear-cut when it comes to the role of the social partners, but believes the partners must play an important role in the organisation of the labour market. But there are different models – in some places the state can have a stronger role, in other places the partners play a considerable role in the shaping of labour market politics. 

50 years and and a new agenda

Has the experience of being a Finnish Prime Minister opened doors in her present job?

“Of course. My experiences as Prime Minister and various government ministerial posts have helped me when meeting other countries’ governments. It has given me credibility. I know how hard it can be to implement the politics that we recommend. It is easy to insert something into a government programme, but something else altogether to execute the policy while keeping all stakeholders onboard even when the measures can prove to be unpopular. 

“You don’t have everyone cheering you on. Removing state support from a company in order to improve competition, for instance, can lead to bankruptcy and unemployment. But in the long run it might be the best solution. New companies emerge and new jobs are created.”

She has a long and rich political life story. She was only 26 when she became one of Finland’s youngest MPs in 1995, representing the Centre Party. She was politically active until she stepped down as party leader in 2012, following low voter support in the 2011 election. She retired from parliament in 2014. She spent 19 years in politics. That is enough, she does not want to return.

“I would like to use my expertise in other areas. I will turn 50 this year. I feel like I have done my bit. I am not saying ‘never again’, but I have no passion for politics any longer.”

She needs passion for what she does, and to use all of her expertise.

“I am flexible when it comes to the choice of jobs, but I would like to follow up on the OECD’s agenda of free competition, free trade – but there is more than this. It is support for politics, I want to help build the Finnish society.

“The Finnish economy is growing, but still faces major challenges. Finland needs structural reforms, so I would love to be part of the debates about which reforms are needed.” 

Hard to reach out with facts

What does she think about Finland’s growing populism? The Finns Party who were part of the government, have split in two. The darkest blue part are now outside of the government, while the blue-blue remain in a coalition with the Centre Party. 

“It is not only in Finland, look at the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, it looks like this is a universal trend. But of course I am a bit worried.

“Politics have become much more turbulent than it used to be, which makes it more difficult to reach political decisions. Finland used to always have two major parties which could agree on which direction to head in. It meant stable governments, and this is no longer the case.

“From the OECD’s point of view, it is also much more challenging to give clear messages about our positions. When we for instance hear someone say protectionism is good, we know it is not good. And not only for the OECD, but in all countries it has become difficult to get the facts across.”

Growing populism is a trend pointing towards less multilateralism, as we see in the USA, with Brexit, in Italy. What does she, as a representative for a multinational organisation, think about that?

“The USA is the worst example. What we can do is to carry on with our work and get better at presenting our arguments not only to governments and politicians, but to the general public, that what is needed is international regulations. This makes things easier for all parties. And we must use examples to illustrate the advantages of multilateral cooperation in daily life. 

Regional differences a challenge

“On a national level, governments must also focus more on bridging gaps and reducing inequalities. It is of course a greater need for this in countries where we see extreme levels of inequality.” 

But populism grows from more than inequalities between peoples and countries – including differences between regions, thinks Mari Kiviniemi. 

“In Finland you find big differences between regions in the south and in the east. We often see that major regional differences are easy to miss when you compare average figures between countries. Some might fall outside, and this fuels nationalism. In Finland there is some support for populism, but mostly people don’t care. So we must build the country so that everybody can and wants to participate.” 

The OECD has now developed a framework for policy action on inclusive growth called ‘Opportunities for all’. She says this is an attempt at helping member states prepare the ground for more inclusive politics. 

A Nordic digital ID card 

She is also focused on digitalisation in general and in Sweden in particular right now, where she will help launch several reports on behalf of the OECD, including on e-government. But there are exciting things happening on a Nordic level too. The OECD is supporting attempts to develop a digital personal number which can be used across borders in the Nordic region.

“I think we might see a result towards the end of the year,” says an optimistic Mari Kiviniemi. 

One minute interview

What are you reading? 

I mostly read during holidays, but I always have a book on my bedside table. Right now it is ‘Lempi’ by the Finnish author Minna Rytisalo. It is a novel set in 1944 about the impact of war on Finland.

What is your favourite tool in the office?

My iPad.

What did you want to become when you were a child?

There were so many things – first I wanted to be a musician, then an actor. I play the piano and flute and I have been singing in a choir. 

What is your hidden talent?

Washing. I like washing and cleaning. We have two apartments in Finland and a summer house, so there is a lot to keep on top of. And here too. This everyday kind of training is good. Hoovering is good exercise, she laughs.

  • Mari Kiviniemi was born in 1968 and grew up in the village of Alavalli in Jalasjärvi, the daughter of a chicken farmer.
  • She moved to Helsinki to study economy and got a Master's Degree in social science in 1994.
  • She became an MP in 1995, and was a member of the Helsinki city council from 2005 to 2012.
  • She has held several government ministerial posts, was party leader for the Center Party from 2010 to 2012 and Prime Minister from 2010 to 2011.
  • In the 2011 parliamentary elections, the Centre party lost votes and Kiviniemi had to step down as Prime Minister.
  • In 2014 she was elected Deputy Secretary-General for the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
  • From 2019 she will be the Managing Director for the Finnish Commerce Federation.  

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