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The guardian of welfare during Iceland’s crisis

The guardian of welfare during Iceland’s crisis

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, foto: Björn Lindahl

Five and a half years after the Icelandic economy collapsed, we now know children were doing better during the crisis than before, even though the opposite had been feared. This is according to the Welfare Watch, a body set up soon after the crisis hit which brought many good forces together to protect Icelanders’ welfare.

The 6th of October 2008 will forever be imprinted in Icelanders’ memory. That was the day the economy collapsed and unemployment jumped from near zero to 12 percent overnight. 

“The whole of society was in chaos, and there was a feeling of anger, wonder, surprise and sorrow. We had lost everything - our prestige at home and abroad. We believed we were part of the Nordic family and that they, as families do, would help us out even though we had made mistakes. Instead we were treated as naughty children who should take responsibility for our own actions,” says Lara Björnsdottir, who at the time was the departmental head at the Ministry of Social Affairs, now called the Ministry of Welfare. 

Lara Bjørnsdottir

She remembers how she one day after the 6th of October drove her car to work in central Reykjavik. She was listening to her car stereo and the descriptions of and reactions to the chaos unleashed by the economic crisis. In the middle of all this she noticed a building site where two joiners were still at work. It was liberating - a symbol of forward-looking action in a society where everyone was expecting the worst and where old charitable organisations suddenly saw new opportunities and almost competed to be the most helpful. 

“We went to work, children went to school, but there was a frantic atmosphere and we didn’t quite know what to do. There was fear in society and the media stoked the fire. Many measures were quickly brought in and the Welfare Watch was one."

The Welfare Watch was established in February 2009 with the aim of protecting the welfare of especially children and other vulnerable groups. The Welfare Watch was set up to be a non-political focus group which would gather information on the finance crisis’ impact on families and individuals. It would map the measures which were put in place to soften the blow and document how well they worked. Using this knowledge, the Welfare Watch would also present proposals to relevant government ministers and the government. 

An important task in a difficult situation

Lara Björnsdottir was given the job of setting up and leading the Welfare Watch, and although her workload soared during this time it felt as if the minister had read her mind. Having spent many years as head of social services, she knew that the effects of a crisis could manifest themselves much later. It was important to immediately identify and protect the most vulnerable in society. Just how to construct the organisation and who to involve was somewhat less clear, however. And how would you go about protecting welfare while many public services were being forced to save and cut? This would also have to happen to the backdrop of a politically very unstable situation - between October 2009 and March 2014 Iceland has had four different governments. 

Lara Björnsdottir set up a steering group and invited members from many different social sectors. There were representatives from employers and trade unions, six different government ministries, the Red Cross and other charities. Reykjavik municipality and the state church were also invited. In time, the group grew to include 20 people, and from February 2009 to December 2013 93 meetings were held. Eight sub-committees are responsible for different sectors, for instance children. 

“Already at our first meeting we agreed that children were a priority group. If they aren’t doing well, there is no future. We also want to protect the weakest in society, those who were doing worst before the crisis hit,” says Lara Björnsdottir. 

The hunt for knowledge

The idea was to cooperate across different sectors and groups and to gather as much knowledge as possible and to look where you believed knowledge could be found. All ideas should be based on facts and knowledge and sometimes universities and researchers were brought in to help. 

“We wanted to create a consensus in society for the need to protect people’s welfare, and to explain that this was a joint responsibility - not just that of the authorities. The method was key. We arrived at what we could agree on to take as proposals to the government minister. If one proposal led to disagreement, it was put aside and could certainly be picked up by an organisation or unit, but not in the name of the steering group,” says Lara Björnsdottir. 

A hot meal every day

It was important to establish social indications for how people in Iceland were affected by the crisis years. Economic facts were not, however, the best tool to understand what was happening and which measures needed to be introduced. Several reports were presented, including one about the number of child protection cases, women in crisis and about the municipal services available to children and their families. The steering group was not there to implement but to come up with suggestions. One of them was to send out an open letter to municipalities requiring them to serve a hot school meal to all children every day, which was already happening in pre-schools. 

“We were simply afraid the children would starve,” says Lara Björnsdottir. 

The municipalities were also requested to keep an eye on children’s living conditions and were encouraged to introduce various preventative measures. The steering group also presented several proposals to the Icelandic parliament, including special economic support for poor families with children and priority treatment for young people outside of the labour market. In one of the most deprived areas, Reykjanes outside of Reykjavik, a project leader was appointed. The Welfare Watch also took an active part in identifying and developing the social indicators. One surprising result after the first year was that there were no indications that children were worse off - quite the opposite. 

“Children in Iceland actually had it better after the crisis hit. Most parents would work shorter hours and be more attuned to the child’s welfare. So not everything has been bad, many have been rethinking their situations, and in the steering group we always tried to identify the positives. People tended to blame everything on the crisis, but there has always been poverty and psychological problems,” says Lara Björnsdottir. 

Everyone must help

She says nearly everything the steering group did, all the gathering of knowledge and all the reports, has largely been cost free. One example is the Welfare Watch’s logo – a grand lighthouse and one of society’s most important symbols of safety. Before the economic crisis they would probably have hired a designer at considerable cost. Now they designed their logo themselves.

“We got people to work together, across all sectors. The government or the municipalities cannot lift a society alone. Everyone must help,” says Lara Björnsdottir.

She calls the 6th of October 2008 an important day - not a day to celebrate, but a day something happened which it is important to remember. 

Men in suits

were largely blamed for the Icelandic crisis. Children, however, did not suffer. They got more time and attention from parents than before. This Reykjavik sculpture was made by Magnús Tómasson.


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