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Sustainability must be based on democracy and has a hefty price tag

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén

Nordic countries are leading the way in sustainable development and welfare, built on solid democratic foundations. That was one of the central themes when Finland organised its first conference after taking on the 2016 Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

NLJ chose to follow the expert debate on ‘Socially sustainable development and the welfare state’, where the Nordic countries were looked at in an international perspective. Ralf Ekebom, Ministerial Advisor at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in Helsinki, wanted to pin down one central word in the debate.

“We should not understand the word ‘social’ as aspects linked to individuals and societies, but it should be interpreted as a description of how society functions in general and how it is being shaped.”

He noted that institutions and culture cement societies, while unsustainable development – market failures and financial collapse, corruption, tax evasion, lack of trust, civil conflict, failed states – are the results of weak institutions. 

Hefty price tag

Ekebom pointed to the Nordic welfare system’s weak points: the financing of welfare, demographic pressure from immigration and political tension.

“These are facts we need to keep an eye on. The Nordic model comes with a hefty price tag in the shape of redistribution, high employment and high taxes.”

He also argued that the Nordic countries represent an international model for how you build an efficient and well-functioning welfare society.

“That’s why we should highlight the way we work – how did we arrive at the results we have reached?”

Ekebom quoted an interview which the American economist Jeffrey Sachs gave to Helsingin Sanomat where he claimed it was impossible to combine a Nordic welfare model, a large variety of public services, with open borders. Ekebom wondered, just like the Brundtland Commission in 1987, how far solidarity stretches in times of crisis. 

Re-inventing the wheel

During the debate, researcher Kirsi-Marja Lehtelä from the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) noted that the Nordic welfare model in itself is an example of sustainable development.

“There is no need to re-invent the wheel.”

Lehtelä underlined that the Nordic countries are building a region of prosperous people not matched by anything anywhere else in the world. The Nordic region’s strength is social development firmly anchored in democracy.

“We have shown that you can use political tools to strengthen social development, the economy and the use of natural resources. We also have a way of governing which involves interest groups, for instance by referring proposals for consultation,” she pointed out and underlined that “democracy takes time”. 

Chinese authorities can chose to ignore local people’s concerns, for instance when giving the go-ahead for new construction projects, while Nordic politicians and civil servants are forced to take into consideration various opinions despite the fact that the process is slow. 

Political scientist Cay Sevón, a former departmental head and director general at the Finnish Ministry of the Interior, highlighted the power of culture. She talked about culture and education, the right to fulfil your own ambitions and to make a difference in society.

“Art has its own value and should not be seen as a means to achieve other ends – even though artists gladly make themselves available for doing good things.”

Judging from the subsequent discussion, sustainable development and the welfare state is not a theme which creates strong emotions. As Ekebom observed, the human dimension has been on par with ecological, social and economical aspects for decades in international declarations. The question, of course, is how to achieve all the goals which have been set over the years. He highlighted the European agreement on the freedom of movement and immigration, the Schengen and Dublin agreements, which no longer work.

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