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Nordic countries top of global trust league

Nordic countries top of global trust league

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Hanna Arrestad, Arendalsuka

The Nordic countries are top of the world when it comes to trust. This means people dare to cooperate, which benefits the economy a great deal. And from trust more trust is born.

“Trust did not create the welfare state, but the welfare state could not exist without trust. You can not have a welfare state if you don’t have trust in that social institutions work, that politicians are not corrupt and that there is a functioning judicial system. 

“The welfare state is a contract between the people and the authorities. You have to believe that you get something back for your tax money,” says Helge Skirbekk at Lovisenberg diakonale høgskole (university college).

Over a morning during the political week in Arendal in Southern Norway, a range of experts are lecturing on the theme of trust in a busy auditorium. Trust is a subject which engages, and is often described as one of the foundations of Nordic societies. Research also shows that it makes economic sense. 

Helge Skirbekk refers to some French economists who claim that Russia’s GDP would grow by 70 percent if the country enjoyed the same level of trust as Sweden. The interest for how trust grows makes other countries turn to the Nordic countries, which lead the global trust league. What is there to be learned? Can you do something to create trust in countries where there is a lack of it? Is trust something which can be gained through strategies, and is it always a good thing?

“Trust is not something you can make. It is a by-product of something else. You get it thrown in. Trust works best when it has a direction, a sympathy or a social commitment, as in what we often highlight in a Nordic context,” says Kalle Moene, a professor at the University of Oslo. 

He says trust is not always a good thing, for instance as a basic element in organised crime. 

A long history of trust

The trust which is found in the Nordic countries is old. It has been emerging ever since Viking times and increased in strength from the custom of meeting at a ‘ting’ – or parliament – to discuss matters of importance. The Nordic countries also introduced elementary schooling relatively early on, which has meant that Norway,  for instance, has had a literate population for 200 years. This has also furthered the culture for debate which is important to create trust. Equalitarian societies and smaller countries also often experience a higher level of trust.

The trust found in the Nordic countries and which attracts international interest often encompasses the labour market. Kalle Moene underlines that this did not happen by accident, but was preceded by conflicts and a record number of lost working days both in Sweden and in Norway as a result of strike action. Finally, it was in everyone’s interest to try to create a system which provided a more stable labour market. The economic crisis in the 1930s put pressure especially on the export industry which was exposed to competition. Wage cuts were a fact and the strong iron and metal industry trade unions were keen for other unions to enter into similar agreements. 

Trust is created with direction

“The Hovedavtale (basic agreement) grew out of this, but not without some pain. Wages and other important areas of conflict were centralised, while many decisions were decentralised to local workplaces. This meant a higher degree of autonomy in the workplace with relatively self-governing groups. This would have been impossible if the local workplace had had the right to enter conflicts. A byproduct of the Hovedavtale is the least conflict prone labour market,” said Kalle Moene. 

He says that trust is created with a direction. Take the example of the Swedish Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson’s introduction of the political concept of ‘folkhemmet’ – ‘the people’s home’. You associate this with a good family where there is mutual respect, space for all and everyone is given the same opportunities, and you create a social ethos and thus a direction. 

“What is special for trust in the Nordic countries is that it was born out of the labour movement. Employers are important, but the direction and the considerations come from the solidarity movement,” says Kalle Moene.

"In order to maintain trust it is important to have a power balance within a range of areas. Trade unions, for instance, enjoy influence when it comes to organisation, staffing and how things are done, which creates a balance between employers and employees. This is in sharp contrast to strong leadership,” says Kalle Moene. 

“There is far too little of this in education, where you often focus on measuring results, for example management by objectives, rather than looking at trust,” he says.

The measuring paradox

Sigrun Aasland from the Agenda think tank also highlights the dangers of wanting to measure everything in working life, not least in the public sector. The 1990s saw the introduction of management models which borrowed heavily from the private sector. The aim was to get control over what taxpayers’ money was being spent on, but the effect influenced the culture of cooperation which is built on trust. Employees' opportunities for joint decision making risk falling by the wayside when you introduce more controls.

“You become more interested in measuring than in what you should be doing. The measuring also created a culture of fear. The fear of loosing becomes more important than facing the challenges. Research also shows that joint decision making increases productivity, but the public sector is run aground on an earlier wave of mistrust. 

“It is also a paradox that when the public sector growths, it does not happen at the end of the chain but in the middle – meaning you get more of those who measure,” says Sigrun Aasland. 

With an ever ageing population, most Western countries are facing great challenges. More need to join the labour market and this will demand a capacity for change not least from the public sector. That is when it makes sense to look to research which shows that joint decision making increases productivity and activity in the work, which can instigate that change. The public sector has some way to go here, points out Sigrun Aasland and holds up the City of Copenhagen’s trust reform as a good example of easing off on controls and increasing the level of participation. 

Trust pays

“Trust means we feel safer, social relations become simpler and we make use of social institutions. But it does not come out of nowhere, it is the result of good politics. We need common meeting places and we need to feel that we have equal opportunities. Trust must be used and cannot run out. We have a lot of trust, but it needs to be used,” says Sigrun Aasland.

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The Arendal Week

is the Norwegian equivalent of Sweden's Almedalen in Gotland and Denmark's Folkemødet in Bornholm


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