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Iceland initiates a Nordic welfare watch
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Iceland initiates a Nordic welfare watch

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Björn Lindahl

As part as its presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, Iceland has initiated a research project to look into the possibilities and interest for creating a Nordic welfare watch. Researchers in the Nordic countries will work together until 2016 to map how economic crisis influence welfare and how it can be made sustainable also during bad times.

In today’s Iceland people know very well how seriously a country, its citizens and welfare system can be hit by an economic collapse. They now have comprehensive knowledge about how the crisis hit individual people and social groups, because in February 2009, only months after the crisis hit, Iceland  established the independent research group the Welfare Watch. They looked beyond economic indicators of the crisis, and developed a range of methods to also measure and understand the social indicators, i.e. the impact of the economic collapse on a range of social factors - both visible and less obvious.

“The good thing was that we, by involving so many different groups and social areas in the Welfare Watch, quickly gained information about the state of our society and of the people, for instance from schools, trade unions and the health sector. These were people who you could say were close to the beating heart of society. The information wasn’t scientifically gathered, sure, but we were able to act based on what we learned and to investigate further,” says Guðrún Sigurjónsdóttir, deputy head at the Health Department at Iceland’s Ministry of Welfare. 

International interest

The experiences gathered through the Welfare Watch have been very positive. In the middle of the crisis there was a group with broad social reach, a strong engagement and a strong focus on reducing the social effects of the economic collapse. Having the support of government ministers also helped. The project has gained international attention and now the Icelandic government, as part of its presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, wants to initiate a research project which can form the basis for a Nordic welfare watch. It is a priority during the presidency and the aim is to use Nordic cooperation, research and knowledge exchange to strengthen the Nordic welfare model and make it sustainable also during an economic crisis. 

To begin with the Icelandic Welfare Watch will be evaluated. Each country will also be given the chance to map their own welfare systems in terms of how well they work and what kind of contingency plans are in place in case of an economic crisis situation, as well as finding out which social indicators are available to measure welfare. The main focus will be on the social parts, as most countries already have systems for how the health sector should work in a crisis. The idea is also to investigate the visions of future challenges and crisis. Perhaps they are different to what we imagine, and demand new welfare strategies? 

Economic crisis demand other strategies

“In Iceland we are used to facing danger, but our preparedness has been focused on natural disasters. The social factor has not been part of crisis planning, but during the economic crisis we needed more cooperation than before both within social and health sectors,” says Guðrún Sigurjónsdóttir.

The work has started and is divided into three projects, each of which has its own steering group. There will also be interdisciplinary groups in each country which will be working with the different steering groups. Three representatives from each country will meet regularly in a joint, overarching steering group. The development of the social indicators will happen in close cooperation with the Nordic Committee on Social Security Statistics, Nososko, and the Nordic Medico-Statistical Committee, Nomesko, which recently met in Iceland with participants from each country.

“It is a new way of seeing which strings we need to pull so that we can understand the challenges ahead and develop tools which allow us to identify the early signs of a crisis,” says Guðrún Sigurjónsdóttir. 

The project’s final stage will see the results from the various sub-projects being analysed. Are there reasons to create a joint Nordic welfare watch, and what do the future challenges and crisis look like for the Nordic countries looking forward? And how can interdisciplinary knowledge across the borders work in times of crisis?

The project is divided into four components. The final one should finish by the end of 2016. That’s when a decision will be made as to whether there is a need to create a Nordic welfare watch, built on solid research where the countries can exchange experiences and gather information in order to further develop their own welfare systems to be sustainable even during times of economic hardship. The aim of Iceland's welfare watch was to create a system which could reduce the effects of health-related problems when society is hit by economic collapse - an experience well worth developing with Nordic neighbours.

In brief

The project ‘Nordic welfare watch’ is initiated by Iceland during the country’s presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The work is divided into three different projects. 

  1. How well prepared are the Nordic welfare systems for different types of crisis?
  2. How well do welfare systems manage during financial crisis?
  3. Developing social indicators in order to measure welfare. 

The first project comprises a steering group made up of five welfare researchers from each country, which will take it in turns to lead a research group in their own countries. The steering group for this project is led by Professor Gudny Björk Ekdal from the University of Iceland. 

The second project will mainly focus on the consequences the 1990s economic crisis had especially for Finland, Sweden and the Faroe Islands, and on the 2008 crisis for Iceland. The work will be carried out by researchers from the respective countries and will be led by Professor Stefan Olafsson in Iceland.  

The third project will be carried out in close cooperation with the Nordic Committee on Social Security Statistics, Nososko, and the Nordic Medico-Statistical Committee, Nomesko.

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