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5 December, 2011  ▪  Спілкувалася: Zhanna Bezpiatchuk

Finland: Country of Innovators

Ilkka and Vappu Taipale talk about social capital, consensus and innovation in their home country

Ukraine has its dissidents. Finland has a similar generation — people from the 1960s who infused the country with their pan-European spirit of freedom, social and cultural protest. The only difference between Ukraine and Finland is the Soviet camps where many Ukrainian dissidents were murdered and the Soviet regime that tortured others with all kinds of bans that dragged on for decades, and current Ukrainian society that largely ignores them today. In Finland, these dissidents went into politics and Finland’s current President Tarja Halonen is one of them.

The Ukrainian Week met Ilkka and Vappu Taipale, a family of two Finnish dissidents. Ilkka Taipale is a doctor of medicine, social democrat, Member of Parliament of the 1971-1975 and 2000-2007 convocations, and author of the 100 Social Innovations of Finland project, a treatise that offers a short and clear explanation of the country’s social policy and the foundations of lifestyle. The couple is touring the world presenting their work and the Finnish Embassy and Ye Bookstore invited them to Ukraine.

U.W.: Is “100 social innovations of Finland” more about inventing your own “brand” for the promoting the country abroad or it is mainly about sharing your experiences with others?

І.Т.: The citizens of Finland thought that Nokia was our main innovation, and that technological innovations were leading the country. We said this was not so. My wife was the director of the National Research and Development Centrum for Welfare and Health (STAKES). We began explaining that we also have social innovations that made the technological advances possible. These include free school and university education, equality between men and women, democracy, growing civic organizations. We have 70,000 NGOs. We also pay taxes to municipalities. In Helsinki, for example, we pay 8.5% of income to the city budget. Our people understood that there is something good in their society. In the beginning, our book did not sell well inside Finland and Finns only began buying it after they learned it had been translated into 11 languages and will be translated into another 6 or 7, including Korean, Chinese, Ukrainian, Urdu and Arabic.

V.Т.: The idea of the book appeared in 1999 when Finland held the EU presidency for first time. And it was published in 2006 when Finland was presiding over the EU for second time.

U.W.: But do you agree that this could be perceived as the country's “brand of social innovation” and helps to form its image abroad?

І.Т.: We did not know that when the book “100 social innovations” was published only in Finnish and English. But then the ambassador from South Korea telephoned me and said that he and his wife wanted to translate it into Korean. They did, and then they distributed 700 free copies to their own officials. They are interested in our kindergartens, social policy and education. 70 copies translated into Chinese were sold out. It was all about our everyday life. We are used to free universities and tap water clean enough to drink and clean water in our lakes. Once in Nokia city, a man mixed tap and clean water with tap and waste water. Many people got diarrhea and people realized that they had something to protect. When the global crisis erupted, some said we should introduce fees for universities. And now our citizens appreciate their Nordic social system even more. We have appreciated it through comparison with other countries. By the way, Russians joke that they built the same socialism in the USSR but they destroyed it.

U.W.: What allowed Finland to first build up and then preserve its “own socialism”? 

І.Т.: We had a bloody civic war in 1918. It was as bloody as the wars in the former Yugoslavia. But during the Winter War of 1939-1940 our country was united.

V.Т.: We know how to be very poor. When we were young, we were very, very poor. After World War II Finland and the former Yugoslavia were the first countries to get aid from UNICEF. We did not even have shoes to go to school. And we moved forwards very slowly. First, the state payed its first child benefits and small pensions. But it was important that everybody was treated as equal. The Nordic social system was based on equality.

І.Т.: Everything was universal. For instance, higher education was free both for rich and poor. We have four children and three of them have university education. It was free for us. I can also give you the example of the gambling business. Its money is not in the hands of any mafia. It goes to a special fund and is spent to support NGOs. So, the money is in the hands of 'NGO mafias'. This helps us support our social system.

U.W.: The current president and government of Ukraine tell foreign partners that they should invest in our country and that Ukraine should be admitted to Europe. They call it “promoting our country abroad”. What  domestic changes did Finland make to persuade its foreign partners that it was a promising country?

І.Т.: You must reach a consensus in society. During the civil war of 1918, Finland was divided between whites and reds but the Winter War made us unite. Employers, workers and the government all agreed then that all decisions on the labour market would be made together. We also built a three party system: two parties in the government, one party in opposition and so on. In Finland the state subsidized the opposition, even the anti-militarist organizations that want the army to be dismantled. So, everyone should be included in society. You know in our society there are no enemies. No enemies inside the country. We have only opponents.

U.W.: How does the Nordic social model function under the pressure of the global recession? Some experts say that it coped with this challenge very well. Is that really true?

V.Т.: Yes. We survived the hard economic crisis in the 1990s. The effects of the current global crisis are not so severe. Social welfare has been preserved. We survived the crisis because we have strong social capital. The citizens of Finland trust the public services and they trust their government. This is very important.

І.Т.: It is clear that we need cuts but we do them in favor of the poor. What does that mean? I was the medical director of the biggest mental hospital in Finland. I had to cut its budget by 1 million. I decided to cut it by 1.2 million. The additional 200,000 will be taken from the rich (doctors and nurses) and given to the poor. But even when there is a crisis, social policies in many countries improve. There are different reasons for this; South Korea is very interested in the Finnish system of kindergartens. Their birth rate has fallen and their women have to go to work to improve the labor market. Otherwise, the Chinese will come.

U.W.: What about youth unemployment in Finland?

І.Т.: The unemployed in our country get allowances. There are some guarantees for those under 25: a first place of work or training courses. But if you ask people from party offices if they will hire a person who has been unemployed for a long time, they will say he needs to be employed but that somebody else should do it. 

U.W.: First Finland belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden, then – to the Russian empire. How did each period affect your social capital? What was the main difference between them?

І.Т.: We joke that 40% of the soldiers in the Swedish army were Finns. At the Battle of Poltava of 1709, Sweden fought down to the last Finnish soldier. All their wars were like that (smiling).

V.Т.: Sweden gave us our legal traditions, the rule of law. And when we got into the Russian empire, we had immunity, we resisted Russification.

І.Т.: My grandfather had six hours of Russian language at school. Normally parents did not make their children learn the language. After independence was declared, only 1% of our population spoke Russian. The Russians wanted us to move away from Sweden and they supported our nationalistic feelings and the Finnish language. Even one of our ex-presidents said that if Finland had stayed in Sweden, Finnish would have remained a language for the kitchen, while Swedish would have dominated in official life. And we can thank the USSR also for our industry. Stalin demanded $300 million in reparations from Finland. We built our factories in five years. The Soviet Union destroyed our country and we had to pay reparations for this. But we were not afraid of USSR. They remembered the Winter War and we had a border. And we were friends.

U.W.: What role could social policy and social innovation play in consolidating a culturally and linguistically heterogeneous country? Did it help to bridge the Swedish-speaking and ethnic Finns?

V.Т.: We thought of the Swedish part of our society as the upper class, the elite. But there are also poor Swedish-speaking fishermen that had more liberal views. Starting from the 1930s the Swedes have been able to own theaters, funds, even universities. Their cultural rights are guaranteed.

І.Т.: At the university departments of medicine there are professors that teach only in Swedish. In the 1960s, the Swedes brought us the liberal thought. They kept connections with Nordic countries during the USSR. At school we all learned  Swedish as it helped us connect with the West.

U.W.: There is an article in your book about the 'theory of 3%'. Behind it is the idea that it's impossible to combat crimes if a specific social group is left disadvantaged. You have defined 3% of the population inclined to commit crimes. What is that all about?

І.Т.: The poverty level in Finland is 12% now. This is how the EU defines it. If your net income is 60% or lower than the average income, you are poor. 10% of Finland's population have an income of 40% and less. Moreover, 10% of our youth have no work and are not studying. But these 3% live even worse. These are mainly unmarried or divorced poor men. Some of them are homeless. In Finland we have a very strong family policy. Social housing is available only to families. That's why the lonely unemployed men become homeless. Today we say that if we help these 3% and give them housing, we may reduce crime. Today the situation is better than in the 1930s, but we still need to improve it. Our politicians talk about children, women and the elderly but they forget about these people.

U.W.: The president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, wrote the introduction to the “100 Social Innovations of Finland”. Was this a way to assign more official state-sponsored status to the project?

І.Т.: No! We all are just friends. We belong to the generation of the 1960s. When Tarja Halonen was elected president in 2000, I replaced her in parliament. Finland is a small country. Everyone knows everyone else.

V.Т.: Tarja wrote this introduction as more than just a politician. She worked very actively in NGOs. When her second presidential term ends, she might return to this work. So, she is interested in the topics the book covers.

І.Т.: By the way, when she ran her campaign, the other party said she could not be elected because she was unmarried, had a child born out of wedlock, belonged to a trade union, did not belong to church and had pacifist views. But the citizens of Finland chose her.

The examples of social innovations in Finland:

  • Apartments with services
  • Paternity leave
  • Free school lunch
  • Social credits for poor people
  • Fund Y that provides accommodation for the homeless
  • Students' Health Fund
  • Pine bark flour
  • Finnish sauna
  • Finnish tango

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