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DIPLOMATIC INTERVIEW

Trust, inclusivity and equality make Finland the happiest country - envoy

In Summary

• In Finland, we have a high degree of trust in institutions because of the widespread availability of high-quality education, an open and transparent debate climate and the fact that key issues of inequality have been addressed.

•  Trust is very crucial because society needs it in order to function properly.

Finaland Ambassador to Kenya Erik Lundberg
Finaland Ambassador to Kenya Erik Lundberg
Image: COURSTESY

Finland has been declared the happiest country in the world two times in a row. To find out why, Patrick Kariuki spoke to Eric Lundberg, Ambassador of Finland to Kenya

 

Finland was been declared the happiest country in the world for two years in a row. Why?

First of all, I would like to note that Kenya was once declared the most optimistic country in the world and I would like to commend you for that.

To begin to answer your question let me give you a little of the history of my country. Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom for 600 years and an autonomous Grand duchy in the Russian Empire for 100 years. Our strong links to Western Europe, including the common value base, our legislation and the institutions were developed during our time with Sweden.

During the Russian times, we managed to maintain this important heritage untouched through a significant autonomy. After securing independence from Russia, a dreadful civil war broke out in the country between the wealthier class and the poorer working class, many of whom would have liked Finland to follow in the footsteps of Russia and turn Finland into a Communist state, possibly joining Forces with the Soviet Union. This was quite a traumatic experience for a young country. The war was eventually won by the wealthy after a huge number of casualties on both sides. Sometimes even brother fought brother. Thankfully, after this trauma we were clever enough to understand the importance of trying to create a society where everyone feels a part of it and is given the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

We thus began to implement a strong policy of equality. Everyone was granted equal access to education and healthcare. Democracy, freedom of speech and rule of law was implemented and respected. Today, after 100 years of independence, respect for rule of law is strong and our public institutions are well respected in Finland. There is a high level of trust amongst Finns, both in each other and in the societal institutions. This is our true gold. You can go out at night without worrying for your security, for example. These are the important things that contribute to the happiness of the people.

 

The Finnish government recently stepped down before the Parliamentary elections that were held last week. Isn’t it ironic that this would happen in the happiest country in the world?

Well, not at all. The government resigned after it was unable to get approval for some of the measures it wanted to pass in order to reform the way the State delivers welfare services to the people. There was a general feeling in parliament that the reform package was put together in a hurry and more public participation and debate still was needed.

 

However, the government continued to run the country in a caretaker capacity until the elections last week. The resignation of the government on a matter of principle actually highlights the fact that Finland is a country founded on strong respect for democracy.

 

You mentioned there is a high level of trust amongst Finns, what role does trust play in the happiness of Finland?

In Finland, we have a high degree of trust in institutions because of the widespread availability of high-quality education, an open and transparent debate climate and the fact that key issues of inequality have been addressed. Because of this, it is easier to have a fact-based discussion about how we together should develop our society.

Trust is very crucial because society needs it in order to function properly. In the world today, a very worrying trend has emerged where lies are going unchallenged. Political leaders are propagating lies and what you may call “fake news” is becoming a tremendous challenge to deal with in many countries, as you may attest from being a journalist.

You have mentioned equality as key to Finland’s success. What role has gender equality played in the happiness of Finland?

The role of women in the positive development of our society has been absolutely crucial. I dare say that one of the greatest success stories of Finland is the implementation of equal political, social and economic rights of the women of Finland; although women´s role perhaps was not that prominent in business in the early years of our independence, women were always very active in politics and they played an active role in creating social norms and institutions and creating the modern welfare society. Finland would not be what it is without women in politics, business, academia and the arts.

As part of the support to mothers, from the very beginning, Finland ensured that all children got at least one hot meal in school every day. This played a significant role in encouraging all children to go to school, helped them learn better and it freed up the mothers to do more with their lives outside the home. We also introduced a so-called “Baby Box” containing basically everything a mother needs to take care of a child during its first year. This package is handed out to all mothers for free. Other countries are now copying this model. Both parents also get systematic professional support and guidance from social health workers in the care of children, both before and after they give birth. Both parents also get fully paid parental leave when the child is born. The country furthermore has an extensive vaccination program for all children. Basically, every effort is made to ensure that every little Finn gets the best start in life possible so as to have the best chance to be a success.

My grandparents were manual workers, quite poor and not very well educated. But the free education and social support mechanisms of Finland enabled my parents to go to University and now their son is an Ambassador in Kenya. I am very proud of that. If I was to be a bit humorous, I can say the famous “American Dream” is still alive and kicking, but in Finland! Finns are given the instruments to reach their dreams; maybe that is why they are so happy?

 

Speaking of vaccination there is a tendency in the west today, especially in the United States, to deny the effectiveness of vaccines by the so-called anti-vaxxer movement. Why is this happening?

In my opinion Anti-Vaxxers are misguided individuals. Unfortunately even in Finland such folks are there. They are undoing most of the progress made in the field of healthcare and medicine in the last 100 years and more. Measles and Scarlet fever had been eliminated in the world but now they are making a return because of this phenomenon. Luckily, although we have a few anti-vaxxers in Finland, it is really not a big concern. Most Finns appreciate the importance of vaccination.

 

Widespread Fears related to globalisation and perceived western economic decline are behind the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and North America. However, the study of global happiness also found that the happiest immigrants in the world are in Finland. Why?

 

Well, if things work well in a country and there is a high level of happiness amongst its people, also migrants moving there generally tend to be happier. Our experience with immigrants has largely been positive. Secondly, Finland has a policy of trying to integrate immigrants as quickly as possible. We ensure they get a chance to learn the language and try to help them with getting a job as quickly as possible. Fortunately for us, the immigration numbers have traditionally not been that big so that also helps.

Overall, countries should not be closing borders. There is a tendency to look back to the days of homogenous societies when everything was very simple. This nostalgic desire to go back to the past is understandable but we live in a globalized world now with global problems. We need each other to solve global problems, the most important of which is Climate Change.

In order to solve climate change, we need to be able to trust each other and to work together. Education and equality are important. In a well-functioning society, an open, fact based discussion is critical. People cannot have debates based on fake news or outright lies about what is happening to the environment. These lies must not go unchallenged. Therefore to repeat; education is important. All Finnish people have equal access to good quality education. This makes me confident that we are resilient against the global “fake news” being propagated about climate change and other issues facing the world.

Speaking of globalization, Finland is a member of the EU but has not joined NATO. Russia has objected to Finland joining NATO. Is Russia the reason Finland is not in NATO?

The decision whether or not to join NATO will be made by the Finnish government based on its own analysis of the situation and not the considerations of any other country. In the current situation we have judged it not to be conducive to apply for membership of NATO, but this might change in the future. This matter has actually been debated in the ongoing election campaigns in Finland. However, we already cooperate very closely with NATO, EU and the Nordics. Finland has unfortunately had conflicts with Russia in the past but we have been able to defend ourselves and to maintain our independence. Together with our EU partners we condemn the recent Russian invasion of the Crimea in Ukraine. It is against International Law. This has made Western and Russian relations tense, as Russia is suspicious of the west’s intentions. However, NATO is not out to corner the Russians.

Finland is a small country and we are eager to trade and to have good relations with all countries, especially our neighbours. Finland has an open honest dialogue with Russia and we trade with each other, in spite of our differences.

We joined the European Union in 1995. Joining the EU was an economic and political decision to show the world that Finland stands with the EU and its values. We are also partners across many key areas with our Nordic sister countries. Indeed, just this morning I attended the launch of the Kenya-Nordic Green Hub-Initiative in Nairobi. For a country of our small size, alliances and coalitions are necessary.

What is Finland’s agenda in Kenya?

Sustainable development is one of the issues at the core of our agenda together with promoting Devolution and gender equality. One key aim is to bring the private and public sector together to deal with the SDG and climate change agendas. We are, for example, keen on helping expand access to clean water while enhancing waste management for a cleaner environment. I am also very excited about the possibility of using solar energy to help purify water. These and other ideas could be important tools towards helping enhance the welfare of Kenyans. We are ready to share our experiences and to provide Nordic solutions to the common challenge of sustainable development. A month from now Finland will be the main partner of the Nairobi University Innovation week.

When I had the chance to meet with President Uhuru Kenyatta he told me that Kenya is less interested in traditional aid than in enhanced commercial and technological partnerships and capacity building. It is also in our interest for Kenya and Africa to become successful and to find their own solutions and models to their challenges and we are very happy to share our experiences.

What is your opinion of the current political climate in Kenya?

The recent handshake between the President and the leader of the opposition, Rt. Hon. Raila Odinga, is positive for it has brought the nation together. Kenya also has a strong constitution and implementing it fully is a key factor in the success of the country overall. We are very happy with the government’s effort to do that. Devolution is very important to bring services to the people and the fight against corruption is very important to investors and to us. We need to support the government in this regard. All these things hopefully mean that by the time of the next elections there will be no ethnic tensions. This is the focus of the president and we support that.

Have you tried Kenyan cuisine?

I have taken Ugali. I must say it has an interesting taste. I understand why it is popular because it fills you and provides a lot of energy, is cheap and easy to make. Food is empowering. In Finland potatoes and roots have traditionally been very popular for the same reason. I also love sukuma wiki. It is delicious.