The Nordic nations are a group of countries that tick off the boxes in most metrics evaluating happiness, gender equality, sustainability, and more. Punya Srivastava looks at what makes them so successful
The world is going gaga over Nordic nations and the perfect picture of utopia they have been collectively painting on the world’s canvas since the last many years. The Nordic model refers to the economic and social policies common to the Nordic countries namely Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden. Finland bagged the top spot in the World Happiness Index report 2016. Denmark ranks second in the list of nations having the best quality of life in the world. Iceland has been topping the Global Gender Gap Index since the last many years. In fact, all the five Nordic nations are in the top six in its 2016 report. Iceland and Denmark bagged the first two ranks, respectively, in the Global Peace Index 2016. The 2016 Environmental Performance Index ranks Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark in the top five spots. Iceland has been consistently securing the first place when it comes to equal pay. Oxfam International’s ‘Good Enough to Eat’ Index measuring countries where the least number of people go to bed hungry at night, ranks Sweden and Denmark especially high. Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway are ranked among the top six for growth prospects in the World Economic Forum's annual review of global competitiveness. Their good performance is attributed to their strong macroeconomic management, good legal environments, quick adoption of technology in the private sector and innovation. And yes, all five of them are welfare states. Now that the facts and figures are out of the way, let’s look at what they say about the Nordic nation’s way of living. What are these countries doing right, and can we imbibe and implement some of these practices?
They, the people
Nordics are easily some of the happiest people in the world. It is not for nothing that they are tagged as ‘recycling, progressive, liberal hippies’ by most of the American and European media. In my opinion, behind each of their near-perfect social and political policies and their perfect implementation, lies the fact that Nordics are essentially ‘grounded’. In the literal sense! Though half of the year they are frozen inside their homes, they spend the remaining half in nature. When they are not working or studying, Nordics are usually out mountaineering, hiking, or skiing, or simply basking in the countryside. They are cemented to nature rather than culture. Nordics are also remarkably content. They are minimalists – in the materialistic sense of the world. Norwegians are renowned for their minimalist homes. There is a strong tradition for Danes from all strata of society to cycle. Most Danes associate the bicycle with positive values such as freedom and health, and in recent years cycling has actually become a symbol of personal energy. For Nordics, “less is more”. What makes their social policies tick are two basic but most valuable traits – pragmatism and tough-mindedness; qualities needed for all societies to move forward with time. They are always adapting their policies and laws to fit the present times, instead of staying with obsolete ones. The democracy in these countries actually give ‘power to the people.’ Three out of the five nations are monarchies and yet, instead of reeking of lingering decadence, they emanate the aroma of holistic growth. This is a remarkable feat considering that all of them are welfare states, and are constantly facing the challenge of balancing their economic growth without compromising on sustainability. According to Swedish historian Lars Tragardh, Ersta Skondal University College, Stockholm, the state’s main job is promoting individual autonomy and social mobility. And this reflects in their family laws which strive to give every individual a sense of worth, which then translates into self-belief and the ability to trust others. Therefore, Sweden has taken in more refugees over the years, proportionately, than any other European country. Thanks to their inherent disdain for flashiness combined with their broad-minded education system, they have collectively become the ‘innovation hub’ of the world.
Greening the land
Sweden and Denmark are considered to be the most sustainable countries in the world. The assessments are made on green metrics like the country's response to environmental threats, and government metrics like support for ‘liberty and equality’, and investments in its education system. Sweden has been leading Europe in the renewable energy sector and has flagged off its journey towards eliminating fossil fuel usage entirely. The Swedish interest in recycling nears borderline obsession; its waste recycling programme is so successful that it has been importing about 800,000 tons of trash a year from the rest of Europe. Household waste amounts to less than one per cent, and the other 99 per cent is recycled and turned into new products, raw materials, or burned and used for gas or heat. As a rule, recycling stations are no more than 300 meters from any residential area. The nation also boasts near-perfect performance for waste water treatment. Sweden has one of the world’s most robust water quality standards, and has been at the forefront of technological innovation for wastewater treatment. More than 30,000 species of flora and fauna find habitat in Denmark, and the country has implemented a suite of legislative strategies to protect their biodiversity. The Danish government introduced a Green Growth action plan in 2009, providing financial support for the preservation of rare and threatened species. The implementation of these strategies contributed to its inclusion in the top 20 list of Biodiversity and Habitat. Also, Denmark has announced its plans to become a non-fossil fuel consumer by the year 2050. All the five Nordic nations are the least polluted and clean countries in the world, presumably with the exception of Bhutan.
Bridging the gender gap
Apparently, Danish women lead the best quality of life as observed by a survey conducted amidst 7,000 women by Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. All Nordic nations have a high level of female representation in their Parliaments. Their regional average is 40 per cent as compared to USA’s 25 per cent which is the second highest in the world. The reasons for this gender equality hinge upon factors such as secularism, the development of an extended welfare state, women’s entry into the labour market in large numbers in the 1960s, the educational boom in the 1960s and the electoral system.But one of the most significant illustrations of their progressiveness is the concept of combined parental leave, i.e., both the parents are entitled to a fixed amount of days off from work before, during and after pregnancy, along with high compensation rates and affordable public daycare. This is a direct result of gender equality and giving equal respect to both the parents, and acknowledging that child birthing and rearing is not a woman’s job alone. Today, parental leave in Norway totals 47 weeks with a minimum of 14 weeks for the father. In Finland, women are entitled to four months’ leave starting from, at the latest, one month before the birth. Men are entitled to 54 days leave and six months can be divided between the parents. And in Sweden, parents have a total of 480 days with a minimum of 60 days for each parent. Parents can use the leave until their child turns eight. According to the Gender Gap Report, “These (Nordic) economies have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female participation rates, more shared participation in childcare, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for both women and men, and in some cases, a boost to declining fertility rates.” Hence, these nations have steadily managed to uplift the status of their women by focussing on home and family equality, which, in turn, bridged the gender gap at the workplace. That’s what made the world sit up and take notice when a photograph of Denmark’s member of the European Parliament, Hanne Dahl, got splashed across the social media as she attended a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 2009 with her baby in her arms. Moreover, religious fanaticism is almost negligible thanks to their secular perspective of religion, which ensures that morality is not used to castigate sexuality, and women are not made to bear the onus of upholding the moral fibre of the society simply on account of their gender.
Finland has the West’s finest education system, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the last 40 years, it has steadily made for itself an education system that emphasises the overall and holistic development of the child in preparing him or her for life. As covered in our last cover story (Learning for Life, March 2017), Finland has been one of the most innovative states when it comes to education. There are no mandated standardised tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of a student's senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the administration are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. The system ‘cares about the children – educationally and personally’, and for that, all students receive a free meal daily, free health care, transportation, learning materials, and counselling in their schools. “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher, currently a member of the Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. The other four nations too follow similar principles, and the results are there to see in their education and innovations. Now that we know what makes these five European countries the best in the world in term of quality of life, we might want to think about what we can do in our own individual capacity as well as collectively as a society to match some of their living standards.
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