The Nordic Contribution to Development

26 March 2014

Tony Addison

The Nordic countries have a long-standing commitment to development, and their work in peace-building has taken Nordic peacemakers into some of the toughest places in the world. The Nordic countries have been firm supporters of the United Nations system, when other countries have wavered. UNU-WIDER is thus fortunate to be located in a region, and in a country, that values openness in dialogue, the intrinsic worth of democratic processes, and the construction of inclusive societies.

New ideas are central to creating open and inclusive development. Many countries have abundant natural resources, but lack the right strategy to diversify their economy. Some hold back creativity and talent—especially that of women—by means of exclusionary politics and culture. Living in the northern hemisphere, where the weather can be harsh, and where nature provides many resources (but can also make for a tough life) the Nordics learnt to use all their people to good purpose. In their history and practice, the Nordic countries have constructed development pathways that led them from poverty to some of the world’s highest living standards.

Finland’s Minister for International Development Pekka Haavisto 0169 UNU-WIDER
Closing the event; Pekka Haavisto, Minister for International Development of Finland, Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland.

My thoughts on these and other dimensions of the Nordic model, were stimulated by a recent seminar on ‘Nordic Cooperation towards Eradicating Poverty and Ensuring Sustainable Development for All', organized by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, and held at the Hanasaari Conference Center. Speakers included Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s Minister for International Development, who opened the meeting, as well as representatives from the development and foreign ministries of Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Finn Tarp, director of UNU-WIDER moderated the event.

Gyan Acharya, Under-Secretary General (and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States) gave the opening keynote. Ambassador Acharya spoke of the plight of over 900 million people in deep poverty in the 48 less-developed countries (LDCs), countries that typically have above average poverty. He emphasized the fundamental principle of the UN charter; the duty to help the most marginal people—and give voice to the voiceless. This resonates with the Nordic conception of inclusive development, as not only an economic project, but a moral one as well.

So, what ideas did I take a way from the meeting? Like Finnish licorice, there was a lot to chew on. Three issues caught my attention.

The first is the management of the natural resource sectors and their contribution to development, more broadly. Several speakers spoke of the disconnection between booming mining and hydrocarbon sectors, and economic development that can achieve faster and wider poverty reduction. There was strong support for the view that energy is a missing goal in the MDGs—‘there can be no development without energy’, one speaker put it. More than one-fifth of humanity lacks access to electricity. A goal (and action) for increasing the share of renewables in energy generation is now moving up the priorities of the post-2015 development debate. Iceland with its expertise in geothermal energy is well placed to help, and this is one of their priorities in development cooperation. We at UNU-WIDER have embarked on a project on African energy as part of our new 2014-18 work programme, building on our earlier research on the impact of climate change in Africa.

Gyan Acharya, Pekka Haavisto, and Anna Brandt © UNU-WIDER

The Nordics are creative on ideas around natural resources and development strategy. They have demonstrated how to diversify economies so that they are not so dependent on the natural resources that used to dominate their economies (forestry in Finland, fisheries in Iceland, for example). At the same time they have been at the forefront of the environmental sustainability debate. Iceland’s representative pointed out that one billion people depend on fish for their main protein. Over 300 million people derive a living from the oceans. This resonates with the LDCs, many of which are small islands. At UNU-WIDER we have a big programme of work building up on the agenda of structural transformation, which aims to create more ideas on diversifying economies.

Second, throughout the discussion, the Nordics reaffirmed their determination to help countries push forward on gender equality. This is tough job, especially in parts of South Asia and the Middle East (and is a contributor to poor performance in human development overall). Yet, inclusive growth will remain just an aspiration if half the world’s people are not given the capacity to develop their livelihoods as well as those of men, and if their political voice is not equally represented. Freedom from violence is also central to ‘mainstreaming’ gender equality (and here the development and peace-keeping initiatives of the Nordics build on each other). For all the Nordics, sexual and reproductive health—as well as the rights of women and girls—are foundations for many of the other MDG goals; it's a lot harder to get education or a good livelihood if these foundation are not built. At UNU-WIDER, gender equality is an issue that is threaded right across the new work programme.

Third, everyone emphasized the importance of ‘leaving nobody behind’—a call that now runs through the debate on the post-2015 development agenda. Sounds great. But what does it mean? Certainly it means gender equality. However, on the poverty dimension, some people are a lot poorer than others. Just below the poverty line might be a fit and healthy young person, capable of work, who has some education—and who needs a job to lift them out of poverty. But in much deeper (‘chronic’) poverty we often find mothers with young children, earning little in the way of a livelihood, and with a family beset by multiple health problems. Chronic poverty is often concentrated in resource-poor remoter regions. It is tougher to reduce poverty there than in regions experiencing economic growth, with good connections to markets and infrastructure.

Nordic Cooperation towards Eradicting Poverty and Ensuring Sustainable Development for all. Meeting of Nordic Ministers in Helsinki 13-14 March 2014 © UNU-WIDER

We have to give more meaning to the call ‘leave nobody behind’—and measure and analyse whether we are succeeding or failing. Otherwise this call will amount to no more than a political platitude. To that challenge, Nordic development co-operation has much to offer, especially on the spatial dimensions of poverty as the Nordic region has generally done better on reducing regional inequalities than many comparable countries (the United Kingdom, my own country, for example). From the UNU-WIDER side, research on poverty, inequality and human development has been in the Institute’s ‘DNA’ since the very first UNU-WIDER projects led by Amartya Sen in our earliest years. Coming up in September this year we have one of our international development conferences on the theme of inequality—check the April Angle, as well as our website, for more news soon.

These are just three big issues that captured my attention during the afternoon. The contributions from the audience were also thought-provoking, notably a representative from one of the Finnish associations for the deaf who pointed out that the Convention on the rights of disabled people has been ratified since the MDGs, and this includes a call for more South-North co-operation and action on disability. Certainly that connects to the call to leave nobody behind.

Tony Addison is Chief Economist-Deputy Director, UNU-WIDER​

WIDERAngle newsletter
March 2014
ISSN 1238-9544