Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans


Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Africa’s surprising achievers

Middle Eastern expert Jarno Syrälä heads the Department for Africa and the Middle East at the Finnish Ministry foor Foreign Affairs. In his opinion, Finns have many prejudices pertaining to Africa. Speaking recently on Finnish interests in the region, he said, “Crises and conflicts are known well, but many countries are also experiencing a time of rapid growth and development.”

Jarno Syrjälä, 49, the Director General of the Department for Africa and the Middle East, considers the Department’s entire field of activities as a whole to be challenging. It is coloured by crises and conflicts, but many positive developments also take place in the region.

Director General Jarno Syrjälä of the Department for Africa and the Middle East (Photo: Eero Kuosmanen)“It is natural that crises and conflicts are in the news, but the countries of the region also offer opportunities for Finland. The Middle East is a dynamic economic area where an abundance of opportunities will still open up for Finland to increase trade,” Mr Syrjälä oberved.

Commercial opportunities for Finnish enterprises emerge continually and making use of them is largely a question of timing. It is difficult to gain a foothold on markets once others have already shared them out. With the development of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has risen to become Finland’s most important export market in the Middle East.

“In spite of the political and social problems, the traditionally important trading partners, such as Egypt, have maintained their position. This is an indication of the strong base of our relations,” Syrjälä stated.

New information technology professionals

According to Syrjälä, through development cooperation Finland has accumulated much knowledge and political relations that can be put to good use in the promotion of exports. This was clearly evident during Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen’s recent visit to Ethiopia and Tanzania, where the reception was warm. The large Finnish business delegation accompanying him was a sign that interest in these markets is growing. African countries now seek in particular new trade partners and want to develop trade and economic relations.

Syrjälä commmented, “There are many emerging economies in Africa. The market areas most promising for Finland should be sought from amongst them. Promising markets could be found, for instance, in information technology. South Africa and Nigeria are already among the information technology achievers. But there are surprises as well. Rwanda, which suffered from genocide twenty years ago, has demonstrated its ability and has come to the awareness of Finnish enterprises in the information technology sector.”

Syrjälä sees much to do in export promotion. Its share will continue to increase in both the Middle East and Africa. He noted, “Economic growth in these countries continues to be strong, and in the past decade six of the world’s fastest growing economies were in Africa. This growth is not based only on the production of raw materials, as more than half of the increase in gross national income was derived from the service sector.”

Inequality on the rise in the Middle East

The Arab Spring, marked by protests, uprisings and violence, began with the revolution in Tunisia at the turn of 2010–2011 and quickly spread to neighbouring countries. Power has changed hands in four countries. Syrjälä, who has worked among others in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Riyadh, considers it difficult to predict what will come next. The domino effect seems to have stopped for the time being, although there are still seeds of instability in many countries.

“With the turmoil in the Arab world, the differences between Middle East countries have increased. The rich oil-producing countries are perhaps better off financially than ever. By contrast Yemen, the poorest Arab country, is on razor’s edge, both economically and politically,” Syrjälä continued.

Full-scale civil war is underway in Syria. The flow of refugees from Syria aggravates the situation in neighbouring countries, but the consequences of instability are felt more widely as well. If this trend continues as it is now, the number of refugees could top more than four million by the end of the year. The international community’s possibilities of satisfying the basic needs of these refugees will become even more difficult.

Jarno Syrjälä extending his credentials to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah in 1999According to Syrjälä, owing to the overall situation in the Middle East, the peace talks between Israel and Palestine have had more peace to proceed than usual. Shortly before Finland’s first Presidency of the EU in 1999, Syrjälä was opening Finland’s Liaison Office in the Palestinian Territory, in Ramallah.

Syrjälä commented, “The birth of the Palestinian state was expected already at that time but the negotiation process failed in the summer of 2000 at Camp David. It is hoped that this time the process will get further.”


Outi Einola-Head