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)

Celebrating civil society

The combination of lavender and camomile scents hit me like a blow of freshness at the Embassy of Finland one Thursday morning as I waited briefly at the reception before being led to the office of HE Ambassador Mrs. Sofie From-Emmesberger for a scheduled mid-morning interview. The subject of this interview had been the focus of my attention for months since returning from Southern Africa (South Africa, Botswana and Namibia) where in October 2013, my colleagues and I at Suomi-Africa group of media practitioners had attended our annual gathering.  My interest in the subject was further fuelled by discussion on the role of civil society in development that seemed to have taken an unexpected turn in Kenya given the proposed claw-back amended in October 2013 to the Public Benefit Organisations (PBO) Act that had only been assented to by the outgoing president Mwai Kibaki in January of that year and had set out fairly acceptable working rules for the non-profit sector.

The proposed amendments attracted such diverse views and opinions, some even emotionally charged, that it must have been difficult for the general public to meaningfully glean what the full import of the amendment if approved, would mean to their day-to-day lives. I calmed myself in the knowledge that Kenya would not want to be a state in isolation, for she was a member of the global village where wisdom and best practices were available for free sharing so that goodness would be replicated around the world for better human existence.

It is thus that my search for examples of best practices commenced and the events in Finland that were claiming global headlines quickly captured my attention. For example, Finland had been voted the second best country in the EU for quality of life, her fifteen-year old pupils claimed the top place in Europe as the best problem solvers in addition to her taking number one positions in press freedoms and least failed states. How could such a country— a relatively small one in fact, with an area of only 338,424 sq km and a population of less than six million—that had at one time in history found herself in a most challenging place, manage to make such great strides in slightly over 60 years? The answer had to lie in a combination of strategies and I dared to imagine that one of them had to do with the way the state deliberately reached out to all, civil society and the like, pooling resources, human and all, to map the path that has led her to where she is today in our global village. Laden with this imagination, I reached out to the top Finnish official in Kenya for an interview that I hoped would shed light to this intriguing question.

Mrs Dommie Yambo-Odotte interviews HE Ambassador Mrs. Sofie From-Emmesberger

Finland in Kenya

The Kenya-Finland diplomatic relationship commenced way back in 1965. Mrs. Sofie From-Emmesberger is the second woman Finnish ambassador and has led the affairs at the embassy since September 2011. She told me that her main duty is to oversee her government’s mandate of upholding and strengthening the relationship between Kenya and Finland. She is also accredited to four other countries in the region including Uganda and Somalia. HE Amb. From-Emmesberger also holds the mantle as the Permanent Representative of Finland to UNEP and UN-Habitat. She has a Masters degree in law and has held several other government positions before her posting to Kenya.

Between 2012 and 2013, her office, through the Finnish Fund for Local Cooperation, supported the work of Kenya civil society organisations to the tune of over 1.3 million Euros. “Different activities were supported in 2013 ranging from forestry and agriculture to governance and human rights”, she told me, further adding that, “Our main area of interest is to create awareness on constitutional aspects as well as mainstreaming human rights. Right now we have a wonderful partnership with a Kenyan Agriculture Association that aims to empower farmers with information about their constitutional rights”

From our discussions I gathered that women empowerment is also a strong area of focus for the Embassy and it has for example supported work in “far-flung” and marginalised Kenyan regions like Marsabit in a programme that involved women in conflict resolution. HE Amb. From-Emmesberger also informed me that the local cooperation fund chooses to work with few NGOs, usually between 10 and 15, a deliberately small number of grantees to enable efficient management of the approved projects in line with the stringent systems that the embassy has set to monitor the use of funds raised through taxing Finnish citizens.

Information on Finnish support to constitutional implementation and women’s empowerment efforts roused my interest and I asked HE Amb. From-Emmesberger what she thought about the raging debate on the reason for the massive increase in government wage bill as ostensibly being due to the increase in the number of women law-makers brought about by the constitutional provision that led to the on-going search for a formula to ensure that no one gender constitutes more than 2/3 representation. This is what she told me; “I think any effort to address the issue of Kenya’s wage bill due to the increase in the number of law makers should also consider the impact of different factors and it would be sad if the public were to believe that the problem lies in the increase of women in parliament. The issue is much more than the wage bill as Kenyans should also be concerned with the performance of all those being paid through public funds.”

She further noted that Kenya’s president had come out very strongly against poor management of public funds through administrative inefficiencies that often result in wastage due to corruption and inflated tender prices.

“So, this must be looked at more keenly rather than try to make the public believe that the reason for the high wage bill was due to the increase in the number of nominated women,” she concluded.

Finnish presence in Kenya is not only through its embassy, for there are a number of Finnish NGOs working in diverse sectors and regions. In 2013 alone, about 31 such organisations spent close to three million Euros working in various thematic areas including various programmes in support of children, livelihoods, environment and water among others. According to information on the Embassy’s website, I noted that Finland’s development policy is tied to the set Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a big task in my view that would require input from all sectors. So it was not difficult for me to give credit to what I concluded to be the Finnish psyche of inclusivity, which has made the presence of the Finnish government in Kenya through its embassy to be the allure to Finnish NGOs to set base in Kenya as well. What a refreshing observation, that NGOs would feel encouraged to follow the trails of their governments and be confident enough to set “camp” right next door! This observation, albeit with much jealousy, led my thinking to a whole new direction.

HE Ambassador Mrs. Sofie From-Emmesberger discusses Finnish engagement with African Civil Society

Civil Society and the State

Is civil society a product of the state or symbolic of its absence? From the various viewpoints I gleaned in the process of researching for this article, I found that the answer could be either that civil society is both a product of the state and a symbol of its absence or one of the two. As a product of the state like in the Finnish case, one imagines a seamless tango dance of collaborative coexistence, where state is because civil society also exists, coming into being as an offshoot of need, to share responsibilities and contribute in undertaking the enormous assignment of spurring development in every corner of the globe. This is because development is a multi-resource venture, requiring money - lots of it, as well as technological and human resources and expertise. It is an endeavour that would be extremely untenable if all were to rely solely on government, any government, and for that reason, other sectors exist, for indeed, it takes two to tango, one would argue.

At times, though, as in the case of many of the so-called developing countries, Kenya included, the government, whether by default or by design, is simply not able to provide for her people with such things as clean water, better health care services and the enabling environment for economic opportunities including the provision of markets for farm produce and civic engagement for democratic inclusivity. It is in times as these that civil societies, whether formal or informal, come into existence because the state is “not in existence”.

At either time, civil society undertakes its work through the creative process involving development of programmes to cover gaps in or complement state interventions. And like governments raise funds to implement programmes and pay staff through taxing the citizens, civil society organisations develop fundraising strategies that often include proposal development, efforts that may not always be successful, yet they go at it, over and again. This is because to succeed in their endeavours, they must continuously seek funds through various channels like donations from different groups, local and international, government and other civil society groups. This is all in an effort to contribute to the development agenda through implementing projects that mostly also require that they pay those who work in them or provide services to them. In this way, civil society organisations are employment creators and services deliverers in a fit befitting Alexis de Tocqueville’s definition of civil society stated in parts here: “…If men (and women) are to remain civilised or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”

Could it be that in pursuit of this ideal Finland thought it best to positively learn from her dark history and experience to inform the direction she later took making her today among the least failed state? I believe so and I will tell you why by first briefly sharing some highlights I have come to know about Finland’s history.

The emergence of Finland as Welfare State

Contrary to today’s reality, Finland did not always top the charts for history reveals various tactical missteps with the most memorable being that which led to the imposition of a war debt by the Soviet Union for having sided with Germany in World War II. I recall a dinner conversation at the restaurant Sasso in Helsinki in September 2011 where my group of visiting media practitioners was informed that the post-war period was a very difficult one for the Finns as reparation involved delivery of goods in kind such as machinery and Merchant ships. Delivery schedules were strict and the Finns had to work extremely hard to meet them. Fulfilling on this war debt paid in unexpected returns for the country acquired the skill to build a thriving export trade in the very same products with which they had to pay their war debt.

It is also during this period that the Finnish civil society took a new meaning through creating activities to make it easy for their nationals to have a more positive outlook in life even as they went through the difficult path the war had placed upon them. Hence, a strong civil society culture developed leading to the emergence of Finland as a welfare state in the 60s driven by the belief that wellbeing and social security is crucial for overall national security and development. During the interview, HE Ambassador From-Emmesberger informed me that “today, there exists 127,000 civil society groups in Finland with about half of that in full operation as at 2007”. I also gathered that another 30,000 unregistered voluntary associations and citizen groups also operate in Finland and work in various sectors including health, culture and recreation, children and young people among others. Meanwhile, one remains hopeful that the African civil society will too be celebrated for having found ways to support efforts towards spurring development and providing employment and delivering services to the many on the continent who need them.


Mrs. Dommie Yambo-Odotte, Senior Media Adviso, Nairobi, Kenya

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This article may be freely republished, provided that its source, as first published at Suomi/Africa ( and its author, Mrs. Dommie Yambo-Odotte, are acknowledged