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)

This is Finland

Finland as a concept, not a country, has held my interest for the last two years for a number of reasons; chief among which was the realisation, after I was invited over there the first time in 2011, that this was not just another developed European country with a base grown from empire-building.

This is not another story about how superb Finland is - far from it.

This is a collection of hints for many African countries, because we are not very different from Finland:

a) It is extremely small in size (338,424 sq km) - just smaller than Zimbabwe (390,580 sq km) and roundabout the same as the Congo Republic (342,000 sq km), yet much smaller than Botswana (600,370 sq km) or Namibia (825,418 sq km); and b) it suffered a massive setback at a crucial time in its history after losing a major war - like Uganda after the breakout of civil war and bad governance in the 60s and 70s, and every other African country; and c) it had few natural resources to speak of besides forests - unlike the Democratic Republic of Congo and countless other countries on the African continent, but like Gabon and Burkina Faso which also list about three to five major natural resources; and d) it had really few people on its land and abroad (less than six million) like a few on our continent - but unlike Nigeria which has more than 15 million of its citizens living anywhere else in the world but within its borders, and fewer than most others including small ones like Botswana (9 million), Eritrea (5.6 million), Rwanda (10 million), and even South Sudan (8 million).

What struck me the most, then, was Finland's successful positioning in many fields and how the little country was highly celebrated over matters that so many countries in Africa are struggling deeply with. The week I was in Helsinki, another report on education was released ranking Finland top in the world (there is no shortage of these from Google). Also, The Economist, Newsweek and others had declared it the best country in the world to live in, while UN Gallup Polls taken between 2005 and 2011 named the country Number Two on the list of the World's Happiest Countries. In other news, the Finns are renowned for their design and creativity, and the country's GDP in 2012 was US$250 billion, where Africa's total GDP was about US$1.2 trillion, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development.

Obviously, it is easy to run a kudos-roll of any European country, besides Greece, Latvia, Georgia, Albania, Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, and a few others down that line - but that's not what this is about.

Making the most of resourcesPetri Salo. Ambassador of Finland in South Africa

Back in 2011, during a talk by Heikki Tuunanen, then Deputy Director General in the Foreign Affairs Ministry's Department for Africa and the Middle East, he told my group of journalists from Africa about Finland's development partnerships with the continent, and mentioned how Finland had developed because it had lost the war, been slapped with reparations, and had regrouped and worked hard to pay the massive sums involved after REJECTING AID UNDER THE MARSHALL PLAN (even though this rejection was political, influenced by Russia, rather than economic considerations, and it joined the Molotov Plan instead).

"We couldn't afford it at all and it was very difficult, so we had to make many sacrifices and work very, very hard to pay those reparations. The Finns had to draw on all the resources we had, and we became very creative and innovative in order to make these payments…"

And I latched onto that: "If hunkering down and working hard did the magic for Finland, as it so obviously did, why do you think that the solution for African countries has anything to do with development aid?"

He staggered a bit but didn't collapse, and neither has development aid support from Finland to the continent of Africa.

We have lots more to gain by learning from the small Nordic country than from taking aid. I've found that Finland has lots to teach that is not obvious, but sadly we are not learning it and neither is Finland deliberately teaching it - which is ironic for a country that has the best education system in the world.

Heading out on my trip with the Finns a few weeks ago, the first thing that dropped my jaw was the concept of 'Team Finland'.

Said my embassy contact, "The Team Finland network promotes Finland and its interests abroad: economic relations, internalisation of Finnish enterprises, investments in Finland and the country brand. The Team Finland operating model brings together key actors in these fields, both at home and abroad…guided by shared goals annually approved by the government…"

It sounds basic and the phrase 'common sense' comes to mind, but then reality confirms that it isn't. Too many governments have different departments working with disparities that frustrate progress and make advancement impossible.

Presenting the right image, reaching the right goals

But more than that - Team Finland was presented almost as a corporate initiative as one would expect to see from a telecommunications, beverage or other multi-national fast-moving consumer goods company. In fact, when my group and I walked into the Finnish Embassy at South Africa, the presentation on the screen contained one slide that showed only the logos of Finnish companies operating in the sub-region. More telling, the presentation was delivered by the Ambassador, Petri Salo, decked out in a light blue shirt, brown jacket and adorned with a corporate-style lanyard complete with USB flash disk dangling down his front.

The Team Finland Logo, and that of Finland, could easily be stolen by a software company and work very well - but digging deeper presented more learnings. This successful European country, for instance, is not converging its international image just to synchronise work and its diplomatic front; there is a cost-cutting objective as well, worded in the manner that normally results from having a chief executive sitting down with a chief financial officer, chief marketing officer and corporate affairs director to communicate the company plan to stakeholders:

"The difficulties experienced in Finland’s public finances will continue, with no growth expected in financial allocations. Under these circumstances, it is important to pool resources, eliminate overlaps, and bring existing services quickly under a single umbrella…"

Plus, Team Finland, as the Ambassador's one-slide presentation indicated, is going to focus mostly on supporting Finnish companies grow, because that will grow Finland's economy!

Could we do more as countries if we ran our affairs as corporate entities with specific objectives and real-time considerations? Of course. Would a country like Uganda achieve much, much more in terms of economic growth if the government focussed on growing local companies and entrepreneurship and then fostering those to improve our balance of trade, increase our gross domestic product and grow our national revenues? Should governments focus more on nurturing a private sector to increase revenues for public spending?

But I was mindful, observing this, that we can't just get up and begin a successful Team Uganda in a day. As Heikki Tuunanen said in his explanation for why development aid is being pursued for Africa even though Finland worked their way out of poverty into wealth, "The elements for development already existed in Finland at that time."

We didn't go into what those elements were, but they must have included a core mass of educated people to provide human capital, trade partners providing a market for the right products and services, an international community 'guilty' enough to support our production, and lots more. Team Finland has all this and more at its disposal; including a history of approach that includes initiatives such as FinPro, which has been hard at work promoting Finnish companies, and others such as FinFund and FinPartnership.

What have we got?

The opportunity to learn from them - FinLearn. FinCopy. FinishDeveloping.


Simon Kaheru


Simon Kaheru is Lead Analyst at Media Analyst

P.O. Box 867, Kampala, Uganda

Plot 45, Bukoto Street

Cell: +256 792 800 080

Tel:  +256 312 266 110

Skype: skaheru