The Nordic model and civil society

- Interview with Tove Skarstein, Ambassador of Norway

1.     First, I’d like to ask you to summarize the main pillars of the Nordic social model. How did this model lead to the evolution of a stable and healthy society that is being referred to as an outstanding example all over Europe?

Norway, together with the other Nordic countries, has over time managed to succeed in establishing a social order where both economic growth and high levels of social equality are present. Simply put, we have found a functioning balance between a competitive market economy, based on private ownership with a relatively large state sector that provides a broad range of social services based on the principles of solidarity and universality.

Today, the system is characterized by combining a tax-financed public welfare system, high levels of employment, a well-regulated labour market with strong unions and a family policy which promotes gender equality. Conjoined, these elements are functioning as a comprehensive collective insurance plan which culminates in considerable levels of social inclusion and stability throughout most parts of society. Our social model aims to combine individual freedom and liberties with a strong solidarity element, which basically results in a competitive market economy, but at the same time a relatively large government sector which redistributes wealth and creates equal opportunities through a progressive tax system and comprehensive social policies.

2.     In your opinion what were/are the key factors that contributed to this evolution; which social, economic, legal, historic, etc. circumstances played a role? On the other hand, were there any, and if what obstacles which set back development?

The contemporary Nordic model was preconditioned by the interplay between a number of national and global circumstances, but most of all, our historical legacy. This includes first and foremost a traditionally egalitarian society: in contrast to most places on the European continent, we have never had a strong feudalistic system, and the nobility was always very weak, and was abolished altogether in 1814. The free peasantry played a crucial role in our nation- and state-building process, not least to the drafting of our Constitution, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary next year. What Weber named the “Protestant Ethic”, with its emphasis on work and the economy, has probably also contributed greatly to the developing social system.

Norway in at the turn of the 20th Century was a sparsely populated country consisting of a large working class population, which in the 1930s started forming joint alliances through the labor movement and trade unions. Their Social Democratic movement, embodied in the Norwegian Labour Party heavily influenced the above-mentioned emerging socio-economic system, and although this party governed the country for most of the time since the 1930s, there has been a broad consensus across the main political parties (as well as the population at large) about the main elements of the model, and none of the governments questioned its fundamental values.

After the Second World War, Norway was also strongly influenced by global power relations, which in the end resulted in a compromise between the two competing economic systems of socialism and capitalism. When oil was first found in Norway in the 1960s, it was already among the most developed welfare states. The balance of power therefore also led to a social redistribution of the revenue, which further reinforced the welfare state.

There are some cultural and political characteristics that are indispensable in order to maintain our social model. I think the main fabric of our society is the mutual trust among individuals, and also between the citizens and the state, including both the bureaucracy and the political elite. Without this trust, which basically is a very important factor contributing to a law-abiding and tax-paying citizenry our whole consensus-oriented society would be jeopardized.  

Of course we had to face challenges, as Norway is a small country with a small population at the geographical periphery of Europe, which had only been an independent country for only 35 years when it became the victim of the struggle of the great powers in World War II. Therefore we needed to find solutions to guarantee our independence and sovereignty not only in terms of military capabilities, but also with regard to our social model.

3.     In general, what is the contemporary definition of civil society, the NGO sector in Norway? What kinds, types of organizations are considered to belong to it?

A recent white paper from the Norwegian government defines the NGO sector as consisting of membership-based organizations which are working after nonprofit principles under a democratic governance structure. Norway has a long tradition of having a strong civil sector, some established already in the mid-19th century. Earlier organizations mainly focused on health, social care and humanitarian work, but as the welfare state expanded and moved into these realms, the civil society sector evolved as well. Today, the voluntary sector in Norway consist of 115 000 organizations, with scopes ranging from sports, culture and leisure, religion and other beliefs, children and youth, welfare, solidarity and aid, minorities, emergency response, as well as various social-political organizations, such as advocacy groups, political organizations and organizations related to the labour market, such as professional associations and trade unions .

4.     What role civil society, the NGO sector played/plays in the creation and development of the Nordic model? How big is the „power” of the NGO sector in the Norwegian society, as regards the number of its employees, the size of its economic contribution, etc.?

Our Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has stated that Norway would not have managed to become one of the world’s most developed democracies without the contributions from a strong civil society. A vibrant democracy is dependent on impulses from its citizens, and NGOs serves as important communication channels between the public and the private. In addition to functioning as an important contributor when it comes to the provision of welfare and democracy, civil society is in itself a platform where the population can experience social inclusion.

Our governments, irrespective of party composition, attach great importance to the views of the civil society and their organizations. They provide valuable advocacy activities, promote civil engagement, transparency and active citizenship, all of which are indispensable building blocks of our society and Nordic model. We believe that without their active engagement the necessary consensus and trust, referred to above, would not exist, and this is the reason why we have been insistent on focusing so much on NGOs within the programmes of the Norway Grants.  

When it comes to giving indicators on the power the civil society sector holds in Norway, it can be mentioned that 80% of the population are engaged in one or more organizations, adding up to a total of 10 million memberships (compared to 5 million inhabitants).

The level of volunteerism in Norway is one of the highest in the world, and it contributes significantly to our value creation. In 2010, voluntary organizations created some 100 billion Norwegian Crowns (3500 billion Forints), amounting to roughly 20 000 Crowns per inhabitant, 60 percent of which was unpaid voluntary work! This corresponds to nearly 5% of the annual GDP. The largest contributing sectors were health and social, education, work-related and cultural/leisure activities, which together account for 80 percent of the generated income. If we include unpaid voluntary work as well, this latter activity becomes by far the most important, and is responsible for almost 40 percent of the value created.

In 2010 voluntary work amounted to 115 000 man-years, which corresponded to almost 5 percent of the total workforce in Norway, again, most of them in the culture and leisure sectors. There are in fact more people engaged in voluntary work than in paid jobs: approximately 1,4 volunteers for every employed person. If we only consider the paid employees of the NGO sector, they employed roughly 80 000 people in 2010, which was 3.5 percent of the total workforce in Norway.

5.     What kind of benefits does the state provide to NGOs and for what reasons, purposes?

Since the Norwegian government considers the civil society sector as a crucial contributor to the realization of democratic values and welfare, the state takes on an active supportive role. 36% of the funding of the NGO sector comes from central and local governments, either distributed directly through various grants or indirectly in the form of tax cuts. One of the largest and most popular measures is the newly established VAT-compensation scheme, through which almost 1 billion Norwegian Crowns (35 billion Forints) were allocated to the NGO sector. The thousands of NGOs who benefit from this tax-compensation scheme find it very simple and non-bureaucratic, as there are no criteria or reporting-obligations attached to their use.

A concrete example on how the state encourages a strengthening of civil society was the establishment almost ten years ago of the so-called Frifond, a user-friendly online funding hub which aims at providing low-threshold support to NGO activities, especially through support to children and youth organizations, as well as local voluntary organizations and independent groups and associations. In 2012 this Fund received some 170 million Norwegian Crowns (6 billion Forints), which was then re-granted to more than 11 thousand local branches of 112 national organizations, as well as almost 3000 independent local youth associations.

As a general rule I can say that the financial support to the NGO sector is provided in a transparent way in order that the professional activities and the achieved results form the basis of funding decisions and not political loyalties. Furthermore, even though the public sector (the State and the local governments) continue to be a very significant funder of the voluntary organizations, the private sector, including both private persons and companies are large contributors, which can ensure greater independence and sustainability. 

6.     Does the Norwegian NGO sector have any kind of overall common representative and advocacy structure? Do NGOs network, share knowledge and expertise – how and to what extent?

There are several networks and umbrella organizations for NGOs which aim to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and experience, accommodate more efficient advocacy work, but there is no central or common representative body or organization. Rather, there is a plethora of such networks and umbrella organizations which are usually organized within the individual sectors.

A central actor that can be mentioned is the Association of NGOs in Norway (Frivillighet Norge), a collaborative forum for the entire NGO sector which aims to serve as an arena where the regulatory framework of volunteerism can be discussed. The forum serves both as a communication link between the organizations, as well as one of the most important consultative partners for the government when it comes to policies affecting civil society and the sectors the NGOs are active in.

7.     Which are the main challenges laying ahead of Norwegian NGOs?

In general, we can observe a diminishing rate of volunteerism within the Norwegian population, even though we are probably still above the international average in this regard. We therefore have to find ways to “keep up the voluntary spirit”, especially among the young generation and the growing population of immigrants. Many of our new countrymen are probably not used to the level and organized nature of voluntary activities that is common in Norway, but by involving immigrant groups in such activities we have a golden opportunity to promote mutual trust and understanding. If they can take ownership of issues which are also important to the Norwegian society at large, they have already done a great deal for their smooth integration into our society.

This is of course partly a financial question, but far from being only that. One disturbing tendency which is expressed by the Norwegian government is that the social differences between active volunteers seem to have increased. Previously, a central characteristic among the volunteers in Norwegian NGOs has been that they are recruited from the whole social strata. Today, there is a developing trend that those in society who hold high levels of education and income are increasingly active, while the engagement of low status groups are declining.

8.     What recent processes, changes may be observed in Norwegian society in general and in the NGO sector in particular in response to the global economic crisis on the one hand and to global environmental challenges on the other?

In general, Norway was lucky enough to have remained more or less unaffected, at least directly, of the global economic crisis. Our economy has remained largely isolated from the crisis, and we have experienced a relatively stable economic growth and persistently low unemployment. However, we live in a globalised world, with open borders to the rest of Europe which means that we cannot ignore the difficulties that the continent has been facing, as we are dependent on each other. The Norwegian society has become more aware of several global challenges that the NGO sector had already long been engaged in, from migration issues to climate change.  Norway, both our government and the NGO sector has played a leading role in advocating an ambitious agenda when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

In contrast to Hungary or other Central European countries, many NGOs in Norway, especially the large ones, such as the Norwegian Church Aid, the Norwegian Red Cross, the Norwegian Society for Development, and so on, have a global engagement, and take part in international projects across the globe. Many of these organizations are directly involved in the international development work of the Norwegian Government, and co-operate closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in implementing Norway’s global development policy in order to use the available financial aid as efficiently as possible. This international orientation has probably become even more pronounced during the last half decade.

One of the main reasons why we have insisted on setting up individual NGO Funds under the EEA and Norwegian Financial Mechanisms in all beneficiary countries was our conviction that a strong and vibrant civil sector is the cornerstone of any open and democratic society, where NGOs can significantly contribute to an active citizenry, transparency and the protection of individual rights and liberties by fighting corruption, advocating tolerance etc.

As a consequence of the social and economic crisis in Europe during the last five years, which in several countries has brought about political turmoil and increasing intolerance as well, we believe that these objectives have become even more important. Therefore it is important that we continue to be active in this area and support the sector in its effort to become strong and sustainable.