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Finland a country South Africa should emulate

The artificial waterfall on Gellert Hill, under the statue of Bishop St Gellert, was illuminated with blue light symbolising the ‘Aurora borealis’ (or Northern Lights) to mark the 100th anniversary of the independence of Finland, in Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday. Picture: Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE

The artificial waterfall on Gellert Hill, under the statue of Bishop St Gellert, was illuminated with blue light symbolising the ‘Aurora borealis’ (or Northern Lights) to mark the 100th anniversary of the independence of Finland, in Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday. Picture: Balazs Mohai/EPA-EFE

Published Dec 6, 2017


Helsinki - Finland has a population of only 5.5 million people or less than the combined populations of Cape Town and Pretoria with a land area of 338 145 km². 

That's about 90 percent of the Northern Cape's land area, or just over a quarter of South Africa's land area, yet its economy is only 22 percent smaller than South Africa's. This means its per capita income of $42 300 (R570 000) is more than triple South Africa’s.

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Being three times richer was not due to nature's bounty - Finland doesn't have major oil deposits as Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia or the US do - but a highly educated workforce that resulted in one Finnish company, Nokia, dominating global cellphone sales in the late 1990s.

The workforce starts with teacher selection and training. The teacher training colleges pick the cream of the crop through a rigorous selection policy of only choosing student teachers from the top 10th percentile of school graduates, which is then followed by a rigorous and lengthy theoretical and practical training. There is also intensive mentoring in early professional life so that the novices learn the tricks of the trade early on and are not left to flounder without support.

The result is that by the time school-leavers enter tertiary education, they have been well taught by a professional and highly motivated teacher corps. That is why the World Economic Forum ranks Finland’s tertiary education as the best in the world. Around a third of residents have a tertiary degree but, unlike the Anglo-Saxon model, the emphasis is on science and applied skills. That is why there are 30 profession-oriented polytechnics compared with only 20 research-oriented universities.

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Tertiary education is free and living expenses, to a large extent, are financed by the government through student benefits. Around a third of tertiary graduates are in science-related fields such as forest improvement, materials research, environmental sciences, neural networks, low-temperature physics, brain research, biotechnology, genetic technology and communications. The creator of the Linux operating system is a Finn and the video game Angry Birds was developed in Finland.

Finland was rapidly industrialised after World War II to meet Soviet reparations demands after it had twice lost wars against the Soviet Union in the 1939 to 1944 period. Initially, as in South Africa, industrialisation was based on adding value to natural resources.

Unlike South Africa, most of this was export-oriented rather than being of an import substitution form. There were two main groups, namely the metal industry and the forest industry. The metal industry included shipbuilding, arms, metalworking, motor vehicles, steel, ferro-alloys and small electric motors. The world's largest cruise ships, such as Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Viking Grace, were built in Finnish shipyards.

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The forest industry includes timber, pulp and paper and is based on Finland’s extensive forest resources as 73 percent of Finland is covered by forest, but only 7.4 percent of the land is arable, which is less than South Africa's 9.9 percent. In recent years, the Finnish economy has become more of a knowledge economy with such global brands such as Nokia (telecommunications), Neste (transport fuels) and video games (Rovio Entertainment).

In an Economist Intelligence Unit report, Finland was placed second after the US on Benchmarking IT Industry Competitiveness 2011 which scored on six key indicators: overall business environment, technology infrastructure, human capital, legal framework, public support for industry development, and research and development landscape.

Part of the reason why Finland remains so competitive is that it has a long tradition of adult education. On average that means that about one million Finns, or a fifth of the population, were receiving some kind of instruction each year, with 40 percent of them doing so for professional reasons.

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Finns are also curious, so they, along with other Nordic peoples and the Japanese, spend the most time in the world reading newspapers. To cater for this desire, there are around 200 newspapers, 320 popular magazines and 2 100 professional magazines.

Having a love of print does not mean that Finns ignore digital media, as they are the highest-ranked country in the World Economic Forum’s Network Readiness Index, which is an indicator for determining the development level of a country's information and communication technologies.

Around 79 percent of the population use the internet, while all Finnish schools and public libraries have internet connections and computers and most residents have a cellphone, with some having two as the ratio per 100 people is 134.

Apart from being well-educated and curious, Finns are also healthy, fit and enjoy a long life with little income inequality. These are all qualities that South Africans strive to achieve, which is why Finland is a country worth emulating.

In terms of child and maternal mortality, Finland has one of the best records in the world with a maternal death rate of three deaths per 100 000 live births compared with South Africa’s 138 deaths per 100 000 live births, while in infant mortality their rate is 2.5 deaths per 1000 live births compared with our rate of 31 deaths per 1 000 live births.

In terms of medals and gold medals won per capita, Finland is the best-performing country in Olympic history.

At the 1924 “Chariots of Fire” Paris Summer Olympics, Finland, a nation then of only 3.2 million people, came second in the medal count. In the 1920s and 1930s, Finnish long-distance runners dominated the Olympics, in the same way that Kenyan and Ethiopian runners dominate in the 21st century.

The life expectancy at birth has increased from 71 years for men and 79 years for women in 1990 to 78 years for men and 84 years for women currently.

The fertility rate in 2014 stood at 1.71 children born per woman and has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 since 1969.

The result of this demographic destiny is that the largest five-year age cohort is that born between 1949 and 1953.

In April 2012, Finland was ranked second in the world in terms of Gross National Happiness in a report published by The Earth Institute. This, in part, is because they do not envy their neighbours and have no feelings of relative deprivation, as is the case in South Africa, as their measure of income inequality or Gini coefficient is only 21.5 compared with South Africa’s 63.

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