Menu

A Finnish Perspective

Author: Katja Valkama

I’ve been interested for a long time in peoples’ possibilities to choose and make a difference in their personal lives and in the wider society. The reason why I wanted to explore the UK in more detail is because of the continuous drizzle of ideas of personalisation, individual budgets and independent living that seems to enter our northern borders. Every time a new innovation, especially in services for people with disabilities, is presented in a conference or lecture, the UK is mentioned. The Finnish system is often characterized as paternalistic, bureaucratic and system centered; new ideas seem to bring fresh and interesting elements to the development of the welfare state. 

The construction (or reconstruction) of the welfare state is still going on in Finland. It’s been a constant project since the Second World War, taking twists and turns according to the current ideologies and attitudes towards people. Some forms of downsizing and cuts have been apparent since the recession in the 1990s but the welfare state has kept its popularity and public support even through these hard times. Now we are facing a total reorganisation of the welfare system as well as changes to the structure of local authorities and municipalities. These changes are pushed through by the central government and it’s really difficult to know where we are heading. 

So I was fascinated by the idea of studying a system that puts the individual at the centre, instead of the system. I spent four glorious (not weatherwise though) weeks in May 2013 travelling in England and Scotland. During my tour I met wonderful, big-hearted people, who spent their time and resources to develop amazing ways to support individuals. I saw some extraordinary arrangements that allowed people to live independently in their homes, just the way they wanted, deciding for themselves how their support is arranged and what they want in their lives. A lot of attention is given to different ways of making personal plans for your future and support. The importance of networks and the feeling of belonging has been recognised and a lot of effort, by several organisations is given to network and community building. 

But I was also astonished by the contrasts between various areas and practices, the pit hole social work has fallen in, and the negative connotations that the welfare state has been given. I also heard about budget cuts, services worsening and means-testing hardening. The most worrying thing though was the hardening attitudes towards people who are in biggest need and who usually don’t have the strongest voices. 

Voice, the reason I actually came to the UK. How can all the voices be heard? What kind of examples did I find during my travels? 

These are the key lessons I’m taking with me and spreading around in my country:

1. Respect the individual – We are all individuals. Labelling us won’t make our needs identical. Taking individual wishes and needs into account won’t make the services unjust nor unequal. 

2. Do not confuse individualism with abandonment – If everything is put on the individuals’ shoulders what happens when their knees give in? Will there be someone to catch them from falling?

3. Value the welfare state – The majority of us Finns believe that welfare state and its services financed through taxation benefits the society as a whole. We must keep an old saying from the Winter War alive – veljeä ei jätetä (we don’t leave brothers behind)

4. Protect communities – there are still small communities in Finland where it is possible for everyone to participate. Given our demographic structures the countryside is ageing rapidly, but it would benefit everyone to keep these communities alive. When you know everyone, it is harder just to walk by when someone needs help. We should start actively protecting and building communities. But we should be aware that the community building and support doesn’t become pure merchandise. If the sense of belonging is only based on ability to pay, what happens when your possibilities to pay may be cut, where is your community then?

5. Save associations, and support volunteering – We have a strong volunteer sector with many associations that give people with disabilities or long-term illnesses a joint voice. Since these associations concentrate purely on peer support and advocacy, not service provision, they do offer a strong outlet for otherwise weak voices.

6. Work against prejudice and false information – Hardship in life is not a result of personal failure, it’s usually an indication of the society’s failure.

7. Improve the service system – We are about to close institutions for people with learning disabilities. But our goal should be abolishment of all institutionalized practices. The name of the unit does not make it an institution, the people and their way of working are the key ingredients of an institution. This should be very clear in our mind.

I’m very grateful to all the people that shared their knowledge, time, lives and even houses with me. I was able to see the service system from different points of view and I didn’t just get the glossy, pretty view visitors are usually given. Thank you for your honesty, critical self-evaluation, experiences and amazing ideas. I hope I can pay your kindness back sometime.


The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.

A Finnish Perspective © Katja Valkama 2013.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.