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Finding Inspiration in Finland’s Clean Government

Fumiko Nagano's picture

Why don’t Finns worry about locking their bikes on a busy Helsinki Street? Why do Finnish skateboarders who advocate anarchy politely abide by traffic laws? Why indeed is Finland so uncorrupt? The answers to these questions are presented in a paper by Darren C. Zook called “The Curious Case of Finland’s Clean Politics,” which a colleague recently shared with me. Zook points out that, puzzlingly, most corruption literature today focuses on countries where corruption is rampant in order to document and examine incidents and causes of corruption. Instead of focusing on the bad news, he posits, why not learn from the “clean” countries? His paper examines Finland as a source of inspiration for a model of clean government.

I found Zook’s paper fascinating and his many observations highly relevant to our work on anti-corruption. In this post, I will focus on just one part of his paper—the commonly cited justifications for the prevalence of corruption that he manages to disprove with Finland—because these points could have enormous implications for the way in which the work on corruption could be approached:

  • Wealth leads to a decline in corruption. Zook states that this statement is actually backwards if you look at Finland, which was poor for most of its recent history with hunger still rampant as late as 1954, but it was able to pay off its enormous WWII debts quickly while preserving relatively clean politics. That is, “wealth does not precede or produce a lack of corruption, but rather a lack of corruption precedes and produces wealth.” This means that there are consequences for countries planning to focus on economic growth first and fight corruption later.
  • Ethnic and social homogeneity lead to clean politics by engendering social trust. Not exactly. Homogeneity can’t be the sole reason for the lack of corruption in Finland. For examples contradicting this argument, see Bangladesh (relatively poor) and South Korea (relatively wealthy), which are both homogenous and have high levels of corruption.
  • Corruption is a result of colonial rule. This argument doesn’t work for Finland, which was governed by Sweden and the Soviet Union for most of its history. According to Zook, the colonial rule explanation is an excuse leading to what he calls “a culture of impunity and a lack of political responsibility—ironically creating the precise political environment in which corruption can best thrive.” Instead of playing victim to its colonial past, the Finns have fully accepted the responsibility themselves for the task of moving from the past to the future, demonstrating that historical experience does not have to lead to corruption today.

 

Zook then goes into the more fascinating part of the paper which explains what contributes to Finland’s clean government, discussing such concepts as social trust, civic activism, and accountability mechanisms that we at CommGAP like to talk about. For more information, please read his paper, or come back to this blog for the continuation. Here is a teaser on norms to whet your appetite:

“Finland’s clean politics is as much the result of its citizens’ complete lack of tolerance for corruption as it is of policies to keep the system open and transparent.”

Photo credit: Flickr user su-lin

Comments

Submitted by Tuuli Juurikkala on
"Corruption is a result of colonial rule. This argument doesn’t work for Finland, which was governed by Sweden and the Soviet Union for most of its history." While I appreciate the point made, Finland was never governed by the Soviet Union, but by Russia, 1809-1917. The original article has this right.

Dear Tuuli, Thank you for reading my post and for pointing out my mistake. I stand corrected. Best regards, Fumiko

Submitted by Jami on
Thanks, I am sharing this with my Finnish friends and all those who would like a Finland like State (including me living in Berlusconia; I mean Italia). Do you have any recommended reading on how to get from point A or near total corruption to a more Finnish state of existence? Case studies, success stories, experiments etc. All would be appreciated. I work with consumer organizations that are advocating for human and consumer rights and a large problem is that the state has is weak, and corruption rife. Thanks in advance, Jami Solli

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