I’ve been feeling a bit impoverished recently. Prices are edging up, and I’ve certainly noticed that costs of some basic products like meat and fish have risen significantly in the past couple of years. Likewise in business, prices are rising. The costs of accountancy, transport and even internet access all add up, and as soon as my workflow dips I find it difficult to cover my costs.
There are clearly a lot of people in Finland doing a lot worse than I am. Massive redundancies at both Nokia and Nokia Siemens Networks mean a lot of people will struggle to make ends meet this year.
Poverty, I realise, is a very relative concept. I tend to avoid buying clothes or home furnishings at times like this, but on the other hand I will still travel this summer and can still pay my bills without a great deal of angst. But there are days when feeling that I can’t afford to renew my gym membership this week genuinely frustrates me.
As a child my mother often reminded me about the starving children in Africa, particularly on days when I sniffed at the sight of having sausages and mashed potatoes for dinner. I never found these speeches terribly inspiring. Living in rural New Zealand, what did I care about Africa? But once or twice recently I have found myself thinking back to those speeches, and considering them from a more adult perspective.
Take Nigeria, for example. The average income today is less than one third of what it was 1970. Half of the population live on 30 US cents per day; half have no access to fresh water. And this in a country that has earned 280 billion dollars in oil alone since independence.
The problem is not a shortage of money, but a shortage of conscience. Corruption destroys the fabric of society, reducing confidence in the electoral process, justice system, and the objectivity of the media. It encourages a dog-eat-dog mentality.
Finland has one of the best records in the world of stamping out corruption, and this has been crucial in lifting Finland out of the serious poverty that existed here in both the 1950s and early 1990s.
But when it comes to social conscience, I feel that Finnish companies need to guard against complacency. Laying off large numbers of workers in towns the size of Salo and even Turku also destroys the fabric of society, sapping confidence and increasing the prevalence of domestic violence, alcoholism and depression. The cost of mass unemployment is in no way localised. We all pay these costs.
I have no problem with lay-offs when companies are genuinely struggling, but too often companies tend not to reduce staff long before they reduce dividends or bonuses. In this, I think some Finnish companies could learn more from companies elsewhere, where loyalty is valued more highly than it is here.
While Finland need never fear the kind of poverty that haunts Nigeria, within our own context, it can still be disturbingly real.
David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in
Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.