Mary Anne MacLeod, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance and PhD student at Glasgow University.
In Scotland we often look to Scandinavian countries to learn how we might do things better. World-leading education systems; the highest levels of gender equality; among the happiest places to live in the world – in many ways our Nordic neighbours serve as important role models on how to organise ourselves. Finland’s provision of universal school meals, from pre-school to 18, is a source of great national pride and also considered to be a factor in what makes their education system so successful. The Finnish ‘baby box’ initiative recently introduced here is an example of the Nordic commitment to the early years and child development which Scotland appears to be looking to take inspiration from.
And yet this impression of a progressive, inclusive society stands in sharp contrast to scenes I encountered on my recent visit to Finland. Long queues of people waiting for several hours for a few items of food otherwise destined for landfill. The sights and smells of this Helsinki ‘breadline’ made me think of my experience volunteering on Lesbos last year. Volunteers coordinating a long line of people to receive some small amount of donated food – a scene from a refugee camp on the streets of Helsinki.
Helsinki’s ‘breadlines’ have become the ubiquitous symbol for poverty in Finland. The phenomenon started 20 years ago at a time of huge economic recession which included the fall of the Finnish mobile giant Nokia, taking with it significant numbers of jobs. Unemployment rates sky-rocketed; growing from 3% in 1989 to almost 20% 4 years later. At that time Church groups began organising the provision of food aid, taking inspiration from models already functioning elsewhere in Europe. The Church intended that food aid in Finland would be a temporary measure to meet immediate needs and to act as a protest against the perceived failures on the part of the Government to provide people with adequate support. The appearance of breadlines in the capital was certainly a shock to Finns who, through the ‘golden years’ of the welfare state of the 70s and 80s, had considered the Church-run soup kitchens of the Poor Law era to have been banished to history. Yet despite periods of economic growth since the ‘great depression’ of the early 90s Finland’s breadlines have continued. The long lines of people queuing for food have become an accepted feature of everyday life in Helsinki. After 20 years the initial public outrage and motivation to seek solutions has all but vanished. The issue is largely absent from policy or political debate, media interest in the once sensational images of the breadlines has largely worn off. In Finland, a country so revered for much of its social policy, there is generally an uncritical acceptance that food aid is here to stay.
During my visit I interviewed a number of individuals who had been key players in the initial establishment of food aid provision in Finland. Their reflections on how its role has developed perhaps provide some important lessons for Scotland. They spoke about the huge challenge of dismantling a system of aid once it has been put in place; the attractiveness of charitable models to those who would look to privatise services and lower taxes; the diminishing of support for the welfare state which occurs when universalism within the system is weakened. As we consider what a Scottish social security system might look like, we need to think carefully about the expanding role of charity food aid within our current system and consider how we might want things to work differently in the future. Important learning can be taken from countries such as Finland which we already look to emulate, yet perhaps in this case about we might learn how not to do things.