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Critical reflections on the Nordic model – why should anyone care?

One of our first public activities as JUST SOCIETY was a webinar series April-June 2021 focusing on the “Nordic model”. Specifically, we invited experts to critically assess how strong state institutions (particular within rule of law and welfare provision) can promote equality. I have since been reflecting on what we have learned about the Nordic model, and not least why and how can lessons from these small, democratic, equal, rich, and homogeneous countries be of any value elsewhere. I have been doubting how the Nordic experiences, built over time in specific historical contexts, can inspire and guide others living in very different contexts. Doubt is essential for an academic. If you stop doubting, you stop reflecting and challenging yourself, and you stop building knowledge. Yet for the JUST SOCIETY project – with its aim to offer university-based courses that allow students in the Global South to learn from the Nordic model – this particular doubt has been frustrating. Of course, learning from each other through knowledge-sharing and dialogue is always valuable, but what lessons more exactly?

Sometimes it is good to stop (over-)thinking and instead interact with others. Just the other day, a South African scholar working on community development wrote to me: “I believe that progressive countries like the Nordic countries have an important role to play as role models for many countries, to give them hope and provide them with options without imposing their cultures and ideas”. Phew! But what kind of role models are we then?

Another South African scholar alerted me to a conference in remembrance of Thandika Mkandawire, an eminent African scholar and among other things previous director of UNRISD. In the conference call, I found an important cue. It narrates how late Mkandawire played a critical role in combining the academic disciplines on social policy, democracy, and development. Drawing from Mkandawire, we can understand these areas to be interrelated in important ways: Encompassing social policies support equitable economic development and inclusive political participation. Equitable economic development enables broad-based social policies and dampens political polarization. And, democracy and rule of law are required for equal access to welfare and inclusive economic development. Hence, it is the interplay between social policy, democracy, and development that can foster inclusive, equitable, and just societies.

Many countries do not give equal priority to social policy, democracy, and development. Some countries, like the US, are firm defenders of democracy and rule of law in capitalist economies with only a very limited role for social policy. Other countries, like China, focus on economic development and social policy but in autocratic settings. The Nordic model is distinct in the way the three spheres are combined. As was emphasized in the webinars, the Nordic model is characterized by an encompassing and redistributive welfare system based on free market capitalism, rule of law, inclusive participation, and a strong state. What can be of interest elsewhere is not so much how the Nordic countries got to this point, but more so how rule of law, social policy, taxation, political participation, and economic structures intersect to stimulate and reinforce a development path that is inclusive and equitable.

Examples of such intersections were highlighted at the webinars: broad-based and high taxation is a foundation for universal social policies; a large and expensive welfare state relies on wide political support; rule of law ensures equal access to welfare rights. Looking at how policy spheres connect and affect each other is a valuable exercise in any context. Nascent social policies can empower and encourage political engagement. Experiences of a rule-abiding public official can increase willingness to pay tax. Democratic space allows for dialogue and creativity in finding fitting solutions to improve social and economic well-being. There are many positive lessons to be inspired by.

Not all is well in the Nordic model, however. In the webinars, we learned for example about bias in the implementation of social policies, about “universalism with filters” (some groups being excluded), and about inequitable tax reforms. Lessons can be drawn from problematic experiences too, and more importantly: we in the Nordic countries also have much to learn from elsewhere.

A key question that arose from the webinars was whether the ideal of universalism actually corresponds to societies’ perception of who makes up the collective? Even in the Nordic model, universalism has boundaries. Who, in any given society, do we regard as the legitimate rights-holders and duty-bearers, and how do we ensure equal access to justice and welfare rights for all within the society? I have no doubt that our partners in Brazil, Georgia, India, and South Africa can provide perspectives that not only highlight barriers to equal access to justice and welfare but also exemplify how such barriers may be overcome. This will be the focus of our webinar series in the coming months.

Marianne Ulriksen 

26 August 2021

Responsible for page: Social Science

Last Updated 19.10.2021