In the last half year, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the planet, Finland has been quietly working with other donor countries to continue providing aid to nations most in need.
Countries like Iraq or Somalia, with public healthcare systems already barely able to cope with everyday demands, suddenly found themselves strained to the point of collapse with an influx of coronavirus patients: without the resources to manage, and risking further contagion.
“We all know we are facing an unprecedented situation at the global level at this stage due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has cost more than 750,000 lives to date” explains Ville Skinnari (SDP), Finland’s Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade.
The Lahti politician, a second term MP with a career in international business behind him before entering politics, has been Finland’s man on the front line at donor meetings as the pandemic unfolded. The urgency of decision making, and the emergence of travel restrictions, ironically meant it’s been easier to convene conferences, or get key decision-makers to sit down face-to-face over video links even at short notice.
Skinnari’s had a rink-side seat as the existing humanitarian needs morphed into a health crisis, and then a socio-economic one too for many developing nations.
“For the first time in decades the number of people living in absolute poverty will increase and [the number of] people suffering from acute hunger are expected to double at the end of the year” he tells News Now Finland.
“The pandemic actually laid bare weaknesses in society such as structural inequalities, inadequate healthcare and the lack of social protection and the heavy price people are paying due to this.”
Ville Skinnari reckons the response from the international donor community has been strong – at a Nordic level, on an EU level and through United Nations agencies.
But with the need for assistance in so many areas, not just public health but in supporting rights, democracy and even basic food aid to combat hunger, where do the priorities lie?
“We must be honest. We have the same problems in place right now as we had before Covid-19. [Finland] emphasizes sexual and gender-based health services” Skinnari says, adding that good governance, leadership, and developing vibrant civil societies also remain key priorities for Finnish development cooperation.
On a more local level the Finns are able to channel funds through partners and be quite targeted about where and how the money is allocated.
“For instance Finland has supported Iraq, and the main part is directed to strengthen hospitals and healthcare centres. And we are also supporting Iraq in its post-Covid-19 recovery strategy” the minister says, adding that the €11 million Finland has given since 2015 goes through the United Nations Development Programme offices.
In addition, €2 million more has been found this year for the acute problems the country is facing.
“Our Embassy in Baghdad was just recently opened and we do recognize the difficult situation, and it’s not been easy there. I really appreciate the work Finnish diplomats have done at a global level, and our civil society including the Red Cross and all our partners” he says.
“It’s been crucial and great work during the crisis.”
Foreign trade growth will help Finland recover
On the other side of Ville Skinnari’s ministerial portfolio is foreign trade – an important remit in a country so heavily dependent on exports.
The coronavirus crisis has meant the country took a huge financial hit – although so far not as bad as had been predicted, and better at this point than other European countries.
Still, with travel restrictions in place it’s nigh-on impossible for businesses to go out and promote themselves, and the trade mission circuit of foreign trade shows has ground to a halt.
“Finland is an export-driven economy, and Finland has had, still has, leading companies at global level” says Skinnari.
“Statistics show Finland has performed quite well actually among European countries when it comes to the economy and the numbers during the summer time. But having said that we are of course very concerned how the global economy is to recover at this stage.”
With 60% of Finland’s exports ending up in the European Union, that’s the most urgent market where economic recovery is needed. And while industrial products have traditionally been one of the main drivers of Finland’s economy, Skinnari says other sectors will soon become more valuable than before.
“Our growing exports in green economy, circular economy and energy technology I think are the future cornerstones of Finland when it comes to exports” he says.
“Yes, we have a lot to do. We are working hard within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with our embassies at this challenging time.”