This headline might seem misspelt, but it is not. While researching for the ‘Finland: an individualistic welfare state public sector reform and community wealth building‘ briefing, I came across an interesting issue. No matter what word combinations or phrases I used, it seemed that on the surface, there was no translation for Community Wealth Building (CWB) in Finnish.
But looking deeper, I started to find more and more content that shared the core principles of community wealth building surfacing in Finnish conversations. All of these areas; plural ownership, localised financial power, progressive procurement and fair and just use of land, are currently in flux.
It is a fact that the two societies, British and Finnish, experience socio-economic differences in different ways. Whereas the UK is the fifth most unequal country in the world, Finland sits in the fourth spot for the most equal country in the world, right after its neighbouring Nordic countries. With this in mind, it is evident that concepts such as CWB have a different amount of emphasis in the local political sphere in Finland than it does in the UK but issues that CWB address exist in Finland, as well.
Throughout Covid-19 and even more recently during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland, like many nations, has started to draw more attention to being self-resilient, focusing on building strong supply chains and an economy that is not tied to global superpowers. This has historically also been important when building a modern Finland that is not ruled by its neighbours but rather stands on its own. I think this is engrained in the Finnish culture, the ability of one to be able to stand on their own. There is even a famous Finnish word, “sisu”, that the BBC has helpfully translated as “strength, perseverance in a task that for some may seem crazy to undertake, almost hopeless”. Building a more equal society can feel like that kind of task.
As a young person, I didn’t give that much thought to the economy, apart from being aware that it’s obvious that the rich get richer and if we want to have a democratic, equal society, we need change. When I talked with Hanna Muukka from Pellervo, one of Finland’s largest cooperative lobbying organisations, I was disappointed to hear about the way co-operatives as a business model are not appealing anymore, especially for young entrepreneurs.
Today, the Finnish co-ops are mostly associated with supermarkets, and more historically, with agriculture and its products such as dairy and meat. In the background, there is a legislative reason for this change; previously, to set up a business (ltd) in Finland, you were required to have a start-up capital of at least 2,500€. This requirement was removed in 2019 to ease the burden of setting up new businesses, especially for smaller businesses and self-employed people. Previously a co-operative would’ve been an appealing option if you didn’t have the capital to set up a business now that obstacle has been removed. But here, the authorities have to step in. This isn’t a negative thing, necessarily. By empowering small businesses, the community economy can get stronger and more versatile.
My briefing will include examples from smaller, more rural towns and that is something that is close to my own heart, having grown up in the scarcely inhabited countryside of Finland where it’s not only the wealth that is escaping the community, but also talent. Urbanisation increases in Finland all the time, with 72% of the population living in cities in 2020. Much like co-ops, rural towns have little to offer for young people, but increasingly they also fail to provide basic services for anyone else, either.
And this is where I want to introduce you to another special Finnish word that came to my mind time after time when thinking about community wealth building, specifically how locals can come together to keep their community thriving: “talkoot”. This word has no direct translation, either, but it has been translated to “work party” by some. In essence, it means doing work together, voluntarily to help one’s own community in some way. Usually, in the countryside, this would be, for example, piling up processed timber, or neighbours getting together to help with the harvest. In the urban environment, housing blocks organise “talkoot” to clean up the communal areas and gardens.
In essence “talkoot” might help to achieve a better community, whether it is by making it cleaner, or simply coming together in tasks that would be too laborious for one household to manage alone. And that’s what I started to think of CWB, as well. For it to work and be implemented, many actors have to come together within the community, to make a better, more equal place. It could be easier, and cheaper, to simply get an external provider to do the job, for example, to set up a new sports centre for a town, but it can also be done by the locals, for the locals.
I know that “talkoot” is not quite the same as the economic model of community wealth building and perhaps I have just made the definition of it even more complicated. Yet it prompted me to think about the power words and translations have. The word “economy” itself “can be traced to Greek word oikonomia, which in turn is composed of two words: oikos, which is usually translated as “household”; and nemein, which is best translated as “management and dispensation” (source).
Overall, the economy is a social construction and with that comes the idea that every society probably sees it in a different way and that community, whether it’s a household or a town, has been in the heart of the economy since ancient times. Perhaps we’ve kept moving away from that with the introduction of capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we cannot embrace the idea that we can achieve much more when we all embrace a little more “talkoot” spirit and work together.