Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 297 | Abril 2006



Finland’s Successful Experience in the Fight Against Corruption

The war on corruption is now a required course in the “school of good governance” the world over. In Central America hardly anybody has enrolled so far, but perhaps we can learn some generic lessons from Finland’s positive experience, even given the differences in its political class, government officials, population, culture and history.

Although Finland is not entirely without corruption, it gets consistently high ratings in international surveys on the topic. The fact that it is relatively free of this scourge indicates that Finnish society has acquired some strong antibodies over the course of its historical development.

Learning more about Finland’s history and the factors that have contributed to its development offers what we hope may be some useful lessons. Although they are not the only essential requirements for success in the fight against corruption in other countries, and although each country follows its own path based on its own circumstances, we feel that the Finnish experience has something to offer to Central America and the world.

Corruption is defined as “the exploitation of a position of influence for private benefit.” This definition covers both direct and indirect corruption on both a small and large scale. In addition to active and passive bribery, the United Nations Convention against Corruption specifies the crimes of embezzlement, misappropriation or other diversion of property, trading in influence, abuse of functions and illicit enrichment.

Barren ground for corruption

Finland’s comparatively low levels of corruption are the result of a development process that stretches back almost two centuries. The historical reduction of corruption forms part of the overall comprehensive development of Finnish society, which went from being uneducated, poor, agricultural and dependent on a foreign imperial power to an independent democratic republic, a modern and industrialized country and a highly educated information society.

The historical reduction of corruption in Finland cannot be attributed to any specific reform in any particular sector. The main strength was—and still is—the establishment and maintenance of a social order that offers no fertile ground for corruption to take root. Finland’s social order is characterized by specific strengths, particularly moderation, self control and a sense of the common good. The result is a society that morally and legally condemns the centralization of power and socioeconomic disparities, promoting a culture of governance that fosters the common good.

Moderation, self control and the common good

Sincerely embracing the values of moderation, self control and the common good sets important limits on the drive for personal benefits at the expense of others. These values also help build mutual trust. Research has shown a correlation between a high degree of trust among the members of a society and low levels of corruption.

Finnish experience also indicates that the moral example of public officials and decision-makers is indispensable to the development of a cultural ethic of governance. When people see ethical and responsible behavior in those occupying positions of responsibility, they are more likely to want to imitate them. A culture of responsibility in public administration can be developed and buttressed by officially declaring that ethical values form the basis of public service. The Finnish government’s personnel policy does just that by declaring that public service is based on ethical values.

The Finnish private sector has also long maintained the values of “best practice,” responsibility, honesty and fair play. Ethical education has become an integral component of Finnish Business Administration training. A full 90% of Finnish business executives consider that obeying the law is essential in their corporate activities. There is also a proven correlation between a high degree of competitiveness and a low level of corruption. For several years in a row, Finland has ranked as the first or second most competitive country in the world, at the same time as being the least corrupt.

The ethics of the entire population is reflected in a culture of governance that upholds the values of common good and shared responsibilities. Generally speaking, Finland’s public officials represent the values common to all Finnish people. The keys to generating the kind of pressure required for the emergence and consolidation of a culture of responsible governance are broad consensus regarding these values among the citizens and an active and interested civil society. The independent media have also proven indispensable to the pressure exerted by civil society. This is strengthened by the exceptionally high number of newspaper readers in Finland. Even the most minor abuses committed by public officials are of journalistic interest—sometimes at the expense of more important news—and they elicit prompt disapproval from public opinion.

Legislative, judicial and
administrative structures

A broad legal system, an independent and effective judicial system, efficient application of the laws, follow-up on abuses and transparent and modernized financial administration are also needed to prevent corruption. The Finnish Constitution stipulates that the law must guarantee governance.

Finnish law proscribes and criminalizes a wide array of specific abuses. The main laws against corruption are the Constitution, the Administrative Procedures Act, the Act on the Openness of Government Activities, the Penal Code, the State Budget Act, the Accounting Act, the Auditing Act and the Public Procurement Act. The Finnish judiciary also includes the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Chancellor of Justice and administrative courts. The Chancellor of Justice and the Parliamentary Ombudsman monitor the actions of all public servants from the highest level on down. Both are independent, with authority to investigate the actions of members of Parliament, ministers and even the head of state. The efficiency and high profile of these posts also help prevent abuses.

The Finnish Constitution requires the exercise of public office to be based on the law. Any citizen dissatisfied with an administrative decision concerning his or her rights or obligations can challenge its legality before an administrative court. The right of appeal in such cases is mainly covered by the provisions of the administrative Judicial Procedures Act. This act contains a provision placing the administrative court under an obligation to ensure that each case is properly examined. Parties to the proceedings are therefore usually able to pursue their cases without professional legal help, which facilitates the lodging of appeals and access to legal remedies. The Supreme Administrative Court is the last recourse in administrative cases.

Finland is inspired by a strong legalist tradition which is upheld by clear qualification requirements, the obligation to publicly explain the reasons behind all decisions, an efficient correctional system, state-of-the-art criminal investigation methods and modern budgetary, accounting and auditing practices. All of this, backed up by public access to official documents and press freedom, helps make it easier to detect abuses. The use of professional criteria to investigate crimes ensures the high probability that the authors of corrupt acts will be identified and convicted.

The obligation to publicly explain decisions increases transparency and public trust in governance and avoids partisan and biased decisions. The referendary, or rapporteur, system established some time ago in Finnish public administration has also helped prevent abuses by decentralizing the power of public servants. And the devolution of powers to subsidiary institutions has played an important part in increasing government efficiency and avoiding excessive centralization.

The presence of women
in decision-making posts

World Bank studies have shown a correlation between women’s representation in parliaments and top public posts and lower levels of corruption and a culture of accountability that contributes to governance. This underscores the importance of gender equity in preventing corruption.

Women have performed a relatively prominent role in public administration in Finland for a long time. In 1906, Finland became the first country in the world to grant women the right both to vote and to run for elected office. The 19 women parliamentarians elected in the first elections held in Finland the following year were pioneers for their gender in this field the world over.

Finland has maintained this position; it is still the country with the strongest female parliamentary representation in the world. Over a third of the members of Finland’s Parliament and Municipal Councils are women, as are half the current Cabinet members. Establishing gender quotas ensures more balanced female representation at all public service levels.

Low income disparity and adequate salaries

It is proven that corruption drops when salaries are adequate and income scale gaps are relatively small. The higher the income, the greater the labor satisfaction will be, and the propensity to accept bribes drops accordingly. Moreover, reducing the gaps between the different salary levels puts a halt to economic greed in professional development.

Global comparisons show that the salaries of Finnish public officials are reasonable and that the country’s income disparities are among the lowest in the world. Moderation in the income disparities among Finnish public servants reflects the general pattern of salary differentials in the country as a whole.

This relatively small income distribution gap in Finnish society can be largely attributed to the above-mentioned Finnish value base, which profoundly disapproves of unequal distribution of wealth. The ideal of moderation in income differentials is manifested in Finland in a progressive tax system and in the social security provisions. In Finland, as in any country, good salaries require a solid public economy and a strong business sector.

How did we get here?

How did Finland acquire all these strengths? Finland’s development is due to the fact that the values of liberty, the common good and democracy have gradually become distinctive features of the administrative culture and the structures of government, legislation, the judicial system, the media, the economy and civil society.

Finnish experience seems to confirm that such a broad social and cultural transformation is inevitably a very long process with several successive stages. There are no short cuts. Although no other country can follow the same path as Finland, coincidences can be found between the factors marking each of this country’s historical stages and the historical or prevailing circumstances of other countries.

Heirs of Sweden’s structures and culture

During the entire period between the early 19th and early 20th centuries, Finland’s government system was essentially one of Swedish bureaucratic rule under a Russian yoke. Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809 and Russia granted it autonomy as a grand duchy. Czar Alexander I became the Grand Duke of Finland and promised to govern his new territory according to the ancient customs and laws.

This autonomy offered Finland an unprecedented opportunity to govern itself in all affairs save questions of foreign policy and national defense. Although technically a Russian dependency, Finland was in practice an independent state even though it was still premature to speak of the “Finnish people.” The majority of Finns lived in small isolated agricultural communities, far from commercial and cultural centers. Most were illiterate and earned a modest living with agriculture. The peasantry stood apart from the higher echelons of society with regard to language as well as class. Although in the final analysis the Russian Grand Duke held the reins of power, in practice the duchy was governed by public officials who spoke Swedish and represented the upper classes, the top “estate” of the class system.

Political power was concentrated first in Turku and later in Helsinki, where the capital was transferred in 1812. There was no “people” whose majority could, at least in theory, be represented in the national government. The bureaucratic elite of the era didn’t even consider the possibility of paying attention to the voice of the people through elections or some participatory decision-making process. Despite this, the situation was different from that of many other dependencies of Russia, because the Swedes had left us a public administration characterized by the observance of strict bureaucratic discipline. In Finland, the culture of corruption inherited from a foreign power does not appear to have been as weighty a historical burden it may be many other former dependencies.

New ideals and ideologies
inspire and challenge

Following the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the ideals of patriotism, equality, constitutional government and democracy profoundly inspired intellectuals and ideological leaders all over Europe. These ideals played an important role in the nationalist movements and liberal thinking that agitated the continent. The University of Turju and its Swedish-speaking academic tributaries represented the main gateway for the new ideological currents. Among them, Finland’s principal thinkers and reformers were J.J. Tengström, A.I. Arwidsson, J.V. Snellman and Uno Cygnaeus.

As liberal and nationalist sentiments began to spread and intensify, intellectuals started publicly criticizing the bureaucracy, the old “estate” system, the economic backwardness and the social inequality reigning in Finland. By the mid-19th century, the system had already begun to show signs of imminent collapse. A tentative form of democracy emerged with the Parliament Law of 1869, which guaranteed the periodicity of parliamentary sessions and decentralization took a step forward with the concession of local self-government through the acts of 1865 and 1873. An increase in parliamentary debate and in public criticism introduced an element of outside control to government.

The new ideas reach everybody

A complete and definitive divorce between the old “estate” system and the inherited culture of governance was impossible as long as the ideals of equality and democracy continued to be the personal crusade of a handful of progressive thinkers and a few people responsible for policy formulation. The sporadic structural reforms to promote democracy and decentralization weren’t enough to achieve a wide-ranging reform of the administrative culture. It was also necessary to educate the entire population, because education represented the most powerful instrument to inform the population and improve people’s living conditions.

Education had to cover everyone everywhere, and include physical, intellectual and spiritual aspects. Achieving obligatory and comprehensive education became the goal and enterprise of those Swedish-speaking academics who had brought the ideals inspiring all of Europe to Finland. The intellectuals and ideological leaders who promoted the Finns’ national conscience and moral and intellectual progress pressured until they ensured the organization of a national primary education system. In 1858, another blow was inflicted on the old “estate” system with the establishment of Finnish-language secondary schools.

The 1866 Education Act accelerated the establishment of primary schools in all of Finland’s rural areas. Continuing the original concept developed by Uno Cygnaeus—creator of the “folk school” system—primary education ceased being the responsibility of the Church. In 1898 it was made obligatory for all municipal governments to establish schools in their districts. On the eve of Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917, there were already some three thousand primary schools and 70% of the population had learned to read and write.

The comprehensive primary education system deserves the credit for civic responsibility, equality and the promotion of the common good that gradually became natural characteristics of the Finnish people’s value system.

A nationalist consciousness was slowly spreading through the entire population via education, which translated into increased civil society awareness, a desire for independence and a critical attitude toward authorities. Thanks to primary schools, the new ideals and values derived from the inspired visions of the academic elite became transformed into the population’s common values before it happened in any other European country. Disseminating new ideological currents did not displace the old traditional Finnish ideas of humility, modesty and honesty, but rather served to complement them.

The government experiences
a major structural change

As education began giving the generations new values that complemented the traditional ones, it also began to transform both the culture and the structures of government, including the judicial branch and public administration. In an increasingly more democratic Finland, sustainable and large-scale reform depended on the existence of a critical mass of educated population whose interests and visions were represented in Parliament and generated pressure through efficacious channels. Finland declared its independence in 1917, largely as the result of an increasingly nationalist sentiment inculcated into a critical mass of its population through education.

The population’s values were slowly also becoming the values of the public servants. A good official had to respect all laws and be responsible, honest, concerned for the public good and, above all, humble. Good officials must not boast of their authority or brag about their responsibilities. They were prudent and well versed in the population’s common interests. They were decent citizens, which in the period in which Finland obtained its independence meant having a stable marriage and family and a clean life style, believing in patriotism and in Christian humanism.

The rule of law was recognized as the backbone of governance. And the greater grassroots acceptance of the ideal of equality that accompanied education and public debate allowed women’s strength as public leaders to start being recognized at a relatively early period of the country’s history.

Fine-tuning the culture with the learned values

The majority of the ideal characteristics of good public officials and of administrative culture have survived right up to today and have become so evident that the burden of proof falls on those who question it.

All these ideals have played a direct role in reducing corruption and keeping it at bay. In our time these original ideas are complemented by growing demands for participation and inclusion, by political referenda, minority representation, transparency and openness. The 20th century was a period of experimentation and consolidation of the new ideas of governance that came to Finland in the 19th century. The ideals of the common good, accountability and moderation have been tried and tested, and the impediments that have arisen over the years have always served to push those in charge of policy formulation to make better reforms to ensure their implementation.

The corruption that still crops up in the country is the result of vices persistently handed down from the czarist regime or of the proverbial human propensity to succumb to the many temptations that inevitably accompanies power. In the face of these pitfalls, collective conscience derived from a base of common values has been the driving force behind a wide variety of reforms to procedures, laws and government institutions—often brought about by error as much as trial. The country’s spirit of reconstruction that emerged at the end of World War II gave a crucial shove to these reforms.

The Swedish-speaking intellectuals of the 19th century also expressed demands for free trade and freedom of expression. The implementation of free trade permitted economic growth and the development of free expression was manifested in the emergence of a free press. In 1855, the Finnish Senate initiated the process of dismantling trade barriers, which was completed in 1879. The end of the 20th century saw rapid economic growth, which favored the poorest because the growing industrialization of the cities offered job opportunities to the rural population at the same time as the social security system was being significantly developed. The press only succeeded in shaking off political control toward the end of the 20th century, even though the Press Freedom Law had been promulgated back in 1919.

Achieving effective and broad-based freedom of trade and of expression required not only educating the population so it could become aware that all citizens have the right to these liberties. It also required changes in the culture of governance. Decision-makers had to leave space for these freedoms to flourish, both in theory and in practice, at the same time maintaining legislative safeguards against the destructive extremes that always exist in trade activity or the use of other freedoms.

Today Finland is attracting international interest

Finland’s strengths in the fight against corruption have attracted particular attention in the international arena. In fulfillment of its commitments, Finland is still carrying out actions against corruption both nationally and internationally. Today it is actively participating in the anti-corruption efforts of its long-term development partners and is contributing to multilateral anti-corruption programs.

Since the end of the millennium, Finland has signed all international conventions related to the fight against corruption: the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, European Union and Council of Europe conventions on bribery, the UN Convention against Corruption and the Cotonou Agreement. In the future, local cooperation funds coordinated by Finland’s foreign missions will provide viable instruments for combating corruption on an international scale through the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Program Against Corruption (GPAC), the European Union instruments for development cooperation and civil crisis management and cooperation and economic partnership negotiations. Finland also joined the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Progressing by stages

Finland’s history indicates that each of its stages developed on the basis of the achievements made in the previous stages. And though there are no neatly defined divisions between these stages and they in fact have rather natural overlaps, the development of a culture that dissuades corruption can be appreciated in Finland over the past two centuries.

All of Finland’s current strengths—a value base that promotes moderation, self control and the common good; legislative, judicial and administrative structures that permit close monitoring of and protection against the abuse of power; women’s prominent participation in political decision-making; and low income disparities with adequate salaries—developed historically and became rooted over a long process. As an autonomous dependence, Finland inherited foreign structures and a culture of governance; later, new ideals and ideologies awakened intellectuality. With this baggage, intellectuals challenged the inherited structures and culture of government, an ideological transformation that did not remain with only a minority, but reached the entire population through obligatory education. As a consequence, the government adopted the values promoted through obligatory education and underwent huge structural changes. This in turn guaranteed the culture of governance, the legislation, the economy and the media we have today, when Finland’s culture and administrative structures are attracting international interest thanks to their achievements.

This text was prepared by the International Cooperation Political Information Unit of Finland’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, and was edited by envío.

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