Social trust is high in the Nordic region – and there is a recipe for that

The Nordic countries are often regarded as the role-model region of the world when it comes to equality on different levels of society. Equal access to fundamental public services like education and health is one strong example. Gender equality ranks nowhere as high as in this region, where four of the five countries are now led by women prime ministers – and nowhere is the glass ceiling as low.

Social trust – perhaps the most valuable asset any society can gain – is regarded as one of the most enviable sides to Nordic societies, so much so, that the Nordic Council of Ministers, NCM, published a while back a report titled Trust – the Nordic Gold. The report is based on research into Nordic experiences and includes what can be called a manual or recipe for social trust – should others want to follow.

So what is the Nordic social trust all about? The report states that is is difficult to imagine societal models like those in the Nordic countries if citizens do not trust that other citizens also contribute to the economy through the tax system, and that public authorities manage tax revenues in a fair and efficient way, free from corruption.

In the Trust report it is pointed out that; “…perhaps the most important thing in the governance of the Nordic states is how they have “over a long period, worked transparently, fairly, and with a high level of integrity.” (pp. 21). According to the writer of the report, Ulf Andreassen, NCM, transparency is an essential factor.

“Social trust is very much about the relationship people have with the state they live in. If the state is treating its citizens in a fair manner they are likelier to have an optimistic view on things,” he says. “If people lose trust in the institutions and in the social infrastructure, their overall levels of trust will go down and that will affect their outlook on life in general.”

Andreassen also emphasises the importance of people being aware of the benefits of a society with a high level of trust.

“A high level of social trust translates into a society with fewer formalities, conflicts and legal processes. In economic terms, social trust reduces transaction costs in the economy, i.e. costs associated with ensuring that an agreement is fulfilled. Calculations indicate that an increase of ten percentage points in social trust can be expected to increase economic growth in a country by half a percentage point.”

In the report, Andreassen, credits the effect of social trust for one of the Nordic regions success stories of the past decade. ” If we are to examine the Nordic successes – particularly in economic terms and, more specifically, in how the Nordic countries managed to avoid the global recession that followed the financial crises of 2008 – it is important not to focus too much on how the Nordic region has balanced different systems, taxes, legislation etc. but instead look more closely at how the states, over a long period have worked transparently, fairly and with a high level of integrity, and the positive effects of this – not least the effect of social trust.”

He also points specifically to the relationship between the state and associations as another important Nordic aspect. The latter fulfilled an important function as a platform from which individual citizens could exert political influence, which increased trust in public authorities and other societal institutions, which again in the long term increased social trust.

Overall the effects of trust extend way beyond purely economic aspects. The research and report clearly show social benefits. People with greater levels of trust are more inclined to perceive that they have better control over their lives and better life chances. Social trust is regarded as an important component in promoting engagement in society, reducing criminality and increasing individual happiness.

Interestingly the Nordic manual or recipe for social trust is neither long nor complicated:

  • Act with openness and transparency, manage tax revenues with respect, and tackle all signs of corruption, however negligible they seem.

  • Create a general welfare state that prevents underclasses developing in society.
  • Support associations, not least financially. It is generally favourable if the state can have an open attitude to associations.
  • Raise the level of education in the population. Because of the importance of retaining relative economic homogeneity in the population, it is probably particularly important to focus on those with, or at risk of, low and/or incomplete education.Counteract unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment. This particularly implied efficient integration of refugees and immigrants in the labour market.
  • Counteract unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment. This particularly implied efficient integration of refugees and immigrants in the labour market.

For further reading and a link to download NCM´s report click here: Trust – the Nordic Gold.

Photograph: JONAA©Hans Vera