Wednesday, March 14, 2007

North by North West - 1

Are Scandinavians Sanctimonious??

A 2-pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Introduction: Most of my readers would be familiar with the previous government’s decision to request bilateral aid agencies, except for a select few, to pack up. If you are not, it is only the reasons that are interesting and relevant to this paper (the policy itself is likely to be rescinded a la the Governor of Tamil Nadu), and it is these that I will try to enumerate. The official reasons for this were that the previous government saw India as a soon-to-be developed country and wanted to signal a change in status from aid recipient to aid giver, that overseas development assistance was not very much anyway in per capita terms and as a percentage of GDP, and that the amount of bilateral aid the government received was not worth the effort the government put into receiving it. The unofficial reason was that India was at the receiving end of opprobrium from some of the donor countries in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear blasts, and the government did not feel that providing tiny quantities of money gave a small country the right to question India on security issues. And, that dealing with these countries, especially the Scandinavians, was trying because they were sanctimonious.

This paper attempts to address this last point. Many of us in the development business have had to deal with Scandinavians – they have a plethora of aid agencies operating in India and a mafia-like hold over international recruitment in the UN system. Whether they are sanctimonious or not is a matter of perception. Do they have the right to be sanctimonious? This paper has a short introduction to Scandinavians in general and a longer treatise on their treatment of minorities that concludes that they are not very different from anybody else - just quieter and more systematic.

Scandinavia and Scandinavians: The popular perception of Scandinavia is one of a giant refrigerator populated by tall, blonde and socialistically inclined men and women who look alike, think alike, and, except for a brief period in history when they were busy looting and pillaging the rest of Europe and discovering America, want to make the world a better place in which everyone uses cellular phones. In fact, Scandinavia consists of the countries Denmark, Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. They are all small, especially Faroe Islands, a protectorate of Denmark, and Iceland, population 295,000, which is often the subject of discussions on the viability of small countries who have to maintain a central bank, an airline, a national football team with aspirations of qualifying for the World Cup Finals, and other such trappings. Their histories are intertwined – Norway won freedom from Sweden only in 1905, Finland was a grand duchy within Sweden before being annexed by Russia and winning independence only in 1917, Sweden and Iceland were part of Denmark, etc., etc. Today, Norway and Iceland are not part of the EU but are part of the EEA, Sweden and Denmark are part of the EU and the EEA but not the Euro zone, while Finland is a member of all three entities. They all speak different dialects with Germanic roots except Finland whose language is Finno-Ugric in origin.

The Stereotypes: A Danish friend of mine once said that understanding Scandinavians is quite easy – the Danes are the bosses and keep Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands alive with their financial aid. Norway is a mountainous country and its people are constantly disappearing into their hunting lodges, drinking too much akvavit and then mistaking their fellow hunters for moose and shooting them. The Swedes are the businesslike ones, the only time they are not thinking about money is when they are passed out on the streets of Copenhagen which, because of its cheaper alcohol, is to Swedes what Daman and Diu are to Gujaratis. Finland is a predominantly rural country, and Finns are basically inward-looking villagers with a closed mentality that is more Russian than western. While this is not quite true (Iceland has long ceased to depend upon Danish aid), it is quite a helpful understanding of stereotypes in Scandinavia.

Minority Rights in Scandinavia - The Saami: The far north of Scandinavia was originally inhabited by an indigenous community called the Saami, who converted from a hunter-gatherer society into one dependent upon fishing (specifically those along the coastline) and, with the domestication of the reindeer, reindeer husbandry. Land was held on a communal basis. There were no international boundaries in this region at that time, and thus few restrictions to the movement of herds. The Saami practiced a way of life that emphasized a close linkage between their livelihood, their social and cultural systems, and the harsh natural environment of the far north. Today, there are about 75,000 Saami of whom most are in Norway.

They gradually came into the contact of explorers and adventurers from the south (about the 13th century), who were followed by missionaries and traders and finally by arms of the states of Norway, Sweden and Russia who made informal agreements on borderlines and taxation rights in the Saami area. It was also a period when southerners began to settle in the area and practice fishing and settled agriculture and thus compete for natural resources with the Saami. Churches and businesses regulating the Saami's access to the fur trade were gradually set up. The process of colonization thus began.

This was formalized with the signing of the Lapp Codicil in 1751 that divided out the Saami area by defining national boundaries in the far north. It rendered the Norwegian Saami as separate from the Swedish, Finn and Russian Saami and restricted the movement of reindeer herds across national boundaries. At the same time stress was given to rational agriculture, thus encouraging settlers from the south to fence and 'individualise' the land and block access to Saami reindeer herders for whom land was a communally held property. Norwegian, Swedish and Finn policy towards the Saami differed in some aspects, but all were aimed at colonizing the far north. I will concentrate upon events in Norway, which has the most significant Saami population.

The first signs of a backlash to this process appeared in the 1840s with the beginning of a Saami revivalist movement under the leadership of Lars Levi Laestidius that culminated in the Kautokeino rebellion of 1852. The Laestidian sect attacked the local merchant-cum-sheriff, the local liquor dealer and the local vicar - the authorities subdued the rebellion and 2 leaders were subsequently beheaded. A process of rapid Norwegianisation followed. In the 1850s, the Saami lost the right to be educated in their own language with a decree enforcing the teaching of only Norwegian in schools. In 1902, the Land Act stipulated that land could be transferred only to Norwegian citizens who could speak, read and write Norwegian. Social Darwinist thinking provided ideological legitimacy to the process with the claim that the Saami would fall prey to evolution and natural selection. There was a simultaneous increase in interest of mainstream populations in Saami territories due to the discovery of ores and national security considerations. All these served to legitimize the assimilation policy of the state and provide little space to ethnic diversity and cultural differences.

In Norway, although the official assimilation policy ended in 1948, attitudes to the Saami did not change. Additionally, disadvantages suffered by the Saami in the process of assimilation did not disappear - language, tradition, culture and perceptions of history and identity are values that are difficult to regain. A large number of committees and organizations were set up to facilitate development in Saami regions between 1950 and 1975, Norway's political parties tried to include Saami aspirations within their manifestos, much effort was made to devolve power, but nothing reached the roots of Saami identity issues until the Alta Dam agitation.

The Alta Dam – The Narmada of the North: The Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Administration issued comprehensive plans in the 1970s to develop the Alta-Kautokeino water system on the Finnmark plateau, including a dam that would inundate the Saami community at Masi. The plans also involved the construction of a road across reindeer grazing land and calving areas. The reindeer owners who were affected by this and the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature took the state to court to prevent the development in 1979. The case gained symbolic value, with Saami and environmentalist interests joining forces in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Demonstrations were staged at the construction site and Saami activists started a hunger strike in front of the Storting in Oslo. The dam was completed but this issue dominated the debate about Saami politics throughout the 1970s. The Saami's situation received public attention across Scandinavia and many claim that it cleared the air for a better climate for Saami politics in the 1980s. The Alta Dam provided a new life to the Saami movement for recognition of their rights and identity, in Norway and across the region.

Conclusion: It is difficult to escape the conclusion that if you want to screw a community completely and in a sustainable manner, this is the way to go about it. Move over, Idi Amin, Stalin, Saddam Hussain, Australians and Gujaratis, there is a clear champion.

Chaudhuri, Ajit, “EU-Russia Relations and the Role of Small Regional Formations”, a dissertation at the London School of Economics in 2001
Minde, Henry, 'The Saami Movement, the Norwegian Labour Party and Saami Rights', on the internet
Rassmussen, Paul Nyrup, “The Danish Way”, a presentation by the then PM at the London School of Economics in November 2001
Saxena NC, “The New Government Policy on Bilateral Aid to India”, commissioned by the Embassy of Sweden, October 2003
“Small but Perfectly Formed”, The Economist issue of 1st January 1998

Acronyms / Jargon Watch:
Bilateral Aid Agencies: These are aid agencies of foreign governments, such as Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), Department for International Development (DfID of the British government) or Norwegian Aid (Norad). They spend their country’s tax revenue, are answerable to their respective parliaments and are usually part of their country’s foreign policy.
EC, EEA, EU: European Community, European Economic Area, European Union
GDP: Gross Domestic Product
GoI: Government of India

1 comment:

blaha said...

actually the only countries belonging to scandinavia are sweden, denmark and norway. finland, iceland, greenland and the faroe islands are not a part of the so called scandinavia, a three-country union. they are however referred to, except greenland, as the nordic countries together with the scandinavian countries, norway, denmark and sweden. greenland is not a part of the nordic countries since it does not even belong to europe but actually north america, if we´re speaking in geographic terms.
and yes, swedes are sanctimonious, and in the case of samis so are the finns and norwegians but the danes have never had their hands on any samis. as far as i know.

from an icelander brought up in sweden