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Healthy, competent citizens: the Nordic plan for global competitiveness

| Text: Marie Preisler

Giant pan-Nordic drive for health and well-being takes off.

Improved public health and a larger and even better qualified labour force. That's what's needed to keep the Nordic welfare societies' global strength, agree the Nordic governments. They have launched a pan-Nordic programme to improve health and welfare. 

The programme is financed and managed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, and comprises seven independently run projects which will spend the next two years mapping and analysing the challenges faced by the various countries in a range of important health and welfare areas. The programme will also identify existing or new solutions which can contribute to the improvement of public health while preparing the Nordic labour force for increasingly tough global competition. 

The programme forms part of the joint Nordic globalisation initiative, agreed by the Nordic prime ministers a few years ago. The prime ministers identified climate, environment and energy as the first focus areas, and the second phase will now see co-operation to improve public health and strengthening the labour force. 

From challenge to strength

The argument goes that a healthy population is necessary to maintain productivity and a competitive edge, and that the Nordic countries need to increase and improve the quality of the labour force to keep up their very high level of welfare. In return targeted and effective measures could turn the Nordic welfare challenges to positions of strength.

Three of the seven projects focus on how to stimulate the Nordic countries' drive to expand their labour forces and improve their competence. They will do this by:

  • Including weaker groups in the labour market
  • Recruiting more apprentices to the Nordic labour markets 
  • Securing a greater return from new areas of growth. Case study on nano technology.

The remaining four projects in the programme aim to improve people's attitude to eating, exercise, alcohol and smoking, and to secure a top class health service. This will benefit citizens, but it will also improve the countries' competitive edge on the international market. The four health projects focus on:

  • Health improvement and disease prevention
  • The effect of measures aimed at the prevention of lifestyle illnesses
  • Nutrition, learning and health
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship within the health services

Cross-sector co-operation

A so-called 'kick-off' seminar in Copenhagen from 24 to 25 August represented the official start for the actual project. The seminar gave the participants a chance to discuss how to co-operate across the various projects. All the projects will co-operate cross-sector and will take into account gender equality issues.

Maria-Pia de Palo is a senior adviser with the Nordic Council of Ministers and head of the globalisation programme on health and welfare. She calls the programme a 'flagship', which she both hopes and expects will provide many practical solutions and an important common platform for knowledge:

"The Nordic countries share the same aims for health and welfare, but use different tools to achieve them. This programme's very different projects will give the Nordic region an overview and access to a common tool box across both countries and sectors, and this will give us an advantage when competing internationally," she says. 

The programme is revolutionary because it makes participating countries work across sectors. It is a challenge, says Lone Henriksen, head of the international office at Denmark's Ministry of Labour.

"It's a role we're not used to playing, but working across sectors represents a clear advantage. Right now everybody's talking about the crisis, but when we return to growth all parties will have to participate and gather strength."

Learning from each other

Karin Ringsberg is professor of public health at the Nordic University of Public Health (NHV). She agrees it is important with a shared drive for improving health and jobs, and that it will increase the chance of improving results. She heads the project looking at health improvement and disease prevention.

Karin Ringsberg and her group will develop and test methods to help families with pre-school children improve their knowledge about healthy living. Parents will be offered health courses.

Bjørn Halvorsen from the Nordic Centre for Welfare and Social Issues is responsible for a project aimed at analysing how the Nordic countries succeed in getting vulnerable groups off state support and into working life. The study will focus on the young, disabled and seniors. He is sure the different countries can learn form each other:

"The Nordic countries share the same problems and goals and have more or less the same institutional structure, yet they approach problems somewhat differently. We can learn from those differences," he says.

The Nordic Council of Ministers has earmarked €51.7m for the seven projects, which will run until 2012.

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