Social sustainability, SDG implementation and Finnish child poverty: What role for the new wellbeing counties? 

What role will the new wellbeing counties play in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) implementation? Does the creation of this new meso-level of governance represent a re-centralisation of responsibilities or a further fragmentation of effort in terms of Finland’s SDG response?

Given their broad range of tasks, the municipal level was responsible for around 60% of Finnish SDG implementation1. The implementation process is however voluntary and piecemeal with municipalities tending to focus on locally relevant goals, though some interventions were based on statuary requirements. Above the municipal level, the Prime Minister’s Office has a coordinating role but remains under-resourced for this task, meaning that national coordination duties are dispersed to the line ministries with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs taking the lead, as much of the Finnish SDG response is filtered through the EU framework.  

In June 2022, Finland again topped the UN Sustainable Development Report’s2 list for SDG implementation, albeit with an unchanged score of 86.51%. Finland, moreover, clearly derives an element of ‘soft power’ from its approach to participation in the SDG process based on its role and visibility in this multilateral forum. Difficulties however remain, particularly in respect of institutional capacity and coordination. 

In a project3 recently finalised in cooperation with colleagues from ITLA, we addressed the issue of child poverty – covered by SDG target indicator 1.2 – where, by 2030, countries are expected to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’. Despite the claim in a government press release from 3/6/224 that ‘Finland has achieved its goals related to poverty reduction’ in practice, this only refers to the headline SDG 1 ‘no poverty’ which concerns absolute not child poverty.  

Using the AROP (at-risk-of-poverty) measure, adjusted yearly, for children under 18 years in households earning below 60% of the median income, we show that child poverty levels have remained fairly static at, or above, 10% over the last 30 years and that it is unlikely that this will be halved by 2030 to meet the SDG 1.2 target. In this light we argue that child poverty can be characterised as a persistent, even ‘wicked’ problem, ‘the forgotten step-child’ of Finland’s social sustainability effort. We therefore asked why Finland, despite its prominence as a global leader in SDG implementation, continued to struggle with this issue, noting, additionally, that it is increasingly confined to specific social groups such as one-parent families and families with an immigrant background. 

Institutional and organisational complexity, we suggest, rather than differences over ideology, appear to explain the persistence of child poverty at levels above 10% in Finland. This conclusion was based on our understanding of the ad hoc nature of the current social security system and the range of individual social benefits it provides. This contributes greatly to the complexity of the child poverty issue and is evident from the data which shows that policy changes have not had a significant impact on the headline child poverty rate over time. The need for social security reform was highlighted in the recent Interim Report of the Social Security Committee5 with harmonisation and the creation of a single payment benefit recommended. This would certainly reduce institutional complexity but implementation is clearly key as the problems with single payment Universal Credit in the UK have shown. 

The transfer of governance responsibilities over social welfare, family policy, child guidance and healthcare to the wellbeing counties at the beginning of 2023 can be understood as a process of administrative re-centralisation, particularly where the delivery of health care is concerned, but it also raises the spectre of a further fragmentation of effort over SDG implementation. Social sustainability was not well served by ‘municipal voluntarism’ as issues like child poverty are particularly difficult to address, with responsibility spread across many organisations and administrative levels. There are few ‘easy wins’ here and local ‘experiments’ are difficult for legal reasons.  

The multistakeholder implementation ‘model’ set out in SDG 17, promoting a bottom-up, ‘whole of society’ approach, however requires clarity over the prospective division of labour, agreed models of cooperation and the setting and monitoring of common objectives. Paradoxically though it may also require some ‘hard’ steering from central government if SDG implementation – particularly relating to social sustainability issues – is to be adequately addressed. If the same ‘voluntarist’ model is adopted by the wellbeing counties then we will likely end up with an incompatible mix of plans and visions with little advancement in terms of social sustainability goals. 

Precious little information is currently available on the state of play within the wellbeing counties on how they intend to proceed. Steering could, perhaps, come in the form of performance budgeting or pro-forma auditing relating to SDG implementation in their areas of competence. What is clear however is that a significant amount of ‘re-connecting work’ still needs to be done to ensure, not only that the new bodies are able to continue the work of the municipalities on SDG implementation in their newly assigned areas of competence, but actually to advance it in the area of social sustainability, thus more fully mainstreaming it in Finland’s overall SDG response.  

1 Kuntaliitto (2021) Sustainable Cities and Municipalities in Finland 2030 Foresight Report. 
2 Sachs et al. (2022) From Crisis to Sustainable Development: the SDGs as Roadmap to 2030 and Beyond. Sustainable Development Report 2022. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
3 Smith C.J, Virtanen P, Hiilamo A and Ristikari T (forthcoming 2023) ‘Framing child poverty in Finland as a ‘wicked problem’: Complexity, capacity and service integration in the context of multilevel governance’ In: Lippi A and Tsekos T.N. (eds) Policy, Design, Capacity and the Sustainable Development Goals Uncertain Environments and Wicked Problems. Emerald Publishing. 
4 Smith C.J, Virtanen P, Hiilamo A and Ristikari T (forthcoming 2023) ‘Framing child poverty in Finland as a ‘wicked problem’: Complexity, capacity and service integration in the context of multilevel governance’ In: Lippi A and Tsekos T.N. (eds) Policy, Design, Capacity and the Sustainable Development Goals Uncertain Environments and Wicked Problems. Emerald Publishing. 
5 Interim report of the Social Security Committee. Publications of the Finnish Government 2023:26