Top leaders descended on Davos

A veritable “who’s who” of Norway’s most influential citizens were mingling in Davos, Switzerland to share ideas with other rich and powerful people at the World Economic Forum. Among them was Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke about the so-called “Norwegian model” before top Norwegian companies invited 2,500 Forum participants to lunch on Saturday.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg was happy to talk about the Norwegian part of the Nordic model at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on Friday. At right, Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. PHOTO: World Economic Forum/swiss image.ch

Stoltenberg was eager to speak Friday about why Norway has succeeded at combining a social welfare state with an efficient, market-oriented economy and spreading the wealth in the process. It’s not just Norway’s oil income that’s fueled the country’s success, he notes. “It’s completely possible to ruin an economy, even with oil money,” Stoltenberg told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) before leaving for Davos.

Instead, Stoltenberg and a string of governments before his have built Norway up from the ruins of World War II to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world and, according to the UN, the best place to live. On Friday, new figures showed another dip in what already was among the lowest unemployment rates in the world. Stoltenberg promised he wouldn’t gloat or brag, but instead was keen to share Norway’s experience with other countries’ leaders.

Stoltenberg, second from right, makes a point during Friday's panel discussion on the economies of the Nordic countries, including Norway's. PHOTO: World Economic Forum/swiss image.ch

“We have shown that it’s possible to have a society where we value fair distribution of wealth along with dynamic private business,” Stoltenberg said. “But we still have our unsolved problems.” Nor is it realistic for other countries to copy the Norwegian model or the systems of other Nordic countries that also boast high standards of living.

“But it’s possible to be inspired,” Stoltenberg told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Different countries all have different national conditions. In Norway we’ve been lucky to have a labour movement with a strong feeling of social responsibility, with which it’s possible to agree on policies.”

The World Economic Forum gathers around 2,500 political and business leaders every year, including around 40 heads of state this year. Stoltenberg, who also planned to meet with philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Gates while in Davos, said he’s experienced growing interest in Norway’s way of doing things especially since the global finance crisis hit in 2008. He planned to point to cooperation between government and the labour movement, gender equality and high levels of education as the main reasons why Norway has fared so well even during the crisis.

Norway's Crown Prince Haakon was among those in the audience at the World Economic Forum's panel discussion on the Norwegian and Nordic models on Friday. PHOTO: World Economic Forum/swiss image.ch

After sharing the stage with other Nordic leaders at a packed seminar also attended by Crown Prince Haakon, Stoltenberg turned the spotlight over to some of Norway’s biggest companies that were hosting a luncheon featuring Norwegian food on Saturday. Industrial concerns Orkla and Norsk Hydro, oil company Statoil, Norway’s biggest bank DnB NOR, telecoms firm Telenor, power company Statkraft and fertilizer firm Yara were sponsoring the event.

“It’s a good way to profile Norway,” said Orkla chairman Stein Erik Hagen. His company was among the few privately owned multi-nationals backing the event, since the Norwegian state is a major shareholder in most of the others. Hagen, meanwhile, had other challenges to juggle as he tried to enjoy this year’s World Economic Forum, because of dissatisfied shareholders and angry former executives who feel Hagen hasn’t boosted their investments. Some were calling for his resignation.

Indeed Hagen has been among those criticizing some of Stoltenberg’s policies, not least the country’s controversial tax on net worth. But even politicians from the opposition parties seem proud of the Norwegian model that was in focus on Friday.

“The world is becoming more Nordic,” Kristin Clemet, a former government minister for the Conservative Party who now heads think tank Civita in Oslo. “Open market economies linked to a welfare state are becoming more popular, and common.” Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, from the Labour Party that Stoltenberg leads, agreed.

He remembered how Norway was barely paid any attention at the first World Economic Forum he attended 20 years ago. Norway, he told Aftenposten, was viewed as having taxes that were too high, a labour movement that was too strong and a public sector that was far too large. “That was hard to hear for a sensitive young man,” Støre said. “Now the pendulum has swung.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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