Minister for Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Ville Skinnari at the Annual Meeting of Heads of Missions on 24 August 2020
Dear Ambassadors and dear colleagues, good morning or good evening to you depending on where you are attending this meeting. It is a great pleasure to attend this gathering again, even though this year the meeting takes place in very different circumstances from what we are used to have.
I would like to thank you and your staff in the missions for your work during the past year, which has been very exceptional and placed new kinds of demands both on the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and society at large.
Together we have been resilient and, in my opinion, both the Ministry and Finland have managed well.
The difficult times are not over, but I firmly believe that together we will overcome also future challenges.
When I started in this post a year ago, I thought that things would go according to plan when it comes to both the government term and our work in the Foreign Ministry, but I knew nothing of what was ahead.
Last autumn was full of political turbulence in Finland, but the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring was what turned our everyday life upside down.
Whether we look at the matter from the viewpoint of the economy, human suffering or development, it is clear that the year 2020 will be chronicled in history books as one with the most critical global challenges in a long time.
What is unclear is how tragic this time will be remembered. This depends on how we manage to fight the immediate impacts of the pandemic but, above all, on how far-sighted the measures we take will be.
First aid is always first aid. It ensures that the patient survives. Examples include prompt action to prevent a wave of bankruptcies at home and changes that we made in our development cooperation to respond to the pandemic abroad.
Regarding the future, we are at a crossroads. At the very moment, states around the world are mobilising huge amounts of resources to revitalise their economies.
The key question we need to ask is are the measures we are taking revitalising in the short-term or are they measures that at the same time reform our society and the world in a sustainable manner. Are we upholding the past or the future?
My unambiguous answer is the future. It is vital that Finland and others channel their recovery measures to actions that support sustainable growth and create preconditions for overcoming the big challenges that we are facing.
”Build Back Better”, BBB, is a term that has become firmly established in international jargon. In Europe, we complement the phrase with the letter G. Our slogan ”Building Back Better and Greener” describes vividly the vision pursued in Finland.
The coronavirus pandemic is a huge tragedy, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to do things in new ways and to make long-term improvements for the world.
Thanks to the expertise we have in Finland, we have a chance to lead the way and be genuinely a bigger player in this context. We should make the necessity of green growth a virtue in the post-coronavirus world.
The pandemic was a severe blow to our country. Economic indicators are telling their harsh story. According to the Ministry of Finance, Finland’s gross domestic product (GDP) will drop by as much as 6 per cent in the current year, and general government finances will accumulate rapidly. We have more than 400,000 unemployed jobseekers.
Swift return to the growth track in the economy is essential for us to pull through the crisis with as little permanent damage as possible. This requires that the wheels of our economy keep turning and that we manage to safeguard Finnish workplaces.
Our export trade is in a key position in this respect, and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Team Finland network play a vital role as promoters of Finnish exports. Effective promotion of export and internationalisation, that is exporting goods abroad and working globally, is always important, but now it is more important than ever before.
It is essential that we ask the question whether our export machinery in a good shape when the markets start to recover from the shock caused by coronavirus and when the recovery measures begin to create new demand. The biggest risk is in that we stay put in the starting blocks when competition begins to tighten and markets are redistributed. The first to arrive are served first.
The other side of the coin reveals opportunities: stimulus packages will be directed to and new demand will be created in such fields as energy engineering, circular economy and digitalisation, in which Finland has special strengths.
Your Team Finland groups are in a key role in that you are able to identify new demand and tell about it to others. Just now it is particularly important to produce a sharp picture of the opportunities that the measures supporting the economy in your host countries offer and to inform about them to us at home. I request you to share your reports openly and extensively in order to make the maximum benefit of them.
Secondly, I want to discuss prestige services. There is a growing demand for them because of the pandemic situation. Growing competition is a big enough incentive to resort to all available means, but in my view, this is related especially to public stimulus projects. We need to identify opportunities early and be prepared to act quickly to promote our interests.
The consultative group on trade policy, which was set up in the spring, together with public promoters of export and internationalisation and business representatives have laid the groundwork for measures supporting our foreign trade. We have jointly outlined a situational picture of the problems in trade, sought solutions and tried to anticipate market changes.
The picture of the priorities for the near future are gradually being formed, but further clarifications are needed. The consultative group will continue its work in the autumn.
I would like to thank you, your teams, Business Finland and all Team Finland partners for your contribution to this important task.
To improve the effectiveness of our work, we will significantly strengthen our Team Finland resources. Permanent Secretary Hetemäki’s report on the post-crisis management and reconstruction strategy gives us guidance. It clearly states that greater emphasis should now be given to the promotion of export and internationalisation.
However, succeeding in this is not only a question of resources. New practices should also be developed.
The preparation of an export and international growth programme, mentioned in the Government Programme, was launched last autumn. It was due to be ready in early 2020, but the coronavirus crisis interrupted the work.
The preparation of the programme is now in its final stages. It will set out ways for promoting the creation in Finland of wide-ranging, business-led offerings and for resolving bottlenecks in funding, and for connecting the programme to the green growth that I mentioned earlier.
If this sounds abstract, let’s look at the past. In slightly simpler terms, we need something similar to what Jaakko Pöyry did in the decades following the Second World War to diversify our forest industry.
In the late 1950s, Pöyry designed the Äänekoski Mills, established abroad and worked as a driver for the growth of Finnish forest industries. There is genuine global demand for “new pöyrys” especially in environmental, energy and circular economies.
In recent years, Team Finland cooperation has led to positive improvements in export promotion services, but the world is not ready.
We are expected to set bolder targets and carefully listen to what companies have to say. I consider it particularly important that, in future, we should be better able to
establish cross-cutting common goals for the entire system promoting export and internationalisation
identify demand and communicate it in a timely manner to relevant parties
genuinely expand Team Finland activities from the target markets to our regions.
Now that Team Finland visits are not on our agenda, I think that it is very important that we make full use of available digital tools in our activities. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently exploring possibilities for a virtual promotion platform to quickly fill the gap caused by travel restrictions.
If we get such a platform, it would also strengthen the reputation of Finland as a country at the forefront in digitalisation in the same way as this virtual Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission is now doing. Overall, country brand communication and its development is very important. A good country image is a central instrument in the promotion of commercial and economic objectives, too.
I call for courage from our companies because, ultimately, our success depends on their ability to seize the opportunities of the markets. A new upturn in exports requires closer collaboration across different administrative sectors and between the public and private sectors than before. Naturally, seamless cooperation between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Business Finland plays a key part in this work.
Minister Lintilä and I have decided to trim our team to top performance in the course of this autumn. Success requires that we are genuinely the best team in promoting export and internationalisation in the world.
In June, we launched a new platform trial called Business-to-Government, ”B2G”. The “G” in the acronym refers not only to the public sector but also to large global companies. This, too, involves new kinds of collaborative activities.
Finland and Finnish companies have state-of-the-art expertise that can be used not only to benefit our own country but also to offer solutions abroad, even at the global level.
Huge potential can be found in, for example, energy and circular economy solutions, education, health technology, digitalisation, and in many other areas.
The aim of the platform is to strengthen our capacity to offer this expertise in situations where public and supranational players have a critical say in decision-making.
I think that because of our wide global network we in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs have exceptional opportunities to distinguish entities, to help relevant players “run into each other”, and to promote these to conclude deals, and even to advance industrial projects.
The B2G platform was set up primarily in order to promote our commercial interests, but it has a wide interface with the development goals of the 2030 Agenda. There is enormous potential for finding synergies between trade and development.
I believe that the platform will help us promote our goals to a considerable extent.
In trade policy, the effects of the coronavirus crisis remain to be seen but, unfortunately, the pandemic has not led to increasing cooperation at least at its initial phase, even though that would have been the best way to respond to the challenges posed by the disease.
Measures facilitating the import of critical products were made, but as for export, many countries, including for a bit also the European Union, resorted to restrictions. The situation has improved but the “me first” attitude is still visible in many places.
The coronavirus crisis has prompted also the EU to discuss whether certain production chains should be brought back home to strengthen our resilience. This is an important topic of discussion, but we should not jump to hasty conclusions.
Forcing production chains to follow certain channels would inevitably bring additional costs, which someone always has to bear. More effective means could include open markets and diversified production channels. But can we rely on them if all parties do not observe the same rules?
Ultimately, this is a question of political choices and it is important that the discussion on them is based on facts. The best that can be offered to Finland and Europe is to ensure that we have vibrant companies and that cost-effective alternatives are available to reduce dependence on individual sources.
We can help companies thrive by ensuring the functioning of the EU’s single market and a level competitive playing field.
Free trade agreements would bring more freedom of choice. It is important that we, as part of the EU, manage to conclude new agreements and that these enter into force promptly and are implemented without delay.
In trade policy, the year has proceeded much in the same way as the previous year. Tensions and protectionist pressures cause concern and no signs of any change is seen on the horizon.
The World Trade Organization, the WTO, suffers from paralysis as part of a wider crisis of multilateralism. The WTO will get a new Director-General this autumn. Independent of who will be elected to the post, it is clear that the person alone cannot fix the current situation. All WTO members’ common commitment will be needed.
Everybody is now looking at the US presidential election. If there will be a new President, the United States may become more cooperative in some matters, but it is unlikely that the tense undertone caused by the struggle for world power would radically change.
The question about the EU’s position in relation to the USA and China remains as topical as before. Free trade and rules-based trade at the heart of the activities is in our interest, but the EU must also be able to defend its interests in the face of unfair competition.
In the course of the autumn, the European Commission will prepare a new trade policy communication, which will speak about “open strategic autonomy”. It is important that it finds a balance between principles and means, suitable for the real world, and that it gives advice to the EU on how to become a stronger player without falling into protectionism.
I believe that collaboration is the only way towards sustainable results. Despite the difficult situation, we need to work together with different parties and seek a positive agenda that is based on common interests. It is the only way to restore the eagerly awaited trust and to create preconditions for the reform of the multilateral trading system.
The crisis has been unprecedented also for our partners in developing countries. The pandemic hit the whole world but, in relative terms, the citizens of the world's poorest countries suffer from it the most. It is possible that for the first time in 30 years, global poverty will start to increase.
Such indirect impacts of the coronavirus pandemic as restrictions on movement, declining food security, and contraction of the economy may cause even more damage than the virus itself. The World Food Programme, WFP, estimates that the number of hungry people may rise to as many as 270 million by the end of the year.
We in Finland have shouldered our international responsibility in the difficult situation. When the pandemic struck, we acted as the Finns always do: sat down, made a cup of coffee, didn’t make a fuss but decided to stick to our existing priorities in development cooperation. We determined that the best way for us to help our developing partner countries to cope with the crisis would be to pursue the long-term approach to development cooperation.
We have focused especially on strengthening the position of women, on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR rights), and on supporting economic life and workplaces and on promoting equality. In accordance with the Government Programme, all our actions have been climate-sustainable. We also granted flexibility to the organisations supported by us in both Finland and abroad to help them react to the changed conditions in the best possible way within the framework of the resources available to them.
Throughout the crisis, we have been channelling rapid, immediate support to help partners respond to the pandemic. The granted support and allocations under preparation amount to EUR 53 million. Together with several other countries, we are granting debt relief packages to developing countries. A friend in need is a friend indeed and will be remembered.
The European Union's Team Europe package was launched quickly, and I dare to say that without it the humanitarian situation in Africa, for example, would be much worse than it is today. Cooperation with Commissioner Urpilainen has been very active and, if not earlier, last spring made it clear that Finland has a heavy portfolio in the current European Commission.
The cooperation between the Nordic ministers responsible for development cooperation has been particularly intensive in matters relating to response to coronavirus, perhaps closer than ever before. The Nordic countries form a central group of reference for us in development policy and many other matters. Direct contacts with them from both Helsinki and your host countries should be kept active and open also in future.
Coronavirus has shown that it is essential to make more forceful investments in health security and to engage in closer global and regional cooperation. Finland's strong expertise in the sector offers a good foundation for further work. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs cannot remain outside this megatrend, even if the principal expertise is found in other government agencies. Dismantling the administrative silos in Finland is very important also in this area.
I’m happy that Director General Päivi Sillanaukee from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health will move on to a staff rotation scheme in the Foreign Ministry and work as a thematic ambassador responsible for health and wellbeing on our B2G platform. The development of a vaccine is a target of great interest now. The global distribution of the vaccine must be equitable, affordable and transparent independent of where the vaccine is developed and from where it is funded.
The coronavirus crisis has caused not only huge human distress but also economic damages of such dimensions that development cooperation alone cannot provide enough resources to redress them. UN Secretary-General recently estimated that we would need 10 per cent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) to get back on track. That is, billions of euros. This would be on top of the investment required by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The coordination of humanitarian, development and peace efforts, the so-called nexus approach, has worked well in helping outline the sustainability of development impacts. However, there is a risk that the triple-nexus concept will ultimately be like a stool that looks steady but on which one doesn’t dare to rest with one's whole weight. As sustainable development requires economic growth, trade should be considered as the fourth leg of the nexus concept. That would certainly give us a steady chair to rest on.
We need to strengthen such synergies between trade and development that simultaneously help us support the success of Finnish expertise in the world. We are at a crossroads in this respect, too, and when the crisis is over, we have an opportunity to do things differently. The remaining silos must be dismantled to give way to synergies between trade and development, and the private sector must be involved in voluntary work to promote sustainable development. The goals of the 2030 Agenda do not materialise without a strong input by the private sector.
In various parts of the world, solutions are being sought for the challenges related to climate policy, green and sustainable development and human rights. Finland is known for both its technological and social innovations and people listen to us. We are highly interested in having a say in what kinds of solutions are chosen. We must identify opportunities for influence and exercise influence. Distinguished ambassadors, this is where your role is central.
The United Nations’ 75th anniversary will be celebrated in the autumn. The world organisation is starting to show in the Helsinki streetscape.
In addition to UNU-WIDER, UNTIL, the United Nations Office for Project Services and UNOPS Social Impact Investing Initiative have already brought their offices in Helsinki. This shows that Finland is held in high regard. It is important that we make full use of these resources. Any new ideas that would encourage new actors to base their offices in Finland are most welcome.
We are currently outlining principles on policy coherence and effectiveness in development policy to be applicable across government terms, and I’m happy that we have a parliamentary monitoring group that is now starting its work. We continue to aim to direct 0.7 per cent of GNI to development cooperation and 0.2 per cent of GNI to the least developed countries.
The preparation of the Government's Africa strategy is well under way. The process has revealed that there is much expertise and interest in Africa in Finnish society, even to a surprisingly large extent. This is a very valuable resource for both the Government and, on a wider scale, for the development of relations with the continent filled with diversity.
Strategies on paper do not change the world, but people who read them can do so. I expect that, in the long term, the focus of our Africa policy will shift from development cooperation towards more reciprocity and trade-based contacts.
However, this requires bold steps. Finland, that is, Finnish decision-makers, authorities and companies, must have the courage to jump on board the Africa train. We cannot afford to stay at the station and just look around. The Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK) published its own Africa report (Afrikka-politiikan uusi aika, published in Finnish) recently, and it is worth reading.
The autumn would be a busy time even without the coronavirus crisis: our campaign for a seat in the UN Human Rights Council is getting more intense; the Reform of Development Cooperation Practices (so-called KeTTU reform), will be soon brought to conclusion; and the 2020 Afghanistan pledging conference to be held in November will be a huge effort for the whole Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
This year, we have managed to bring many important processes to conclusion. Finland’s Taxation for Development action programme 2020–2023, which was launched in June, was a success and is something that will carry far into the future. At the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July, we presented our Voluntary National Review (VNR) of progress in the implementation and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The feedback we received was very good, and Prime Minister Marin’s address at the launch event guaranteed impressive international attention.
This provides a good basis for responding to the challenges ahead in the autumn and next year.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring was hard for the whole personnel of the Ministry. Once more, I wish to thank you all for your work in these exceptional circumstances and ask you to convey my thanks to the members of your teams and their loved ones.
I'd like to say that the crisis is over and we can start returning to normal conditions but, unfortunately, the current outlook does not allow that. I’m happy to note that according to the wellbeing at work surveys, conducted in the spring, the situation as a whole has remained reasonably good.
At the same time, many of us have experienced stress either because of a heavy workload or because of other reasons related to the side effects of remote work. In the missions abroad, the coronavirus situation, problems related to the healthcare system, and difficulties in leaving the duty station even temporarily have been stressful for many colleagues and their loved ones. In future, special attention must be paid to coping at work.
We have also learned many new things. We have taken a major leap in the use of remote connections both in internal communications and in our contacts with external actors. This doesn’t mean that working in the office in the Ministry or missions would become unnecessary, but remote work will have many efficiency aspects and positive effects for us in future.
We in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs have also been acknowledged for our active and flexible approach to the management of the crisis at government level. I am sincerely very proud of our whole team in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Thank you once more!
I wish you all very fruitful discussions at the Annual Meeting of Heads of Mission and every success for the rest of the year!