Finland and Russia strengthen cooperation in social and health sector

2.1.2012 9.01
News item N5-58934

Finland and Russia aim to intensify their mutual collaboration in the area of social welfare and health care. Last November the two countries signed a memorandum of cooperation designed to achieve this. According to Ministerial Adviser Olli Kuukasjärvi, the agreement enables cooperation on legislation, a swifter response in the event of disease pandemics, and can make it easier to investigate cases of fraudulent medical practitioners, an issue which has been prominent in Finland in recent months.

The Finnish Minister of Social Affairs and Health Paula Risikko and Russia's Deputy Minister of Health and Social Development Veronica Skvortsova signed the memorandum in St Petersburg on 25 November last year. The agreement was signed at the time of the annual ministerial meeting of the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Wellbeing (NDPHS).

Kuukasjärvi says that having an official memorandum signed at government level gives a political stamp of approval to the bilateral cooperation. "It safeguards Finnish and Russian bilateral interests, which do not necessarily gain much prominence in multilateral collaboration."

The aims of the neighbouring area cooperation in social welfare and health care envisaged by the memorandum cover such things as the promotion of healthy lifestyles, stopping the spread of infectious diseases - such as HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and hepatitis - and the development of legislation and the organisation of health care and social services. The main channels that will be used in this involve exchanges of information and experts, plus collaboration between social welfare and health care agencies.

Neighbouring area cooperation diminishing

The last time the two countries last had a similar memorandum on cooperation was at the beginning of the 2000s. "At that time neighbouring area cooperation with Russia grew so rapidly that there was no discernable need for cooperation between the central governments," says Kuukasjärvi.

Neighbouring area cooperation refers to bilateral collaboration coordinated by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs conducted with Russian border areas, such as with the Murmansk and Karelian regions of Northwest Russia and the St Petersburg area. Such cooperation has its roots in the 1990s, following the demise of the Soviet Union and resulting social upheaval when the developmental needs of Russia in health and social welfare became more acute, but also more openly appreciated.

With Finland's accession to the EU in 1995, the Union had an immediate interface with Russia in the form of the 1300 kilometre-long border between Finland and Russia. The enlargement of the European Union and the inception of the Finnish-pioneered Northern Dimension to EU affairs brought about a stronger focus on the possibilities for project-based cooperation with the neighbouring area.

Projects carried out in the second half of the 1990s and the early 2000s included cooperation projects in primary health care, school health education and prevention of youth social exclusion, the reduction of infectious diseases and health promotion work aimed especially for youth affected by poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and violence.

The 2003-2005 Action Plan for Cooperation with Areas in Northwest Russia and the Baltic States in the Field of Social Protection and Health was in many ways a high point of neighbouring area cooperation, incorporating the strategic concerns of the collaboration with Russia that is now being extended by the 2011 memorandum. Since the mid-2000s, though, the pace of bilateral neighbouring area cooperation has diminished, hence the role of the central governments now in re-emphasising it.

Mutual concerns

One of Russia's biggest problems in social welfare and health care is the spread of infectious diseases. "The prevalence of HIV particularly among drug users is a major problem. Tuberculosis too occurs to a completely different extent than in Finland. Russia is slowly awakening to the fact that there must be cooperation on these issues," says Kuukasjärvi.

Russia has made the promotion of healthy lifestyles a priority concern. "Obesity is not a similar problem in Russia as it is in Finland, but smoking is widespread and physical exercise is hardly a national pastime. The Russians reckon that Finland has something to contribute on this score."

But Finland is by no means a mere benefactor in the partnership. There has been fruitful collaborative work between the two countries, for instance on tuberculosis. "Many new perspectives have opened up for Finnish tuberculosis specialists."

The bilateral memorandum of cooperation supplements the multilateral cooperation of the Northern regions.

Gaining from the NDPHS context

One of the most prominent multilateral undertakings is the Northern Dimension Partnership in Public Health and Social Wellbeing (NDPHS), mentioned above, a collaborative initiative started in 2003, following a Finnish proposal made the previous year, and bringing together 10 countries (Finland, Russia, the Baltic States and Nordic countries with the exception of Denmark) the European Commission and eight international organisations.

The work of the NDPHS focuses on two broad priority areas: to cut the spread of major communicable diseases and prevent life-style related non-communicable diseases, and to enhance people's levels of social wellbeing and to promote socially rewarding lifestyles.

The Partnership's mission is to further these processes by intensifying cooperation, assisting the NDPHS protagonists in capacity building, and by bolstering coordination between international activities within the Northern Dimension area. Finland took over the chair of the NDPHS for two years from the beginning of 2012.

Finland now has an opportunity to influence the direction of the Partnership. "The promotion of project financing needs to be highlighted. Because Finland's finances for neighbouring area work are becoming less, new sources of funding for cooperation projects need to be found," says Kuukasjärvi.

Kuukasjärvi particularly has in mind EU-sourced funding. "Social and health sector projects have received rather little support during the current EU funding period. We have to try to improve this."

By Maija Luotonen and Mark Waller