The little country leading the way - The Reykjavik Grapevine

The little country leading the way

The little country leading the way

Published June 18, 2008

We know that Iceland has one of the highest fertility rates in the European Union, one of the highest divorce rates, and the highest percentage of women working outside the home. So when you add those factors together, it equals lots of children, broken homes and absent parents. And if you add the cold and dark winters into the mix, and the cost of living, one would imagine this to be a cocktail for misery and suffering. Yet according to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index rankings, Iceland is the best country to live in. Icelanders are also ranked among the happiest people in the world. So how do these things go together?

Well I’m not really sure to be honest, but I do know this…
Levels of social capital and community networks in Iceland are extremely strong, and this is one of the most powerful drivers of life satisfaction in wealthy countries. Families and communities seem to support each other, regardless of family structure.
According to the Legatum Prosperity Index (2007), tests on data from the world’s richest countries (those with an average income per person greater than US $15,000) found that the relationship between life satisfaction and factors such as strength of social communities, unemployment, and leisure time, were much stronger than the relationship between life satisfaction and income. And when one considers that Iceland has such strong community networks, one of the lowest unemployment rates, and that Icelanders see outdoor recreation as an important part of their lives, it is no wonder then that they are quite content overall.
Another important factor in determining how satisfied people are with their lives is their sense of freedom of choice. Iceland possesses one of the most politically free societies in the world. Iceland grants its citizens an exceptionally high level of political rights and civil liberties. Opportunities for political and social mobility are also significant, with women being particular beneficiaries – as discussed in more detail below.  
Iceland has come a long way from being one of the poorest nations in Europe 100 years ago. Today, Iceland has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world; they have the highest life expectancy for men in the world, and are not far behind for women; they are the only country in NATO with no armed forces; they have the highest literacy rate in the world; they have one of the highest employment rates; they have the highest ratio of mobile telephones to population; one of the highest rates of connectivity to the internet; the fastest-expanding banking system in the world; booming export business; clean unpolluted air; and they are the leaders in the sustainable power movement.

Not bad for a small country of about 310,000 people. As a foreigner, I am in awe that such a small country is so successful and at the forefront in so many areas. But it’s the social phenomena that are most impressive – peace, democracy, renewable energy, equality, women’s rights and gay rights.

Iceland has become the leader in new fuel technologies and geothermal energy. With 70 percent of its energy renewable, derived mostly from geothermal sources, Iceland is at the forefront of the sustainable power movement. The country aims to be a predominantly hydrogen-powered economy by 2050 and many world leaders are watching with intense curiosity.

Another notable social phenomenon, as highlighted above, is gender equality and women’s rights in Iceland. Compared to a lot of countries, Iceland is really spearheading women’s rights, with the world’s first elected female head of state (Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, elected in 1980 and retiring in 1996), and with about one third of parliamentary seats held by women. Equally significant too, is the fact that women in sport get just as much media coverage as men in sport. As a foreigner coming from Australia, where hardly anyone even knows that the world champions in women’s cricket and netball are the Aussies, or that the Australian women’s hockey and basketball teams are ranked within the top five countries in the world, it has been refreshing to see Iceland recognize and respect women for their sporting talents.

And whilst women’s rights are recognized and upheld, so too are gay rights. Iceland is a very liberal country when it comes to gay rights and the majority of the public are supportive of homosexuality. Homosexuals have many more rights in Iceland than they do in many other western countries such as Australia and America. Homosexual couples in Iceland are on equal footing with heterosexual couples – they are allowed to register their partnership, and have the same rights as anybody else when it comes to adoption and artificial reproduction procedures. This eliminates almost all discrimination against homosexuals in the system (with the exception of being allowed to register as a couple in religious organizations).

So if you can overlook the weather aspect and the cost of living here, Iceland really is a remarkable place. Icelanders are determined, industrious and resilient people. They work and play hard. Because of the harsh environment and isolated location, I guess it’s a case of “survival of the fittest” and maybe that’s why they are successful. I thought that Iceland being such a small place would equal a “small mentality” but Iceland proves me wrong here. Hmmmm, I’m liking this place more and more… and I think I might stay here a little longer…

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