|From Toronto Globe and Mail, Wednesday, August 7, 2002
True North strong and third
How have the Nordic countries replaced Canada atop the UN Human Development
Index? HENRY MILNER says it's because they have 'civic literacy'
about HENRY MILNER
The latest United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which
combines per capita income, educational enrollment and life expectancy,
confirms that after a long run in the No. 1 spot, Canada is no longer
what our Prime Minister is pleased to call "the best country in the
world." Last year we slipped down third spot; this year, we remain
3. When the level of poverty and other measures of inequality are
included, Canada drops to 12th place -- behind Spain and Italy.
There is a message in these figures that we seldom hear these
Despite globalization, European integration, the demise of state
socialism and the ubiquity of the American model, the Scandinavian
welfare state has not only defied those who predicted its demise, but
How has this been brought about? My research focuses on what
"civic literacy." High civic-literacy countries in Scandinavia and
Europe typically adopt policies to encourage media consumption and
adult education, improving the quality and availability of information
partisan political debate. Better policy discussion leads, ultimately,
Because informed individuals can better identify the policy options
different parties, and thus their effect upon their own interests and
those of others, it is not surprising that the distance between rich
poor is smaller in the high civic-literacy countries. Those excluded
through lack of civic competence from informed participation tend to
those at the bottom of the social ladder, and they pay the cost.
Civic literacy is central to Scandinavian social democracy. The
position paper on EU membership of the Swedish Social Democratic Party
begins by proclaiming: "that everybody is both desirous and capable
of . .
. acquiring knowledge and insights which will enable him to play a
the life of the community."
The late Swedish prime minister Olof Palme once said that he
to think of Sweden not as a social democracy but as a "study-circle
democracy." The idea of a "study-circle democracy" is associated most
all with the efforts of the ABF (the Workers' Educational Association),
affiliated with the main trade-union confederation, LO, and the Social
Democratic Party. In Umea (the city in the north of Sweden where I
teach), the ABF offers courses in organizing groups and co-operatives,
understanding media, and a broad range of contemporary issues, as well
as languages, computers, art, music, and nature appreciation. ABF is
largest of 11 adult education associations that together annually
organize study circles for just under half of Swedish adults.
Perhaps even more important in enhancing civic literacy are policies
reduce dependence on commercial electronic media by promoting
newspaper reading and the development and use of non-commercial
electronic sources of public-affairs knowledge. Norway, Finland and
Sweden subsidize daily newspapers that are not leaders in their markets.
The subsidies traditionally account for 3 to 4 per cent of all newspaper
revenues. This is one reason why every day there is one daily newspaper
printed for every two Scandinavians, compared to less than 1 for every
five Canadians. And, with practically everyone reading newspapers,
should not be surprised that the Swedes led the International Adult
Literacy Survey, with only 6 per cent of functionally illiterate adults,
one-third the proportion in Canada and one quarter that in the United
Related to such measures are concerted efforts to encourage the
of books, through both subsidies to publishing and distribution, and
programs offered by local public libraries. Libraries in Sweden, for
example, provide free home delivery for shut-ins and services to
hospitals and homes for the elderly. And a special newspaper, 8 Sidor,
containing national and international news articles written in easy
Swedish for those with learning difficulties or new to the Swedish
language, is widely distributed.
District public-health nurses, at the time of the first post-natal
visit, leave behind The Child's First Book, a compilation of rhymes
stories for children, to underscore that reading, like proper nutrition
hygiene, is vital to the development of a healthy child.
Despite the recent inroads of commercial broadcasting, it is
still fair to
say that in all four Nordic countries public-service channels remain
dominant, if not always in audience share, certainly in setting the
standard for news and public affairs. The proportion of Swedes watching
at least one of the public television news broadcasts has remained
steady, even among young people.
Civic literacy is also enhanced by regulations governing the
and accessibility of information related to the public interest.
Regulations ensure accessibility of information. All tax-return
information is in the public domain, and all public institutions must
open their books to interested citizens, with ombudspersons appointed
to ensure that this is done. Measures currently being implemented will
make access to high-speed Internet links effectively universal.
All of this means that the great majority of citizens is able
to gain the
necessary knowledge to make rational, informed choices and apply them
to the decision-making process. As the UN data show, such societies
benefit from the advantages of globalization without having a substantial
minority of its citizens unfairly pay the cost, as is the case in societies
with low civic literacy. Canada is following the United States down
low civic-literacy road -- but there's still time to turn onto the
Henry Milner is a political scientist and
co-editor of INROADS. This
article is based on research in his new book: Civic Literacy: How
Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work.