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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 16:28 GMT 17:28 UK
Norway's unique brand of pacifism
By Paul Henley
Presenter of Radio 4's What's So Special About The Norwegians?

Ehud Barak, Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat
Israel and the Palestinians signed a peace deal in Oslo
Norway is home to a tiny proportion of the world's people, yet it runs 10% of the world's biggest charities and spends vast amounts of tax-payers' money on running peace missions abroad.

It exports its peculiar brand of pacifism all over the globe, sending envoys and negotiators to far-flung war zones, arranging ceasefires and listening patiently to political arguments which have nothing to do with its citizens.

In what other country would such a policy have over 80% of public support? Many among that 80% think more of their money should be spent abroad. So what is it that makes Norway so special?

With typical and quite irritating modesty, the reply from nearly every Norwegian to this question will be: "Nothing at all, really".

They would be wrong because Norway is unique. Perhaps it takes an outsider's perspective to appreciate this.

My fascination with this relatively obscure Nordic country began when I went to do a summer job on a pig farm on the Oslofjord when I was 19.

Wealth distributed

The famous Oslo Peace Accord (admittedly now defunct) was struck between the Israelis and the Palestinians in Norway.

Vicious guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua and Guatemala was ended thanks to Norwegian peace-makers. Hopes for the end of fighting in Sri Lanka are pinned on Norwegian teams now. Ariel Sharon was back in Oslo last week and the Middle-East project is not over yet.

Many think more of their money should be spent abroad

To understand this record-breaking altruism, you need to look at the Norwegians on their home ground. Eccentric is too weak a word for them.

They spend their weekends in tiny wooden huts in the mountains, sleeping on punishing wooden bunks and bathe in icy streams. They don't have to, of course. Week days are likely to be spent in hi-tech, interior-designed, internet-linked comfort.

Norway is a filthy rich nation, exporting more oil than the United States, Iraq or Venezuela. But the wealth is shared out by a tax system that more or less rules out the existence of the very rich and the very poor alike.

Ostentation simply isn't approved of. Heads of state and government ministers use public transport and the prime minister's press secretary drives a Skoda.

Norway is also rich in square metres. If you turned Norway upside down, it would stretch from Oslo to Rome, but it is tiny in terms of population.

My overwhelming impression of Norway is of a nation of exceedingly grounded people who believe, above all, in the importance of normality and unpretentiousness. Their winning approach to peace-making probably hinges almost entirely on this.

The Norwegian way

A group of Guatemalan guerrillas and government officials, fully intent on butchering each other, found the animosity hard to maintain when forced into the living room of the foreign minister for a few beers while children requested help with a jigsaw puzzle.

Nobody in Norway is allowed to be self-important enough to remove themselves from the essentials of everyday home life. And that includes visitors. I stayed with a family on the outskirts of Oslo as they were preparing for their annual National Day parade.

Nobody in Norway is allowed to be self-important

They were utterly charming, but part of their charm was their lack of ceremony. The ironing went on as we chatted and the meals were at the kitchen table. I could imagine the international statesmen getting exactly the same treatment.

A meeting I had with Marianna Heiberg at her home in Oslo spoke volumes. She is the widow of Johan Juergen Holst, Norway's former Foreign Minister who helped forge the Oslo Accord in 1993.

She hosted the Israelis and the Palestinians in her conservatory as they discovered common ground over coffee.

She told me about their open-mouthed incredulity that such talks could be going on with a total absence of any security and ceremony.

Until they understood that that was the point. They had no option but to calm down and do things the Norwegian way.

What's So Special About The Norwegians? was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20:00 BST on Monday, 18 August, 2003.


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