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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Norway's formula for a happy life

By Lars Bevanger
BBC, Norway

The UN has ranked Norway as the most prosperous country in the world for the fifth year running. But, as Lars Bevanger suggests, there is always a downside to paradise.

Oslo harbour
Norway is the third largest oil exporter in the world

The election official from the governing conservative party looked a bit bewildered.

I had just asked him why his party was trailing in the opinion polls a few days ahead of the general election here, when everything in this country is going so well.

His blue eyes searched the cloudless sky for a possible answer.

"Unemployment is low," I prompted him, "interest rates are at a record low, the UN keeps telling us we live in the best country in the world. Yet people say they want the Labour party back in power?"

When the heavens failed to provide him with an adequate answer, he looked back down, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Well, maybe people just want a change."

I do not think anyone can possibly understand how boring a general election in the world's best country really is.

Petrol prices

There simply is not much left here to fix and, for one tedious moment earlier this week, it seemed the main debate between the political left and right would be the price of petrol, which is higher than normal in this country, too, these days.

Map of Norway

It is, of course, somewhat paradoxical when people here complain that petrol is too expensive. After all, it is the unusually high price of oil that contributes to Norway's prosperity.

We are the third largest oil exporter in the world, topped only by Saudi Arabia and Russia.

But the North Sea oil bonanza is not squandered on paying for people's transport.

Most of it is saved and invested in a fund for the day when the oil eventually runs out. This nest egg is now worth 103bn ($189bn).

That works out at 22,000 each for me and every other citizen in Norway.

The oil wealth only goes so far to explain why this country keeps coming out top of the United Nations' ranking of countries.


After all, Saudi Arabia only makes it to number 72, just ahead of Ukraine.

The Norwegian welfare state - another reason we come out top - has developed over decades, mostly well before we hit oil in the North Sea. It started soon after the end of World War II.

Sometimes it can be hard to explain how we make our money last until pay day

After five years of German occupation, people here were keen to avoid divisions. An egalitarian society was the way to go.

To me it is that equality in Norwegian society which makes it so pleasant for the vast majority of people to live here. Very few are immensely rich.

In fact extreme wealth is frowned upon by many.

And even fewer are desperately poor.

There is remarkably little difference between the amount of money a factory worker or bus driver takes home and the pay cheque of a medical doctor.

Both earn just over 2,000 a month.

Cost of living

Sometimes though, it can be hard to explain how we make our money last until pay day.

Cafe interior in Oslo
Norway has a population of 4.6 million

"How on earth can you afford to live here?" a colleague visiting from the UK spluttered once.

She had just paid 5 for a pint and was wondering whether she could afford to order a pizza.

I patiently tried to explain that the waiter probably made as much money as her and that the cost of producing that beer was higher than in any other European country.

It did little to ease her outrage.

I should have pointed out what people do not have to spend their money on here, money they can put into their pints if they want to.

Generally people do not have to pay for private pension schemes, private health insurance or private schooling.

For most people, the state pension will do. Public schooling is the norm and most public schools are as good as the few private ones.

Health service

Of course there is room for improvement. When it comes to our health care system, there are still queues and at times there are staffing problems.

But it could have been much worse, especially if we were less healthy here than we actually are.

Perhaps it is all the salmon we eat, which is by far the cheapest fish you can buy in this world capital of salmon farming.

It could also be the 38-hour working week and people's strong desire to keep work and leisure time strictly separated.

An English friend, who started work as a doctor here a few years ago, was shocked at the number of perfectly healthy octogenarians who came to see her.

"They come in," she complained, "just for a check-up and a prescription, and I rarely find anything wrong with them."

Cross-country skiing

She was not used to people over 80 visiting her surgery, she said, let alone perfectly healthy ones.

"And then," she sighed, "these Norwegians tell me they haven't got much time, as they are off for their daily cross-country skiing run."

For all the good things about Norway, I did once leave to live in London.

I often wondered why, especially when I was stuck in traffic on the M25 motorway and some financial adviser on the radio was telling me I should really consider that private pension fund.

I have been back in Norway now for three years. Will I move again?

Well, maybe when I have had enough of politicians arguing over the price of petrol or the queues of baby prams belonging to mothers enjoying their 10-month, full-pay maternity leave.

For now though, I am enjoying my extremely expensive pint and, like a typical journalist, hoping someone might uncover a political scandal in time for Monday's parliamentary election.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 8 September, 2005 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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