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Iceland: Financial Bust to Fairytale Success

Outlawed gender wage gaps, the ultimate underdog soccer team, and a peaceful financial revolution: how does the land of fish and lava pull it off?

Iceland often seems like a mythical place. Isolated from the European continent, steeped in Viking heritage, and home to volcanic landscapes, the small island nation is also heralded on the international stage for its successful social experiments. Iceland is the global poster child for women’s rights, innovative methods to slash drug use, and progressive labor policy.

Just a decade after financial calamity upended Iceland’s economy, the Nordic country is booming after staging one of the fastest economic recoveries on record. Tourism is going strong and the unemployment rate in Iceland is the lowest in the entire OECD.

Thóra Arnórsdóttir joins Altamar to explain how the country of several hundred thousand inhabitants has pulled it all off and the challenges it still faces. The Icelandic journalist and former Presidential candidate attracted international attention when she announced her campaign eight months pregnant. Today she is the managing editor of Kveikur, the nation’s only investigative journalism television program at the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.

Iceland’s recent economic history was a catastrophe, Arnórsdóttir explains — and out of character. “I have a feeling that in the years leading up to the crisis we lost sight of our values, and gave into the greed and egoism, which just does not function in a small country like this in rough condition.” The solution? “We have reset our values, which has been the basis for our rebuilding.”

She also acknowledges the island nation’s stroke of luck during its recovery. “We thought our reputation had been torn to pieces, but turns out that bad news can also be good news because Iceland was put on the map, when a lot of people didn’t know it existed before – and so tourism took off.”

But challenges remain in developing Iceland’s tourism infrastructure. “Iceland really needs to take better care of the land… Most tourists come to see this amazing natural beauty that we have, so we need to take care of it.” The number of arrivals is often overwhelming. “You can just imagine you have 350,000 people in a country and 2 million visitors, the infrastructure just isn’t there. But it has slowed down, and now is the period of adjustment.”

Iceland is lauded internationally for its efforts to establish gender equality and has been ranked first by the World Economic Forum in the Global Gender Gap Index — eleven years in a row. Nevertheless, just last year, Icelandic women organized a mass strike to protest wage disparity.

“There is not a country in the world that is even close to gender equality. It’s better to be a woman here than in most other countries, but we still have so much to do,” Arnórsdóttir explains. Her role as a presidential candidate while pregnant attracted scrutiny over how she would manage her role as President and as a new mother. “Having children is the most natural thing in the world,” she says. “Why should women of childbearing age just be put aside because they might actually have children? Yes, we want them to have children, but we also want them to be active in society.”

On the geopolitical front, Iceland is a key NATO ally in maritime safety but gives the European Union (EU) a cold shoulder when it comes to full member-status. Arnórsdóttir clarifies, “Iceland never wanted to join the EU basically because of the CFP, the Common Fisheries Policy. Now fisheries in the EU are not really of any economic importance, it’s more of a cultural thing. It’s what [Icelanders] have been living on, it is our economic pillar, along with green energy.”

With Brexit looming and new nationalist movements threatening European unity, even the pro-EU figures in Iceland have largely conceded that now is not the right time to join. “It’s not a thing that is being discussed or debated for the time being,” Arnórsdóttir says.

Hear more of our analysis of how Iceland punches above its weight to achieve fairytale success — available for download here.

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Episode 46