In January we decided we want to plan an excursion to Helsinki in order to get acquainted with foreign affairs work. Our International Affairs officer Krista took the responsibility of compiling the program, and soon we knew what we would be doing on winter holidays. The program provided us with insight from the parliament, researchers, diplomats and other professionals.
On Wednesday March 9th we had all arrived to Helsinki and headed to the Senate square. As it happened, there was a student demonstration against the government’s education policy plans, and we had time to participate. Sustainable Development Goal #4 is about ensuring equality and quality in education and this was a good chance to show how the SDG’s are for everyone, not just the developing world. Unfortunately we saw no ministers present, but many MP’s and of course our own Oulu uni alumni Siiri as the agitator.
After the demonstration it was time for our first visit: Finnish Institute of International Affairs. The head of communications Vesa Halttu presented the institution, editor Anna-Kaisa Hiltunen presented the Finnish Journal of International Affairs and researcher András Rácz talked about his work. We we’re not too many from Oulu so we invited also some political science students and UN youth from Helsinki to join us on this visit. The institute focuses on high-level research and the staff consists of both Finnish and foreign experts. They provide civil society, media and decisionmakers with latest analysis on foreign policy and international affairs. Senior researcher Rácz gave us a delightful and exciting perspective on what it’s like to work as a researcher and with Russian relations. Certainly not just sitting in a cubicle or isolating oneself to the ivory tower! He pointed out also the importance of language skills: the best research and results can only be achieved by understanding not only international relations, but also the language and culture of the countries in focus. Field work is encouraged and appreciated at FIIA, and researchers from FIIA travel regularly to investigate the on-site situation. Very interesting place to work indeed! The institute and the journal both take interns every now and then.
Evening program for Wednesday was the Festival of Political Photography in Kaapelitehdas. The exhibition consisted of work by several Finnish and foreign photographers and the theme was “Homeland”. The photos dealt with issues of migration: leaving home, homecoming, dreams, disappointments and all things related to the topical issue. We heard a presentation by photographer Tuomo Manninen who has travelled the world to take group photos of ordinary people and their daily lives. It was very interesting to hear the stories behind his work. Often we only see the havoc and horror in the news, but Tuomo’s pictures showed the ordinary days in areas often depicted as chaotic. His work from Ramallah was eye-opening and it was great to meet him!
On Thursday morning we we’re nervously tapping on our phones to find the right entrance to the parliament’s temporary working premises. Member of Parliament and Oulu uni history alumni Hanna Sarkkinen was waiting for us. We met her at the Left group’s room and talked about her work as a fresh first timer in the parliament. Sarkkinen was elected last year with a landslide of votes and she is one of the youngest MP’s, but she has an extensive background in Left youth, Left party and local politics. She is part of many inner-parliament groups dealing with international affairs and we got to hear about the concrete daily parliamentary work. Sadly it seems UN and Sustainable Development Goals are still not too familiar to some of our representatives and there is work to be done in ensuring the SDG’s are fully understood and included also on the Finnish agenda. Current debate on financial crisis and migration are very much international issues, while we can many times see them discussed almost as domestic issues. Luckily we have also very well-informed MP’s like Sarkkinen, and very brisk UN youth like OSYKY to lobby for the SDG’s 🙂
Next our program took us to Katajanokka and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we met our hosts Vesa Häkkinen and Harri Kilpi from the communications department. To the satisfaction of our history-oriented members, once again our hosts had a background in history studies. We got acquainted with the basic purpose and operations of the ministry: diplomacy and administrative work. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs promotes Finnish interests in the international arena and helps Finns abroad. Part of this work is also creating a brand for Finland in an honest but attractive way – and we do have a good reputation as a highly educated nation and effective partners in eg. crisis management. The current migrant situation effects also this brand work as it has created a new target audience with different interests. In addition to these insights on the contemporary issues we learned that an international career in the service of the foreign ministry is a dream for many, but by no means the easiest work. Questions about jet set lifestyle were met with amusement and it was also stated that in this work it can be particularly challenging to combine family and career. Still there were 1445 applicants to the ministry’s latest diplomat career course KAVAKU, and only 15-20 get the coveted job. Administrative course HALKU is also popular. To allow best possible promotion of Finnish interests we encourage all our members to apply to KAVAKU and HALKU!
Thursday evening was the entertainment highlight of the trip as we found ourselves at the set of a live talk show. Enbuske Veitola Salminen was being filmed at the MTV3 studios. One of the hosts, Tuomas Enbuske, is also from Oulu! Oulu taking over the world! We saw interviews with many interesting public figures, but among the guests were also farmers who were disappointed in the regulations and policy making regarding the agricultural industry and food production. One of them said he had driven 500km with a tractor to make a statement.
Next morning the city center saw hundreds of tractors demonstrating at the Senate square and parked on the narrow streets. We would wave to them on our way to UNA Finland offices. As we are a relatively fresh group of actives it was good to meet the umbrella organisation workers face-to-face and talk about our goals. We also met with UN Women representative and learned that Oulu has no local section of UN Women. Interesting! Most burning issue in our meeting was still the UN Day, which will be in Oulu this year. In the fall semester we will work together with UNA Finland in organising an event targeting students and youth interested in international affairs. We’re so excited! Great to be able to bring these issues closer to Oulu people even though we don’t have social science or law faculty here. The planning is only starting, so stay tuned for more info on the UN Day!
Our last visit was certainly one of the most intriguing. The tractors were blocking the streets so we were a bit late from our appointment at the Embassy of the United States of America. After very precise security protocols we were brought to meet with Jeffrey Reneau from the Public Affairs section. He told us about his inspiring 20 year career in diplomacy and foreign affairs. So many incredible stories! Reneau was also familiar with UN protocols and organisation and he provided us with real-life examples of facilitating between different heads of state. Again it became clear it is not only the academia and theory that makes you good, as you need to be able to communicate with all different nationalities and try not to offend them in order to not cause a diplomatic crisis. Finns are often criticized as introverts but in foreign affairs one constantly needs to communicate and be able to read people and situations. Too extrovert is also not good – making one culturally insensitive joke can get you sent home. However, Reneau was pleased with Finnish peaceful mentality to the point that he and the ambassador had even visited Oulu several times! You remember, the ambassador who jumped into a hole in the ice in February, wearing a white costume, as part of Polar Bear Pitching. Ideas about an OSYKY hosted embassy level visit to Oulu have been thrown in the air.
All in all our first excursion was a great success. We saw places and met people we would not have been able to see otherwise. Foreign affairs and international politics is much more fun in action. Sometimes it sounded like Hollywood action and certain stories reminded of James Bond films. On the other hand there is also a fair amount of bureaucracy and office work involved. The only way to really know what foreign affairs work is would be to pursue a career within the field. Go see for yourselves! In the meantime, join your local UN Association for event planning and next excursion 😉