Diversity opportunities flourish in Oslo Extra Large

 

In October 2012 the Norwegian city of Oslo welcomed a group of international experts to review its intercultural policies. This has been the third expert visit to the city since its joining the Intercultural Cities programme as a pilot city in 2008. The visit coincided with the adoption of decision 152/12 by the City Government, aiming to strengthen the central  Oslo Extra Large (OXLO) diversity campaign launched in 2001, to assess diversity policies and raise awareness thereof among the residents.

 

The implementation of the Eurocities Charter on Integrating Cities as well as the Norwegian integration policies were also on the agenda. Amongst larger cities that have completed the ICC Index, Oslo has posted the most impressive result. The group was keen to observe how this had been achieved and, in particular, how Oslo translates its wide range of policies into practice.

 

Background


Oslo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, due in particular to economic migration from the rest of Norway, Europe and beyond. Today, about 27 per cent of the city’s population has origins in over 150, mainly non-European, countries (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Turkey, Morocco, Vietnam, Iran, Philippines and India). Most recently though, immigration from Sweden, Poland and Spain has been increasing. Half the children in Oslo have a minority background through their own or one of their parents’ migration history and, by 2030, it is estimated Oslo’s population might experience a further 30 % increase, owing to immigration and high birth rates.

 

Statistically, there is no glaring difference in the performance of the majority and minority populations in Oslo in terms of education, employment and home ownership. What is more, a 2010 survey shows that the feeling of belonging to Oslo is slightly more developed among residents with a minority background (69 %) compared with the ethnic Norwegian population (65 %). However, a slightly higher percentage of individuals and families with a minority background fall into the ‘economically vulnerable’ category.

 

Oslo demonstrates a growing international trend towards divergent approaches between major cities and their national governments on integration policy. Oslo has been rather critical of several aspects of Norwegian national policy, in particular the decision to cut support for language tuition to migrant workers and the maintaining of a high threshold for newcomers trying to access the labour market. The city strives to address these challenges by offering alternative solutions, for example encouraging language learning programmes run by businesses, educational institutions or civil society and fostering job finding rather than job qualification programmes for migrants. The city government has proposed the repeal of a dual language (Nynorsk and Bokmål) entry in secondary education, in order to promote better language learning and fight early school leaving. It also facilitates experience exchange between Norwegian cities facing similar challenges through the National City Network on Diversity and Ethnic Equality, which meets twice a year.

 

Findings of the expert visit


The expert visit was structured along three themes: non-governmental organisations (NGOs), businesses and a cross-sectoral approach to neighbourhood management in the Groruddalen districts.

 

It was generally agreed among the participants that, despite the current international economic climate, Oslo remains an attractive place to live and thrive. The integration policy has evolved and offers better opportunities to everyone, including migrants and minorities, in terms of employment, education and housing. The city continues to play an example-setting role in these areas and actively supports intercultural projects. In 2012 alone, Oslo granted 700 000 euros to cover such projects.

 

Moreover, efforts have been made to ensure political participation of ethnic minorities. As of now, 30 % of members of the city parliament have an immigrant background, with the Labour Party leading the way at the last local elections in 2011.

 

Moreover, Oslo’s companies and education establishments have started to recognise and take advantage of the diversity opportunity already present in the city. A number of interesting programmes supported by the city serve this purpose, such as Global Future, Diversity in Academia, Diversity in the Workplace and Top 10 diversity initiatives. Thus, the Global Future programme, co-funded by six business partners and the city government, provides courses in leadership and cultural competence free of charge, along with mentoring to highly educated young talents with a migrant background living in Norway. Farhat Khan, a Global Future graduate, said, “The initiative was a truly empowering experience because it aimed at rebranding the immigrant group from a problem to a resource.” After graduation, Farhat established her own management consulting company based on diversity and was nominated for the European Muslim Women of Influence (EMWI) award. The University of Oslo is also actively attracting students across cultures through direct advertising in schools, informing minority parents of higher-education opportunities for their children and creating a multi-cultural environment at the University. For those interested in starting up a sustainable business, the city’s Agency for Business Development offers courses in English, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and in Somali.

 

Meanwhile, in the neighbourhoods the Area Lift programmes aims to upgrade living standards in highly diverse and vulnerable places. Groruddalen is a vast area of 1960s high-rise development on the edge of Oslo, superficially typical of many such examples in European cities. But most untypical is the high standard of care and maintenance given to the infrastructure and public spaces here. Whilst some Norwegian journalists might wish to describe Groruddalen as a ghetto, it is far from that when compared to similar places elsewhere in Europe. For example, prior to developing the Alna and Furuset areas the local administration collected residents’ opinion through mapping, workshops and door-to-door surveys in cooperation with minority advisers and field workers. Thus emerged, for example, the idea of a ‘World Park’ to be designed and maintained by the residents. Consequently, the residents feel greater ownership of the regeneration process and now engage more actively in housing cooperatives and other common ventures. A sharp drop in youth crime incidence between 2008 and 2012 is also partly attributed to the increased participation and ownership.

 

Yet, as expert Phil Wood put it, “Intercultural cities are selected first and foremost for their readiness to honestly address their challenges and shortcomings as well as their successes, and to open themselves to scrutiny of issues that lie beneath the surface”. A number of challenges were identified at the meeting with NGOs, in particular the enduring perception of ethnic minorities as ‘foreigners’ despite many decades of presence in Norway; the official denial that discrimination remains in aspects of public life; a more negative outlook on life among children with a migrant background; and the absence of a common, intercultural identity. It may well be that escalating extremism both among extreme nationalist and Muslim groups (emphasised by Shoaib Mohammad Sultan, Advisor at the Norwegian Centre against Racism) is indeed a sign of a missing common identity in the wake of the 22 July 2011 attacks. It is altogether laudable that Oslo does what it can to retain mixed neighbourhoods through intervention in education, housing and the public realm. On the other hand, the city authorities may wish to broaden their engagement with the mainstream media, which contribute so powerfully to shaping public attitudes and perceptions.

 

Several related challenges were identified in the business and neighbourhood sectors. Representatives of both underlined the need to foster the intercultural competence of staff, including social workers, managers, human resources professionals and headhunting agencies. The business representatives also pointed out the persistence of discrimination in recruitment against people with ‘non-Norwegian’ names, as well as the need to accredit foreign qualifications and to reflect diversity at top managerial levels, in particular in small companies, which account for 90 per cent of businesses in Norway. It would also be advisable to encourage minority-owned businesses to enter the mainstream economy and value-added sectors. Finally, the neighbourhood services sector acknowledges it needs to do even more to identify service needs in highly diverse and rapidly-changing districts; and the need to better share experience and good practice around the city. Thus, mixing and knowledge-exchange between neighbourhoods should become pivotal to Oslo’s intercultural strategy.

 

Christina Baglai