Translated: my interview in an Icelandic newspaper

As an expert in the field, Britta Bohlinger is interested in fraud and risk. She focuses on finance, politics and business. Britta, who previously worked for investment banks and a broker dealer in London, is now settling down here in Iceland. She blogs about Icelandic society and wants to connect with the academic and political areas of the population, with a view to providing benefit to the community.

“There is no particular romantic reason for coming to Iceland. I wasn’t in love with one of the common pull factors or anything like that”, says fraud and risk expert Britta Bohlinger.

We are in a cafe in Reykjavik, surrounded by the headquarters and high rise buildings of the Icelandic financial district. Britta was born in Germany, not far from the border with both Switzerland and France, but after graduating from university in the UK and eight years of working in the fast-paced investment banking sector in London, she no longer wanted to be part of this particular environment.

“Some say, one year in this business equals seven normal years”, she says smilingly. “It’s an intense and demanding world that I entered while still doing my social sciences post-graduate degree, not being from a family of bankers. It has undoubtedly given me a different and critical view of the financial sector, certainly very different from what tends to be the norm, in places such as the City of London.”

Not very long ago, Britta lost both her parents shortly after they had reached retirement age, and she says it has affected her way of looking at things.

“I wondered what I wanted to do and achieve in life, and how I could make an impact. After I left the bank I travelled and visited various countries, including Iceland. I could see myself here, and now this is my second winter here.  What’s more, I did see that Iceland responded relatively quickly to legal proceedings related to the collapse, a number of bankers went to prison. I know well that the outside world has taken note of these issues and sometimes with admiration, but it doesn’t always quite match the experience Icelanders themselves had. I do try to see it realistically, not in a rosy light.”

The strength of the Icelandic society lies in its small size, but it also results in certain risks. Short lines of communication are often a good thing, but a close-knit society can also create gray areas.

“This is a small community with relatively high equality, which I consider extremely significant pillars, especially after living in London where inequality has been strikingly high, with a shrinking middle. With the economic balance comes a certain pressure and political willingness to take on certain issues. This crucial feature of the Icelandic society has been demonstrated since the collapse and is likely to continue.

Iceland, however, is part of a globalized world where crime occurs across borders. The situation in distant countries can affect us here in Iceland, with immigration impacting the economy, and other areas.”

German native Britta Bohlinger does not appear particularly impressed with the Icelandic common phrase “Þetta reddast – It will work out.”. She says it is important to try to anticipate which areas of the society may become exposed to the risk of fraud, tax evasion and corruption and how it can preferably be prevented or at least mitigated. It is always better to act before the damage is done.

“Risk and fraud both carry negative meaning, it is therefore vital that those who work in the financial and political sector realize the consequences resulting from a failure of mapping the risk of fraud”, says Britta.

She left work within the internal controls divisions of large investment banks with limited confidence in this side of the operation. Major scandals, such as the recent case of Wells Fargo bank accounts debacle in the US, support this impression.

Ethics and moral values blend into this debate and how we grow the essential characteristics within the school system and society.

“If we take the financial sector as an example, the discussion of ethics is often very abstract, rarely embedded within the daily work of those who work in the sector. It is key though, to link the activity of the individual to any consequences it may entail. We live in a society based on ethics and trust, but perhaps we do little to think about how these aspects color our daily lives and how central they are in glueing and keeping the community together.

Another problem in this respect is the supervisory challenge the government faces. The revolving door and related brain-drain which impact regulatory bodies, tend to go in one direction, with experts in regulation moving over to the corporations that the regulator is supposed to supervise. Banks usually offer significantly higher financial incentives than the financial supervisory entities. “

A new yet familiar image of Icelanders celebrating the boom with champagne may evoke a similar fury as it did before the crisis in 2007. Tourism is fueling this new economic boom, paralleled by rising property prices and housing costs, many people are asking themselves whether Iceland has established a new bubble.

“I, like others, see that there are certain warning signs – red flags,” says Britta. “There is great pressure on the Icelandic society, these challenges require that Icelanders remain vigilant: rising property prices and rents, the large numbers of travelers, for example, impact the working conditions and terms of employment. Awareness of the risk of corruption has increased here after the collapse, yet the debate has been limited, it seems to me. Pressures related to tourism contribute also to a risk of unhealthy trading practices, tax evasion, illegal employment and a potentially overall weakening of the legal status of workers, in certain sectors. This is well known abroad [for instance London and New York where human trafficking presents a severe and growing issue], and it is critical for Iceland to increase awareness of these risks, in particular in times when such drastic and fast changes occur.”

This profile feature interview Vill finna glufurnar í íslensku samfélagi (Will find cracks in the Icelandic society) was published in Icelandic on Fréttatíminn (Newstime) of 17/18th February 2017 and was available at the time of publishing here  (see also Interview PDF) and is still available on the newspaper’s Facebook page. Fréttatíminn became defunct in April 2017, its chief editor created a new political party.

Cross-border community in times of crime

The personal, the societal, the international
When thousands of Icelanders, expats, tourists and exchange students gathered in a memorial walking, the temperatures well below freezing, the mood was calm, quiet and collected. Participants united in a walk towards the point where Birna Brjánsdóttir had last been seen – by public cameras – to place flowers and candles at this spot, and at Arnarhóll, Reykjavik’s historically, culturally and geographically central hill.

What I gathered was quiet compassion and a distinct warmth, a shared sense of this being a real and symbolic loss to a community that rarely suffers any violent losses, in particular when taking an international perspective (New York Times coverage).  Memorial events had also taken place in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, and further Greenlandic towns, as well as the Faroe Islands.

Role of community: Gemeinschaft, cohesion and cultural norms
Community and collective effort in this extremely rare case of violent crime (Iceland’s remarkably low crime rate, OSAC report 2015) have been enormous. The search-and-rescue operation for missing Birna, had been similar to those in the more frequent events of lost hikers, which entail considerable and concerted collective efforts. Here in Iceland, the planet’s most peaceful nation‘s police officers carry no firearms, the military budget constitutes 0.1% of the GDP and the country has no national military force or army.  That makes the significant and effective role of civic engagement and community become even more obvious.

While Icelanders may deem this the national norm, anyone who grew up elsewhere or lived in a society that is marked by more fragmentation, separation, anonymity and lack of cohesion will have been touched by the quiet power of what German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies coined Gemeinschaft.  Outsourcing of certain tasks and relying predominantly on or even exclusively on professional specialists is not an option.  This may be rooted in the geographical location and historically resulting from a strong sense of interdependence in a harsh climate and ever-present risks thanks to volcanic activity and other natural forces.

Violent and white-collar crime in transnational communities
The investigation of the violent crime has brought the aspect of community involvement to international audiences, the attention not least resulting from sustained all-time high interest by tourists. As mentioned in my previous article on tourism risk in Iceland and its characteristic two-way nature, the tragic loss of a young Icelandic woman raises awareness of usually much less visible links.

Iceland’s culture, informal norms, and practices show how civil society and community engagement encourage thought-provoking participation also in temporary visitors and those abroad, those who are maintaining an interest from the distance by the help of conventional and social media.

We also see how crime transgresses national borders.  It transfers from one nation, one island to another – in this case via the Greenlandic seafood trawler Polar Nanoq which had a substantial amount of drugs on board.  We may notice also how little known and understood Greenland’s societal issues are beyond the confines of the Nordic nations, and Nordic co-operation, such as the Arctic Council’s activities (2016 Assembly, panel on mental health issues). Greenland, not a member of the EU or Schengen Area, as the Faroe Islands, is subject to Danish authority, which includes border control issues, and immigration into Greenland.

The painful violent loss of a young woman’s life helps us further understand the vital role of community and civil society in resolving and preventing crime. In this sense, the police investigations, so far, have highlighted some interconnected aspects, such as:

Civil society engagement in both nations, Iceland and Greenland, at this time of shock and grief, have shown that the response and engagement of the wider society are absolutely vital in awareness-raising.  The resulting and ongoing discussion of meaningful ways, responses and mechanisms are central to effective prevention of future crimes, whether in Iceland or Greenland.

At the time of writing the case is still under investigation and a final report of the findings has not yet been published.