Tracking, Understanding and Addressing Rapid Change in Arctic Human Development


Demography of  Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic (Map: ArcticPortal, Adopted from map by W.K. Dallmann published in Arctic Human Development Report (2004)  and map made by Hugo Ahlenius for UNEP/GRID-Arendal, 2010)Demography of Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic (Map: ArcticPortal, Adopted from map by W.K. Dallmann published in Arctic Human Development Report (2004) and map made by Hugo Ahlenius for UNEP/GRID-Arendal, 2010)


Arctic societies face rapid change: a changing climate and environment, increasing forces of globalization, political, cultural and economic transformations.  Moreover, the rate and magnitude of social change is increasing. Effected by multiple stressors, change offers both opportunities and challenges.  Over the past many decades we have witnessed an amazing dynamism and resilience of Arctic cultures to adapt to changes to their social and physical environments, to adopt from others, and to innovate.  Behold the swift and selective incorporation of exogenous technologies into subsistence livelihoods, as well as the combining of these ‘traditional’ activities with waged jobs to realize lives rich on multiple fronts. Witness the fusion of local and global art forms: for instance, the creation of a distinct Greenlandic rap culture or innovations in Inuit print-making. Contemplate the complexity of new identity formations in the Arctic, as newcomers arrive, settle, interact and sometimes intermarry with local populations, and become Northerners in their own and their neighbors’ minds. Consider developments in distance education and culturally appropriate curricula that increasing numbers of northerners can enjoy.  And innovations in resource management strategies that increasingly incorporate local voices and ways of knowing

We also see the demographic hollowing-out of smaller and more remote settlements, and their viability being challenged, as the Arctic population rapidly urbanizes. We observe increasing gender imbalances, as women leave and Arctic regions in general and smaller settlements in particular, in greater numbers than do men.  We see increased interest in resource extraction by multinationals with headquarters located far from the Arctic, and with a mandate to maximize shareholder profits that often overshadows considerations of local needs and desires. We grieve the substantially higher rates of violence that many Arctic communities suffer.

In brief, we see Arctic societies and cultures are undergoing vast and rapid transformation, with both positive and negative facets. But how can we track and understand these transformations? In this article I offer a brief overview of two key initiatives of the past decade that have aimed at improving our understanding of human development in the Arctic: the Arctic Human Development Reports, the first published a decade ago, and the second forthcoming shortly, and the Arctic Social Indicators Reports (I and II), completed in the intervening ten years. 

The Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR)

At the turn of the millennium, an assessment of the state of human welfare in the Arctic was called for, including the identification of major challenges Arctic residents faced in achieving well-being: physical, cultural, mental, spiritual, etc. (ASI, 2010).  This gave birth to the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), which the Arctic Council identified as a ‘priority project’ in its Inari Declaration of 2002.  Published in 2004, AHDR provided the first assessment of human development on a circumpolar scale, describing the components – demographic, cultural, economic, legal, political, human health and well-being, education - of human development across the North.  The report also dealt with key northern issues that cut across the above domains, such as resource governance, community viability, and gender issues.  In short, the report provided a baseline of Arctic human development at the beginning of the 21st century. It was tasked, further, to “identify and provide policy relevant insights on key issues, themes, and trends that are of high importance and immediate concern to individual livelihoods and the welfare of people and societies in the circumpolar region.” (AHDR 2004:18).

While the AHDR identified and described key components of human development in the North at the beginning of the 21st century, how could changes and trends related to these domains be tracked? One of the AHDR’s recommendations to develop a system for monitoring Arctic human development, in order to enable a longitudinal view that could better inform policy makers and advisors. It suggested the desirability of “a small number of tractable indicators to be used in tracking changes in key elements of human development in the Arctic over time” (AHDR 2004:242).  This gave rise to the Arctic Social Indicators project (2006-2014), the goal of which was to identify, test and then recommend such indicators for use.

Arctic Social Indicators (ASI)

The old adage about ‘what you can’t measure, you can’t understand, control and improve’ undeniably has its limitations. Yet indicators are useful tools to monitor change, understand trends and consider ways in which to encourage those seen as positive and to impede, alter or ameliorate those seen as negative. (Of course we need to note that what is a positive or negative trend is often contested.)

The first AHDR report argued for a distinct set of indicators appropriate to Circumpolar World. Such a set should be limited – broad enough to be meaningful, while few in number to keep things manageable.  Use of currently available and regularly collected statistics or other information would ensure affordable tracking of trends. Of course the trade-offs inherent in using such simplified, proxy measures for tracking something as complex as human development are recognized. Yet more refined metrics would require high costs in terms of both time and financial resources to collect, and thus would unlikely be updated regularly, compromising the easy identification – and addressing – of developing trends.

In recent decades, the UN Human Development Index (UN HDI) has been used to monitor human development across the globe.  However, for the specific Arctic context, the UN HDI indicators needed both to be adapted and supplemented. While generally ranking lower than their southern counterparts in Arctic nations, when measured by the common indicators, Arctic residents throughout most of the north still assert a strong sense of well-being (SLiCA). Of course longevity, material well-being and education are important. But Arctic residents also recurrently stressed other aspects of well-being. Control over one’s fate is important: Arctic residents recurrently express concern over their ability to be in charge of their own destiny, when decisions – political, economic, social – are being made in places far from their communities and homelands.  Many value a robust cultural life, and feel its contribution to their well-being as important as material wealth. And spending time ‘on the land’, including while harvesting country foods, is as valued by many. These attributes of northern life are common components of Northerners’ definition of well-being.  Both indigenous and non-indigenous Northerners have expressed these values - control over one’s destiny, having a viable local culture, and interacting with the natural world (ASI, 2010).

Thus the ASI project developed Circumpolar-specific indicators for six domains of human development (ASI 2010). It adapted the three measured by the UN HDI to the Arctic: rather than life-expectancy, infant mortality and net-migration are proposed; knowledge and education is measured through post-secondary completion rates (given that all Arctic countries have a high rate of literacy and educational achievement), and material well-being is measured through per capita household income. Indicators for the three additional domains were identified: language retention as a proxy for cultural vitality; consumption or harvest of ‘country food’ for closeness to nature, and for fate control an index that combines measures of political control, control over land, economic control and control over knowledge construction.  Proxies all, but these quantitative indictors allow relatively easy tracking of changes. The chosen indicators were then trialed by applying them to several regions of the North (ASI-II, 2014).

The development of Arctic social indicators can be seen as part of a broader initiative to provide measurements of many aspects of change in the Arctic – information that meets both scientific and societal needs. Initial efforts in this direction focused on measures of change in physical features (permafrost, biodiversity, pollutants). Social indicators, while challenging to develop and with perhaps much greater limitations than physical ones, are increasingly acknowledged as critical to understanding and thus beginning to address key transformations in the Arctic.

The Second Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR-II)

While ASIs offer an approach to tracking human development in the Arctic, a regular update of the AHDR seems a useful endeavor. ADHR-II as the first of what will likely be decadal reports. Endorsed by the Arctic Council in November 2011, it is produced under the auspices of the SDWG, it will be published later this year (2014).

ADHR-II’s subtitle, Regional Processes and Global Linkages, highlights how Arctic transformation must be situated in the context of global change, including both climate change and other forms of change.  Focusing on developments since the first report, and drawing on the extensive research efforts of the International Polar Year, AHDR-II will enable comparisons of cultural, economic, political, and social conditions with similar conditions in other parts of the eight Arctic countries and in the world at large, over the course of the first decade of this millennium.

A sample of the trends which AHDR-II identifies are noted here as ‘teasers’. Following the introduction the second chapter, covering demographic trends, emphasizes especially the continued yet shifting role migration plays in the composition of the Arctic population, as new areas contribute migrants. Chapter 3, Cultures and Identities, discusses the complexity and dynamism of Arctic identity formation in the 21st century. The chapter on Economic Systems stresses continuity as characterizing economic trends over the past decade, but notes the increase in institutional relationships between local residents and exogenous resource developers that increase local economic benefits of resource extraction.  In terms of resource governance, such innovations are explored further in Chapter 7. A chapter Political Systems and Geopolitics notes the pressure from non-Arctic states in defining Arctic futures, and one on Legal Systems emphasizes the continued cooperation of Arctic states in the region, contrary to media accounts postulating escalating conflict. Determinants of well-being such as food security, aging, sexual harassment and discrimination are touched on in a chapter on Health and Well-being. The chapter on Education offers a new section on human capital, including creative capital, in the Arctic.  To complement these ‘domain’ chapters, AHDR-II provides two cross cutting, complementary chapters focusing on the imbricated processes of transformation at different scales: one examines globalization, the other community viability.  Stay tuned!

As with the first AHDR, AHDR-II will provide valuable information to those engaged in policy making, as well as for the public’s education.  It is hoped that the Arctic Council’s Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG) will utilize it in priority-setting exercises.  We intend that the AHDR-II, in documenting innovative policies and institutions developed in specific areas of the Arctic to address challenges to various facets of human development, will offer lessons for other parts of the Artic and beyond.  Tracking and understanding human development in the Arctic are important steps to informed - and hopefully compassionate - policy choices that will contribute to direct change toward increasing the well-being of the Arctic’s residents.

Gail Fondahl is President of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association.


 AHDR 2004, Arctic Human Development Report. N. EInarsson, J. Nymand Larsen, A. Nilsson and O.R. Young (eds.). Akureyri: Stefansson Arctic Institute

ASI 2010. Arctic Social Indicators – a Follow-up to the Arctic Human Development Report , J. Nymand Larsen,, P. Schweitzer, and G. Fondahl (eds.). Copenhagen: Arctic Council of Ministers.

ASI 2014. Arctic Social Indicators II: Implementation. J. Nymand Larsen, P. Schweitzer, and A. Petrov (eds.) Copenhagen: Arctic Council of Ministers.


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