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Heather Exner-Pirot: The Arctic Council's Capacity Challenge

Last month the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat put out a request for proposals for the long-discussed funding mechanism to better support Permanent Participants' -- the six Arctic indigenous groups with status in the Arctic Council -- ability to engage in and contribute to the forum's activities.

The issue of building capacity of the PPs is as old as the Arctic Council itself, and has been articulated in every Ministerial Declaration since 1998, with no significant progress. The seemingly imminent establishment of a joint Funding Mechanism may mark the end of that phase; how well it addresses the underlying capacity needs of Permanent Participants remains to be seen.

Arctic exceptionalism

One of the more remarkable aspects of the Arctic Council has been its inclusion and influence of indigenous organizations in its activities, institutionalized in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration as Permanent Participant status. Although PPs do not have a vote per se in the Council, its consensus-based decision making structure makes voting redundant, and by all accounts the PPs play a substantive role in deliberations and are generally viewed as equal partners. As is often repeated, this arrangement is unique in international affairs, and the Arctic Council is justly proud of its progressiveness.

But while the PPs share most of the same rights and privileges in the Arctic Council as enjoyed by the member states, it is plainly obvious that they do not have the same ability to contribute to its work. This gap has widened as the work of the Arctic Council has expanded, and there is a shared concern that without additional capacity the PPs, whose staff and resources are already stretched thin, will only be able to contribute at a superficial level, to the detriment of all.

One Arctic, many Peoples

There are currently six PPs, and it is important to note the significant cultural and institutional differences among them. The original three PPs included the Inuit Circumpolar Council , the Saami Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, who were grandfathered in to the Arctic Council in 1996 from its predecessor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. These organizations already existed to serve the interest of their respective nations, and the Arctic Council advocacy role was in addition to their core mandates.

By contrast, the Aleut International Association (entered in 1998), Arctic Athabaskan Council and Gwich'in Council International (entered in 2000) were constituted afterwards for the primary purpose of representing their nations in the Arctic Council. As such their mandate, and capacity, is much more limited. Some of the PPs literally get a fraction of what their better funded colleagues receive in government financial contributions, depending on their home country and organizational scope.

Perhaps as a consequence, data released by the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat in the RFP shows that participation in Arctic Council Working Groups and Task Forces varies wildly. Between June 2013 and March 2015 there were 24 WG and 20 TF meetings. ICC participated in 28 of them; AIA in 24; SC in 18; AAC in 17; GCI in 8; and RAIPON in 3. All PPs seemed to prioritize participation in the Sustainable Development Working Group -- and to a lesser extent the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group -- and then strategically identified other groups to participate in: The AAC participated in all of the task forces on Black Carbon and Methane meetings for example, while AIA and ICC attended most of the meetings to establish a Circumpolar Business Forum (which led to the creation of the Arctic Economic Council).


The most notable part of those statistics however is the intensity of Arctic Council work, with about two dozen meetings a year, exclusive of the Senior Arctic Official meetings, the Ministerial, and invitations to a plethora of other conferences and events. This is the crux of the problem. While states are represented by experts and appropriate bureaucrats from their myriad of agencies and ministries, the bulk of PPs are being represented at these events by the same one or two people. It would be physically demanding simply to attend all of these events; when you factor in the need to be adequately briefed and prepared in order to concretely contribute to the work, it becomes fairly impossible.

Who and how to represent indigenous nations

After centuries of colonialism and paternalism, Arctic indigenous peoples have come to rightly demand active engagement and consultation on issues that affect them. This, in effect, is the principle behind the Permanent Participants category in the first place. But it does not stop there. There is an expectation amongst indigenous peoples that the PPs themselves will consult with the communities whom they purport to represent. There is no doubt that this is the objective, but it is much easier said than done. Effectively communicating the somewhat esoteric work of the Arctic Council is challenging. Travel to far flung and small communities is time consuming and expensive. Presenting the issues in a way that people in communities can understand, or care about, is also difficult. Providing opportunities for feedback, and incorporating that feedback into policy, requires time and expertise, and patience, as communities will usually have more immediate concerns to address. Doing this regularly and for six working groups and four or so task forces would be near impossible even with unlimited resources.

Russian representation brings in additional problems. (Although RAIPON is often pointed to as the voice of Russian indigenous peoples, four of the six PPs have Russian constituencies, including ICC, SC, AIA and RAIPON.) Ensuring adequate Russian participation is hard for a number of reasons, including language barriers, funding challenges, and difficulty getting visas in good time if meetings are called on short notice. For reasons not publicly known, RAIPON did not even participate in the last Arctic Council Ministerial, in Iqaluit, though AIA's delegation did include a Russian national.

Guarding against tokenism

All these and more speak to the need for a better funding mechanism for PPs. In a perfect world, there would be resources for hiring local indigenous experts, and building capacity where insufficient local expertise exists; consulting with communities and holders of traditional knowledge; translating the work of the Arctic Council into indigenous languages; and leading and implementing work that PPs themselves have prioritized. Meanwhile more financial security and predictability would remove the need for senior leadership to spend large chunks of their time fundraising and fulfilling financial reporting commitments.

But here the politics enter. Suppose there was a commitment to establish a PP fund with $1 million, as was actually proposed (and rejected) during the Icelandic Arctic Council Chairmanship. How would the money be divided? Equally amongst the six groups, even though some contribute more regularly than others? According to population of the groups represented? According to need? According to a prioritization of the particular projects funded?

Of course, identifying ways to spend the money needs to be preceded by raising money for a PP fund. According to the request for proposals, it has been agreed by the PPs that "at this point, Arctic states would not be approached as potential funders of a PP funding mechanism." This comes out of a concern some PPs have about the implications of removing or modifying their bilateral funding agreements, and thus eliminates the largest current source of funds for the PPs.

This leaves observer states, NGOs and philanthropic foundations as potential donors. The question of how and under what terms to accept or request money from observer states has long been contentious. During the Swedish chairmanship, SAO Chair Gustaf Lind memorably questioned whether it was even right to ask lower and middle income countries such as India and China to financially support the indigenous peoples of some of the world's richest states. Some observers have expressed interest in providing support to a fund, and indeed will be assessed in their quadrennial Arctic Council status reviews based at least partly on their efforts to support the PPs. But providing lump sums without any ties or obligations is unlikely, and the amounts might not be significant on their own.

NGOs and foundations offer a promising avenue of support as well, but again they would be likely to direct support to projects and activities which fit well within their own mandates. It has also become clear that Nordic and North American norms around seeking private and philanthropic funding for public goods vary significantly, reducing the number of acceptable options.

All of these are tricky issues. But they are solvable. It seems momentum has built up to the point where a PP funding mechanism will be established, in one form or another. This is an important step in making the work of the Arctic Council more responsive and useful for the roughly 400,000 indigenous peoples who call the region their home, and indeed for everyone who contributes or benefits from the Council's work. It may be that the fund starts out small, or circumscribed. But if it proves successful in enhancing the capacity of the PPs to contribute to the Arctic Council, it could attract more money in the future. It may even one day serve as a model for engaging non-governmental stakeholders in the work other international organizations, a problem -- or opportunity -- likely to surge in the future. The Arctic Council, and Permanent Participants, are once more trailblazers.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch News as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.