GUEST COMMENTARY: A new — and improved — Northern Forum is necessary

The Northern Forum — a nonprofit, international association — was formally established in 1991 with eleven regional members from nine northern countries. Its intent upon forming was to improve the quality of life of northern peoples by providing northern regional governments a means to share their knowledge and experience in addressing common challenges. 

As Gov. Bill Walker resumes talks with the Northern Forum, we wanted to remind Alaskans of what the Forum is, and more importantly, what it could be.

All inaugural members agreed that the future held boundless potential for the Arctic and that together, the northern regions could overcome the challenges that each were facing. They hoped that the Forum would generate international awareness, respect and legitimacy for the issues northern communities face. While in its early years the Northern Forum certainly accomplished this, the reality is that the Forum’s efficacy has waned in the recent past.

The creation of the Arctic Council in 1996 certainly had a lot to do with this, as eight nations came together to address sustainable development and environmental protection. The inclusion of Permanent Participants, who represent indigenous groups, in that body, as well as the increase in observer states and organizations over the years, resulted in the Arctic Council becoming the face of the Arctic in the public’s mind.

Even as the Arctic Council has moved forward as the intergovernmental forum in the Arctic, so have increasing calls for more local input, regional participation, and inclusiveness. That said, the Arctic Council will remain the focal point for international cooperation into the future, even as the future of Arctic governance truly rests in the concerns and capabilities of local or regional collaboration, which is where the Northern Forum has a greater role to play.

Without formal and active engagement between the Arctic Council and the Northern Forum, efforts by either to address the economic, living, cultural and environmental conditions of northern peoples will fall flat.

In place of repeated calls for the Arctic Council to open its doors and for inclusion and transparency, we argue that that the current capabilities within the Northern Forum be harnessed to address this gap. The Northern Forum is already an “observer organization” to the Arctic Council and provides the means for regional inclusion and local investment in the Arctic Council. The challenge is to fully realize that potential.

We hope that the states, territories and other regional governments of the North can come together in a “New Northern Forum.” A Northern Forum with full participation across the Arctic, with active leadership from northern governors and premiers, and with robust participation in the Arctic Council would bring the reality, richness and responsibility of the Arctic back to the peoples of the Arctic.

It will take careful leadership from current and potential Northern Forum members to right the ship and steer it through this uncharted territory. It will take intentional collaboration between regional governments — each of which have pressing domestic concerns — but the long-term benefits will outweigh the costs as together northern peoples articulate very clearly shared and individual perspectives and priorities, and work to bring these and local assets into the outcomes of the Arctic Council.

At the same time, there are best practices that the Northern Forum can apply in the short term that will resonate with a broader membership and make its actions more effective. These include:

• Establishing a regional Secretariat in North America, the Nordic Arctic and Russia that can support a diverse membership

• Lowering membership fees to better attract regional governments, even as increased outreach is conducted to bring in local governments and the business community

• Developing and implementing a strategic plan that corresponds to the vision of northern governors, premiers and regional policymakers

A New (and Improved) Northern Forum has the potential to fully represent northerners in the policy-relevant discussions taking place at the Arctic Council. This step will also help realize the Arctic Council as a “model of cooperation” even as it advances local governance, which will be a critical element of the future of the Arctic.

Alaska’s Governor — and others — will need to act to fully leverage this opportunity. They can do this by working together within the Northern Forum structure, reinvigorating and investing in this body in a way not seen since Gov. Hickel.

The founding members of Northern Forum included: Yukon; Heilongjiang Province; Lapland; Hokkaido; Dornod, Mongolia; Trondelag and Tromso, Norway; Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and Magadan Oblast, Russian Federation; the Republic of Korea; and Alaska.

Alaska State Sen. Lesil McGuire is the current co-chair of the Senate Special Committee on the Arctic and the former co-chair of the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission.  During her tenure as president of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region she established the Arctic Caucus where she serves as co-chair. Nils Andreassen is the executive director of the Institute of the North, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to inform public policy and cultivate an engaged citizenry. The Institute has a legacy working on Arctic infrastructure priorities and policies that serve to strengthen and connect northern communities. 

Updated: 
10/14/2015 - 2:31pm

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