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Understanding human development in the Arctic

A first-ever Arctic report on human development will be issued in 2004. The report is uniquely based on a mix of UN and traditional values and concepts. By Oran R. Young

The concept of human development has become popular in recent years among those seeking an alternative to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a measure of the quality of life. But what does this concept mean in the Arctic? This question has emerged as a key issue for those seeking to fulfill the Arctic Council’s mandate to produce an Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) in time for delivery at the next ministerial meeting in 2004
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has devised a Human Development Index (HDI) based on an average of three distinct factors: (1) a long and healthy life measured in terms of life expectancy at birth; (2) knowledge measured as a combination of adult literacy and school enrollments; and, (3) a decent standard of living construed as GDP per capita. Simple as it is, the HDI has allowed UN statisticians to show that beyond a certain point this broader measure of human development diverges significantly from GDP per capita.
This is an important result. But is the HDI a good measure of human development in the Arctic? It is hard to quarrel with some aspects of the HDI. Who does not wish to enjoy a long and healthy life? But the deeper team members behind the new Arctic report have delved into the meaning of human development in the Arctic, the more they have come to doubt the usefulness of the HDI in this setting.

The good life
Many Arctic residents – especially those who are indigenous to the region – associate a good life with the maintenance of traditional hunting, gathering, and herding practices. Yet it is difficult to use indicators like GDP per capita to measure the health of these subsistence systems. For many, a good life is one that minimizes the need for the sorts of material goods and services implicit in the idea of GDP per capita as a measure of welfare.
Nor is the situation any clearer with regard to knowledge. Arctic residents often possess extraordinary knowledge. But their education may not produce high scores in terms of measures like adult literacy and gross enrollments. Even the simple notion of life expectancy at birth is suspect in this setting. Living a long life is undoubtedly desirable. But what if the choice is between a shorter life rooted in traditional activities and a longer life spent trying to adjust to the loss of a deeply valued lifestyle and the need to function in an alien setting?

A broadend concept of HDI
Considering these issues, the Arctic Report’s Steering Committee decided early on that computing and tracking changes in the HDI should not be the starting point for the assessment of human development in the Arctic. The report will not contain an alternative index of human development that can be compared directly with the UN’s HDI. The issues at stake – ranging from efforts to establish rights through responses to rapid social change and on to the challenges of changing gender roles in the circumpolar world – are too complex for that.
Rather, the report will seek to broaden the concept of human development, documenting dimensions of the quality of life that are critical to Arctic residents but yet do not show up in any meaningful way in the HDI. The goal is to contribute to the development of Arctic-specific policies that will improve the quality of life in this region, without imposing a concept of human development that is not based on the realities of life in the Arctic and that does not capture the aspirations of many of the region’s residents.

ORAN R. YOUNG is Chair of the Board of Governors of the University of the Arctic. In that capacity, he serves as Co-chair of the Steering Committee of the Arctic Human Development Report.For more information on the project in terms of structure and process, chapters and lead authors, I recommend a visit to the web site of the project secretariat at the Stefansson Arctic Institute,