Human Development

Arctic Human Development Report
measures local human development
Small-scale production
– a major pillar of the Arctic economy
Kinship ties
remain a focus for meaning and identity in Arctic towns

Main approaches

Over recent years, a holistic approach to human development and wellbeing has emerged as an important alternative to more traditional, economic measurements of standards of living and quality of life such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. This reorientation has led to the rise of new approaches to governance and corporate ethics and self-regulation, such as environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and corporate social responsibility (CSR), amongst others.

The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI) has delineated three distinct factors to consider when assessing human development. These include: 1) having a long and healthy life (measured by life expectancy at birth), 2) being knowledgeable (measured by adult literacy rates and access to primary education), and 3) having a decent standard of living (measured by GDP per capita).

Alternative system

While many Arctic indigenous peoples would not receive high HDI scores, this does not mean that the traditional lifestyle they lead or the social institutions that exist in their communities are inferior to those of societies ranking higher in the HDI. What is more, indigenous peoples do not generally see themselves as falling behind in either human development or well-being, which suggests that the HDI excludes dimensions that are relevant to the lives of indigenous peoples in the Arctic.

Criteria for measuring human development need to be adapted to reflect any region or culture-specific aspects of a good life. Indigenous peoples living traditional lifestyles in the Arctic, for instance, consider continued access to hunting, gathering, and herding, amongst other activities, critical. Such activities constitute knowledge that is passed down from generation to generation through experiential learning. School enrolment and adult literacy rates may, therefore, not be the sole or even the optimal indicators of levels of education in indigenous societies. Such aspects cannot be assessed through indicators such as GDP per capita, which, by its very nature, also includes access to material goods and services that indigenous peoples may see as an impediment to overall wellbeing. Indigenous peoples also associate human development with the ability to walk one’s own path and control one’s own fate, belong to a local culture and practice its traditions, and have close contact with the natural world, all experiences that in indigenous culture ultimately even take precedence over another key HDI criteria, that of longevity.

An alternative system of measuring human development is the Arctic Human Development Report (both I and II), which was initiated by the Arctic Council and includes indicators that are more reflective of the Arctic indigenous lifestyle.

Economic development

There is movement towards better representation of indigenous peoples across the Arctic. The small-scale production of traditional products for local use, family-based commercial fishing, and traditional fishing, hunting, gathering, and animal husbandry-related activities continue to constitute one of the pillars of the Arctic economy, which is why it is essential that local resources remain accessible to local populations and indigenous peoples are better represented in decision-making and governance at all levels, whether regional, national, or international.

Another pillar of the Arctic economy is the large-scale production of resources for global markets, which both exposes Arctic societies to globalisation and makes local interests susceptible to external influences and unstable global markets. Globalisation also introduces greater cultural diversity, which risks supplanting local traditions, making cultural revalisation all the more important.

The production of raw materials helps sustain the industrialised world, which means that the Arctic’s formal economy fulfils a very important geopolitical function.


Education statistics are not collected in the same way across the Arctic, which makes it hard to evaluate this indicator. Though formal education risks standardising knowledge and provoking cultural loss, it can also be a tool for renewal. For instance, traditional indigenous languages and knowledge are increasingly being integrated into formal schooling, which helps cultural revitalisation efforts and enables indigenous peoples to find a balance between a traditional lifestyle and “modernity,” instead of having to choose one in favour of the other. Flexibility and the integration of both traditions and “modernity” carry major benefits, such as variety, dynamism, and increased adaptability to emerging challenges. Local communities are also increasingly implementing measures to reinforce existing kinship ties despite challenges to traditional lifestyles posed by urbanisation and globalisation. Paradoxically, the same factors that may accelerate globalisation and identity loss, like the internet and social media, can also facilitate revitalisation efforts.


Health issues are unique to each Arctic community and there is thus a need for flexibility in community-based services. Many Arctic communities take a hybrid approach to healthcare, embracing both the latest health technology and traditional approaches to healing.

Photo: Richard Jacyno/IStock

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