Arctic Economic Council has ‘made light-years of progress,’ says chair

By Hege Eilertsen, High North News - February 3, 2017
The United States currently holds the rotating Chairmanship of the Arctic Economic Council. Chair Tara Sweeney comes from Barrow, Alaska, and she has previously been honored for her advocacy of Alaska Native rights and promoting local programs. (Pernille Ingebrigtsen / Arctic Frontiers)
Tara Sweeney currently chairs the Arctic Economic Council while the United States holds the rotating chairmanship. (Pernille Ingebrigtsen / Arctic Frontiers)

As Tara Sweeney, chair of the Arctic Economic Council, prepares to hand the fledgling organization over to Finnish leadership in a few months she says the group has made huge strides in a short time.

“Since we started from a blank piece of paper we have made tremendous progress,” Sweeney says.

The handover will happen later this spring, when Finland takes over the two-year long chairmanship of both the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council.

Almost two years have passed since Tara Sweeney was elected Chair of the Executive Committee in the Arctic Economic Council during the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iqaluit, Canada.

The history of the AEC is not much longer. Canada, which held the position as chair of the Arctic Council from 2013-2015, decided to establish the permanent organization in September 2014. The purpose for establishing the AEC was to facilitate Arctic business-to-business contact and responsible economic development, both through sharing of best practices, standards and innovative solutions. A permanent international secretariat located in Tromsø, Norway, officially opened in September, 2015.

“When I say that we have made light-years of progress, I am talking about the creation and the standing up of four working groups in major sectors that have a significant role in the economy of the Arctic. In addition to the working groups, we have put together the brick and mortar-foundation of this organization through the creation of the three-year strategic plan, and through the creation of rules and procedures that provide clarity on how to engage with the AEC,” Sweeney told High North News in Tromsø.

“Now we actually have a membership process for companies in the circumpolar Arctic and sub-Arctic if they they want to become members of the AEC,” she adds.

“If you couple those two things with the lightning speed in which we established a permanent secretariat office in Tromsø, just under a year and a half from we met in Iqaluit, in September 2014… That needs to be put into perspective when you look at an established organization like the Arctic Council. It took them almost two decades to establish a permanent secretariat, so that is an accomplishment, and it would not have happened without the significant support from Norway,” Sweeney says before she mentions everything from the the Norwegian Confederation of Industries, the overall Norwegian business community and the support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In April, Teero Vauraste, who is one of three Finnish business representatives to the AEC and currently vice chair of the organization, will take over the role as chair.

Vauraste is a well-known name in both Finland and other Arctic states also through his everyday-job as President and CEO in the Arctia Group, a state-owned company that is responsible for operating a Finnish icebreaker fleet.

“I am excited for Finland to take over because they have great ideas,” Sweeney says, adding that she appreciates the considerable support from the Finnish government. “When I took the role of Chair, I sat down with Teero and told him that he had my word that I will turn over a fully functioning organization; an organization that can support the work of Finland’s Chairmanship moving forward. It is nice to see the alignment between the AEC and the Chairmanship coming under Finland, the Chairmanship with the Arctic Council, and the collaboration that you see there.”

At present there are four working groups in the AEC: Maritime Transportation; Responsible Resource Development, Arctic Stewardship and Infrastructure: Telecommunications/Broadband.

Last week, the AEC and its Infrastructure group released a broadband-report, concluding that the Arctic is in danger of being left behind.

With only a few months left as chair of the AEC, Tara Sweeney still has a lot to complete while still holding the position:

“I am always looking for new and fun ways to develop the AEC and to grow the economy. Not only for big, multi-national companies that want to come up and do business in the Arctic. The heart of our northern communities are the small and medium enterprises, and they need support and growth as well.”

“We want to serve as a resource, and to partner and collaborate. Not only in the financial world, because you cannot do it in solos. It takes partnership and collaboration and building alignment and trust in order for business relationships to flourish and translate into tangible value for the Arctic region. We want to be a convener for experts, for investors, for local and indigenous knowledge – and the government.”

During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, several business-representatives and politicians from the circumpolar Arctic pointed out one significant challenge for the region: Educated people leave the area, or go away to receive education, and do not return again.

“We have got to create opportunities in the north so that we can combat brain drain from our communities, retain the top talent, and continue to make the North the most favorable place to live. We all want healthy and safe communities, good schools, and a great place to raise a family, and that comes through economic opportunities, growth, sustainability and stability.”