The powerhouse behind the scenes

Nina Buvang Vaaja has shaped the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS) like no other. When her term as Director ends in August, she will have served the Arctic Council for twelve years. During that time, she has helped to develop the Secretariat and to turn it into what it is today: the Council’s strong backbone. This is a portrait about Nina and about the ACS, two stories that have become closely intertwined.
Nina Buvang Vaaja has shaped the Arctic Council Secretariat like no other.

“For many of us, Nina has been the Arctic Council Secretariat,” says Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland, who knows Nina from her own time as the Senior Arctic Official for Norway. And although Nina Buvang Vaaja might only have served as the ACS Director for the past four years, her role in the Secretariat reaches much further back. Indeed, it goes beyond the inception of the standing Arctic Council Secretariat itself; it began at the end of the Norwegian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2009.

“I was working at the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs, in the same department as the Norwegian Chair of the Senior Arctic Official at the time, Karsten Klepsvik. And, as the Council’s Ministerial meeting in Tromsø was approaching, I volunteered to help as I was very interested in Arctic affairs,” tells Nina. She knew that there was a secretariat, and that it was located in Tromsø. That was all she needed to know to make up her mind.

Nina had already worked for the Ministry for a few years. She had been posted to both Murmansk and Rome. But with two small children, who longed to see their grandparents, she was looking for career opportunities closer to home. And home is Tromsø.

The temporary Arctic Council Secretariat had been established in the regional capital of Northern Norway to serve the three consecutive Chairmanships of Nordic countries: Norway, the Kingdom of Denmark and Sweden. At that time, three people were staffing the Secretariat. It didn’t have its own legal status yet, so it was organized under the Norwegian Polar Institute, which soon also would become Nina’s employer.

“They were actually just advertising the position as leader of the temporary Secretariat when I assisted with the Tromsø Ministerial and so I applied and got the job.” Nina and her family moved up to Tromsø in August 2009 and her first task was to start working with the Danish Chairmanship. “And everything after that is history,” says Nina and laughs.

One of the first times: Nina at the Chair's table during the Senior Arctic Officials' meeting in Ilulissat 2010.

It’s indeed the history of how the Arctic Council got a standing secretariat. The temporary Secretariat had been a test run. Since its establishment in 1996, the Council’s Secretariat had moved with the respective Chairmanship. Every two years, a new website, new ways of working. But as the Arctic Council grew, the lack of administrative continuity, coordination, institutional memory and archiving of Arctic Council documents became a concern.

At the Nuuk Ministerial meeting in 2011, which marked the end of the Danish Chairmanship, the Ministers therefore decided to set up a standing Arctic Council Secretariat in Tromsø. As reflected in the report of Senior Arctic Officials to Ministers – and later repeated in the ACS’s Terms of Reference – the Secretariat “will enhance the objectives of the Arctic Council through the establishment of administrative capacity and by providing continuity, institutional memory, operational efficiency, enhanced communication and outreach, exchange of information with other relevant international organizations and to support activities of the Arctic Council.”

And so, in January 2013, the Host Country Agreement of the ACS was signed (by the Foreign Minister of Norway and the ACS Director) making the ACS an entity of its own and from 1 June the ACS became operational with Nina as its Deputy Director. “Nina’s previous experience was invaluable as we began to set up the standing Secretariat,” says the ACS’ first Director, Icelander Magnús Jóhannesson. Together, Nina and Magnús were deep-diving into the bureaucratic challenges of establishing a legal entity and they were – brick by brick – building a foundation for the Secretariat – under watchful eyes.

Signing of the Host Country Agreement in Tromsø in January 2013.

“It had been a long process to establish a standing secretariat and not everyone was convinced that it actually would be needed,” Nina remembers. One of the most important building blocks therefore was trust. Trust from the Arctic States, the Indigenous Permanent Participants, the Council’s Working Groups and Observers that the ACS would deliver and not overstep its competencies.

“The ACS moves in a grey zone: it’s not political but it’s not only administrative either. It’s somewhere in between, otherwise we would not be able to serve the Chair of the Arctic Council in a good way. And in all these years, we have managed to not overstep into the wrong zone. This is something I‘ve been very conscious about. There’s nothing more important for the ACS than to be credible, trustworthy and to be perceived as a common good to the Arctic Council,” says Nina.

The ACS can be regarded as a well-functioning clockwork that drives the Council’s work forward. In fact, most of the time, it runs so smoothly that its processes are hardly noticed. As confirmed by Finland’s Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, Aleksi Härkönen: “I don’t think I ever got to know everything that went on in the ACS because Nina made the distinction between small and big things, things she should tell me.”

When everyone gets their documents on time, knows which items are on the agenda and receives emails from the Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, few think about the hard work that is going on behind the scenes. “But if even a small thing doesn’t work – well, then it’s the Secretariat’s fault. So, it can be a bit unthankful in that regard,” Nina admits with a smile.

Nina welcoming Hillary Clinton at the Fram Center in 2012.

The Secretariat manages most of the Council’s correspondence, maintains its archive, communicates its successes and initiatives, arranges meetings and supports both two of the Council’s Working Groups and – when applicable – any Task Force(s) that have been established under a Chairmanship. In short: “The ACS structure is lean, efficient and flexible and has offered the Arctic Council exceptional value for money.” These are not Nina’s words (although they made her very happy), but those of the Icelandic National Audit Office, which reviewed the ACS’ performance in 2019. Six years after its inception – as specified in the Secretariat’s Terms of Reference.

But there’s no time for Nina or her team at the ACS to rest on their laurels. While the position of the ACS within the Council is set to a much larger extent than it was when the Secretariat was established, or even when Nina stepped up the ladder and became the ACS Director in 2017, it is by no means fixed. “The Secretariat does not operate in a vacuum, it will be changing constantly, and it will always have to adapt to a new Chairmanship. If a Chairmanship team wants our advice and experience, the Secretariat can thrive and develop, function as and build on the institutional memory. If it doesn’t – well then what would our role be,” Nina asks. A worst case that the Secretariat luckily has not yet needed to experience.

When Nina started at the temporary Secretariat, her team counted three. Today, there are fourteen employees, coming from six of the eight Arctic States. “We have been able to put together a good team with people that have different skillsets, different qualifications but work very well together and have one thing in common: an inner, deeper motivation for contributing, a belief in the cause of the Arctic Council. I think this is how we have been able to grow and to take on new tasks,” says Nina.

Some of her fondest memories of her time at the Arctic Council are tied to the team spirit at the ACS: “I think those moments that will stick with me longest are those that I have felt to be a part of a really strong team. When I felt that now we are all working together, all of our preparations are falling into place, and everyone knows what to do.”

Nina overseeing the signing of the Reykjavik Declaration at the Council's 12th Ministerial meeting. Here with Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

The ACS team spirit is not a coincidence, but a result of Nina’s leadership principles. Service-mindedness and the drive to help each other, is something that Nina fosters at all times – and traits that she reflects herself. Loyal, competent, kind and a great sense of humor are some of the attributes that people who have worked closely with Nina over the years assign to her.

These are the marks that she leaves on the ACS and the Arctic Council. How about vice versa? “How has the Council and the ACS shaped me…I’m not sure. It has definitely taught me a lot about multilateral and international work. And, working together with people from different countries and cultures probably has made an impact on me as a person,” Nina reflects.

Early on, Nina knew that she wanted to work in an international context. Different cultures, languages, belief systems, worldviews – and how these manage to work together – have always fascinated her. She has also come to realize that she is motivated by meaningfulness of her work: “To be able to contribute to something that is important and meaningful, something that has a larger goal.”

The coronavirus pandemic also required the Arctic Council to adapt its ways of working - with the help of the ACS.

So, which bigger vision will she contribute to once she leaves the ACS? “For now, I will move on to something that is more domestically focused. But I’m going to continue to work with many of the same issues that the Council deals with, especially with topics related to the ocean – and after all, the ocean connects peoples and cultures,” Nina says. On 1 August, she will assume the role of Manager of Barents Watch, a program under the Norwegian Coastal Administration that collects, develops and shares information about Norwegian coastal and marine areas.

She will leave the ACS with a strong a legacy. Or in Nina’s words: “I think I’m leaving the Secretariat in a good position to move into the future and to do big things.” A textbook example of Scandinavian modesty (she laughs as this is pointed out and adds: “that will never change”). For everyone who knows Nina and her work, it’s clear: she has been the powerhouse behind the scenes. The reputation of the ACS within the Council – and beyond – is proof of her hard work and something to safeguard in future.