Interview with the Arctic Council Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group

12 January 2021
What is the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group? What issues and projects is it involved in? Learn about this Expert Group of the Sustainable Development Working Group through this interview with its Chair, Embla Eir Oddsdóttir.

The Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group (SECEG) works under the direction of the Arctic Council Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). The Expert Group focuses on supporting SDWG by providing expert advice and conducting with projects and activities relating to social, economic and cultural issues in the Artic.

We spoke with Embla Eir Oddsdóttir, Chair of SECEG, about her experience, SECEG’s goals, the key issues and projects the Expert Group is engaged in and what inspires her about SECEG’s work.

What is your background, and how did you become Chair of the Arctic Human Health Expert Group?

I have been working on Arctic issues for over 15 years. My undergraduate studies were in socio-economic development. I have also studied international relations, human geography, anthropology and human adaptation. I pursued a Master of Science at London School of Economics in law, anthropology and society and I also completed a diploma level program at the University of Akureyri in Polar Law. This interdisciplinary background provides me with a fairly good overview of the context and issues handled by the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group (SECEG).

My interest in the Arctic region became concretized in 2004 when I was doing my studies at the University of Akureyri and I traveled to Siberia for a month. We visited various communities, including in the Chersky and Neryungri areas, and we were greeted by wonderful people in communities and reindeer herding camps. People shared their lives and taught us a little about the realities of environmental, social and cultural change. The way in which people in these pretty challenging regions adapt is phenomenal. We rode on reindeer sleighs; drove on ice roads; and in tanks, among other things. This journey was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I became completely obsessed with Siberia and the Arctic region. Which is probably why, despite not being particularly fond of being cold, I continue to work in this field.

When it was time for the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, I was asked by the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs to take on the role as Chair of SECEG. I saw this as a great opportunity to work in a field I was interested in and for a region that I am very fond of, so I accepted.

There is a need for experts to learn from Arctic communities. Exchanging knowledge is key to successfully doing research in the Arctic.Embla Eir Oddsdóttir

What is the goal of the Expert Group?

The goal of SECEG is manyfold and continues to evolve. SECEG has such a broad scope of issues – societies, economies and cultures encompass everything to do with human systems – so it can be challenging to prioritize. That said, a main goal is to support SDWG’s work that advances social, economic and cultural research, not least in terms of interdisciplinary holistic approaches to research. Also, to support work that engages with Indigenous experts and local communities. We provide SDWG and the Arctic Council with expertise and feedback such as advice on what the key and emerging issues are in the Arctic region.

We also facilitate engagement with experts outside of the Working Groups and Expert Groups of the Arctic Council where members do not necessarily have expertise. So, a very important component of SECEG is the networks of its members.

Similarly, there is a need for experts to learn from Arctic communities. Exchanging knowledge is key to successfully doing research in the Arctic. Recently, we saw the great value in this when SECEG helped assess the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the Arctic for the Covid-19 Briefing Document for Senior Arctic Officials.

[The Arctic Council's Covid-19 impact assessment] really crystallized issues of inequality and access to infrastructure, not just in terms of health care and health systems, but also in terms of potable water, food security and housing – to name a few examples. These issues speak to basic needs of communities and individuals, and as far as I am concerned, should be focused on heavily in the next few years.Embla Eir Oddsdóttir

What issues has the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group been working on recently?

There have been many, but one of the initiatives that was perhaps the most prominent this year was the work on assessing impacts of Covid-19 and measures adopted to respond to the pandemic on Arctic communities. This is something that SDWG and its Arctic Human Health Expert Group, with support of SECEG and Arctic Council Secretariat, conducted in spring 2020. I think when we look back on it, we will see that this was a very important endeavor. It really crystallized issues of inequality and access to infrastructure, not just in terms of health care and health systems, but also in terms of potable water, food security and housing – to name a few examples. These issues speak to basic needs of communities and individuals, and as far as I am concerned, should be focused on heavily in the next few years. It is likely that when we move on to a second phase in the Covid-19 impact assessment work, these will be issues of priority, also including connectivity, as this has powerful implications for providing health services and education for the future.

Another initiative we found to be of importance in 2020 was organizing sessions with the Arctic Resilience Forum, which was hosted by the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council and co-organized with SDWG and Harvard’s Belfer Center. We assisted in organizing sessions on socio-ecological systems, gender, green energy solutions and health and wellbeing. I found these sessions to be very interesting and an important addition to the dialogue on resilience in the Arctic, and I look forward to seeing this forum develop even further in the next few years.

What are some key projects the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group is involved in that we should keep an eye on?

One project to keep an eye on is a new one approved in September 2020 on the Water, Energy and Food (WEF) Nexus in the Arctic. WEF Nexus analyses have been done in different regions all over the world, but it has yet to be analyzed in the Arctic. It is important because it touches on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and speaks to maintaining and improving basic life supporting systems – food security, water security and energy security – and how these systems interact and impact each other. This is not least important in a region where increased economic activity is foreseeable in the future, and where there is a danger that if you do not assess these systems holistically, you may end up with one system suffering to the detriment of communities. We were able to secure funding from the Nordic Council of Ministers to engage in a feasibility study in the next year or so.

Gender Equality in the Arctic is another project to keep an eye on. It is a project that has been ongoing since 2013 and is currently in its third phase. SECEG members were an important part of the process of identifying emerging themes and key issues in general equality. A forthcoming report on gender equality in the Arctic will be presented at the 2021 Arctic Council Ministerial meeting.

What inspires you about the Social, Economic and Cultural Expert Group’s work?

What inspires me the most, recently, was the work relating to the Covid-19 Briefing Document. The experts in our network were willing to jump on board with no notice and share their time, knowledge and resources during a very intense period of collecting data, facilitating knowledge and writing the Briefing Document. People were already overwhelmed with work, and in a time where everyone is trying to adapt to an unfamiliar situation, both in terms of the pandemic itself and in terms of coping with restrictive measures. At the same time, they gave their time so willingly, I found that to be quite inspiring.