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Resource banks or perennial recipients?

The development debate in the northernmost areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland is of course far from new but since regionalisation reforms were launched and to some extent also realised in the Nordic countries it has received further impetus.

Should the northernmost areas be seen as hosting indispensable banks of resources for their national economies or rather are they perpetually in need of significant support through fiscal transfers? Can and should these regions be agents of their own development or must forever they depend on state initiatives?

Ultimately, these are political questions but insights from studies on how regional actors in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland perceive their own regions can contribute to the debate.

The northernmost parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland constantly find themselves to be the target of various national strategies and initiatives as well as of the redistribution of resources designed to create and secure economic and social development in these areas. More recently, EU structural funds have also become an important source of income for development projects in these northernmost areas.

Debate on regional policy in all three countries has to a large extent become a question of how to ensure that people have the ability to continue to inhabit all parts of the national territory with much of the focus here on the northernmost areas. The general shift in regional policy in the Nordic countries towards a greater focus on the potentials of each region and on regions as the agents of their own development has made actors in the northernmost regions more self-confident in formulating their own strategies for development.

The northernmost areas of Norway, Finland and Sweden are of course embedded in different national systems but they share many similar characteristics; economies based on natural resources; long distances between settlements and low population density, and thus they clearly exhibit common challenges and opportunities. Frequent cooperation across national borders on culture, health care, business development etc., also helps to strengthen the links between actors in these areas.

Stakeholders in the northernmost areas often express a genuine desire to handle things in their own way within their own regions. They have a positive perception of the potential associated with the continuing use of natural resources notably mining, fisheries and in North Norway, oil and gas as well as the prospects for new branches like those of the car testing industry, ICT and the development of new ways of making use of sea-based resources (bio-prospecting). Regional and local stakeholders wish to steer this development themselves as they argue that the best knowledge and skills base to do this is often located within the region.

At the same time, doubts exist over whether the capability exists within the region to deal with emerging challenges and opportunities. The main argument here is that the state is often seen as being reluctant to devolve enough decision-making power to these regions to enable them to effectively steer their own path towards development.

Questions also arise over the particular characteristics of these areas; low population densities and long travel distances etc., create doubts about whether such regions can really be the agents of their own development. There is however a conviction, although somewhat hesitant, that increased decision-making power will in and of itself create the self-confidence necessary for them to be able to effectively drive their own development processes.

Lisa Hörnström

Senior Research Fellow