Our Perspectives

Can small islands expect a sea-change from the latest UN development conference?


Women in a farming village in ComorosNew irrigation methods revive farming in a Comorian village. Photo: UNDP/Comoros

This week, the tiny Pacific island of Samoa is hosting the UN’s 3rd international conference on small island developing states – or SIDS.

It’s a novelty for sure; an island nation of less than 190,000 people suddenly plays host to over 3000 people from around the world. But the island’s embrace of the event is also indicative of the scale of what’s at stake; it’s about survival. Climate change threatens to not only undo many years of impressive development progress but to erase whole countries and cultures. A few days ago, the Prime Minister of Samoa wrote simply, ‘we are drowning’.

So what will be achieved this week? With small populations and limited international influence many islands often slip through the cracks in larger – and wealthier – countries’ list of priorities.

Most SIDS have underscored their significant fragility and vulnerability, especially to shocks such as extreme weather events. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan laid waste to the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. The devastation caused over US$1 billion in damages, equivalent to over 200% of the country’s GDP. In addition to the terrible human cost of such disasters, there are also significant reconstruction costs and some countries have seen their debt burdens climb considerably.

So SIDS want to know how world plans to help them out. But many islands are also leading by example and showcasing innovations in areas such as renewable energy and the ‘blue economy’. Our joint report with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) – ‘island innovations’ –shows how SIDS have pioneered innovative approaches towards managing their fragile environments.

UNDP has been an important partner in many of these initiatives and our programmes cut across a wide range of areas.

In Samoa this week, we launched with UNCDF the next phase of the Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme, a facility to help low-income and rural Pacific islanders access affordable savings, insurance, credit and other financial services. It has enhanced access to financial services for almost 700,000 people across several Pacific islands.

We also work to support small islands to plan for, attract, negotiate and manage climate finance. With our help, 38 SIDS leveraged over US$550 million in funds from GEF and these funds generated a further US$500 million from other sources. 

Another major topic has been renewable energies. With support from UNDP, Tokelau, in the Pacific, is now powered by 100% renewable energy and has one of the world’s largest off-grid solar systems.

Money is an issue which comes up time and time again. SIDS’ climate adaption needs are often not a priority when it comes to development aid (4% of Official Development Assistance is allocated to SIDS). Some ‘emerging’ donors have stepped in to help fill the gap but more finance is clearly needed.

As our Administrator Helen Clark emphasized, the debt sustainability challenges of SIDS need to be tackled in a more serious way and the eligibility criteria for concessional finance reviewed so that more SIDS can access cheaper finance.

‘There is hope’ is the theme song of this year’s SIDS conference. Many Samoans are not only proud to host this major international event but are optimistic about their nation’s future. Let’s hope indeed they are right.

Small island developing states Climate change Disaster risk management Environment

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