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Islands are the canaries in the coal mine for how we treat our planet. Photo UNDP Maldives


I love working for islands, and not just because of their nature, people and weather. Islands are the canaries in the coal mine for how we treat our planet. They are not responsible for climate change, but bear the brunt of its impact.

Islands may be “big ocean states”, but their small size poses challenges: over-dependency on food and energy imports and on a few economic sectors like tourism. The so-called “brain drain” of talent makes it even tougher to manage its cost and waste. As Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face similar challenges, it only makes sense that solutions are shared, to do more with less and not reinvent wheels. Also, due to their constraints, islands are laboratories for sustainable solutions for the rest of the world.  We need to bridge these islands of knowledge!

This is where UNDP’s Centre of Excellence for SIDS (COE) comes in. It is a relatively young initiative, launched by the Government of Aruba and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. I became its manager in 2016 after 10 years at the World Bank Group in Washington, DC.

The COE helps SIDS with their sustainable development challenges. We facilitate knowledge flows in sustainability, innovation and resilience in ways that our audience of policymakers prefer. Using innovative approaches and leveraging our network, we manage to do a lot with a little, all for a positive impact on islands. It often reminds me of Churchill’s quote: “Now that we have run out of money, we have to think.” So here is my thinking: 3 lessons on how we’ve managed to do more with less. Hopefully it can inspire organizations, small and large, to rethink approaches in development:

1.       Focus on knowledge demand

I believe that the smaller you are, the more demand-driven, innovative you need to be to add value. With limited resources, the margin for error (read: supply-driven knowledge) is small. Yes, all SDGs are equal, but for islands, some are more equal than others, such as SDG 14 on oceans, and SDG 7 on energy. So when close to 30 SIDS attended our inaugural training on Aruba, we asked what topics were top-of-mind. In all our offerings, we address that demand, such as our case study on the world’s most sustainable resort, or our side-event at the Ocean Conference. We often don’t need to be the expert on these topics, but rather play the role of knowledge broker. And it helps to be based on an island, to personally see the latest developments, such as waste solutions, wind farms and marine parks. For example, Aruba has appointed a national Chief Innovation Officer, an interesting development for other SIDS to watch.
 

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Islands may be “big ocean states”, but their small size poses challenges: over-dependency on food and energy imports and on a few economic sectors like tourism. Photo: iStock / WhitcombeRD/ UNDP

 

2.     Leverage complementary networks

For all activities, we first ask: has anyone done this before? If so, let’s talk. If not, let’s find a partner with similar objectives and complementary skills, so we can be an enabler of solutions for islands. This way we could deliver an online course on sustainable energy for SIDS policymakers with a small budget. We partnered with Hamburg University which had an existing course that we tailored to our audience. Close to 400 people participated in our course. We have partnered with applied research firm TNO to provide in-country assistance in renewable energy, sustainable tourism and waste management in Antigua, Jamaica, Seychelles, and Vanuatu. And to leverage private sector financing, we recently partnered with Ernst & Young, who shared the costs to deliver a Build Back Better week on St. Maarten. Collaborating to leverage others’ complementary skills should be the new normal in development.

3. Create smart, fun combinations

To stand out among the giant institutions in development, we must do things differently. For example, the St. Maarten event combined a hackathon for resilience with youth engagement and trade missions from other islands. This greatly enriched the event from a knowledge perspective and demonstrated that serious topics can be addressed in fun and engaging way. The event was more an unconference than a UN-conference, as strangers formed teams and worked for 48 hours to come up with solutions for a more resilient island. The winning team (of a total of 21) “Green Box” proposed an app for tracking and rewarding people for recycling their waste. It was inspiring, and at times emotional, as many attendees had suffered through the hurricanes, including the Prime Minister, who went off-script with personal reflections, after delivering her prepared speech.

These three lessons allow us to be demand-driven and do relatively much with limited resources. So what’s the biggest challenge? It’s time. Time to find partners to scale what we have done, and for us to adopt and leverage what others have done. So let’s talk, and bridge islands of knowledge!
 

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