Small Pacific Island States: Big Players in Sustainable Development

By Claire Van der Vaeren, Chief, Country Office Liaison and Coordination, Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific

May 23, 2024
Coral transplant work in Tuvalu

Through the coral restoration initiative, UNDP and its partners in Tuvalu are working to restore the health of the reefs by using a variety of techniques such as coral propagation and transplantation. This involves growing new coral in a nursery and then transplanting it to the reefs, where it can grow and help to rebuild the damaged areas.

UNDP Pacific Office

In discussions on the future of our planet, the spotlight often falls on large, economically robust nations. Yet nestled in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean are small island states whose critical contributions to sustainable development too often go underappreciated. These islands, despite their geographic remoteness and limited scale, are innovators to watch and emulate in the quest for a sustainable future. They are of high significance for us at UNDP, and our partnerships between Pacific SIDS, the international community and UN entities are particularly relevant as we approach the 4th International Conference on SIDS in Antigua and Barbuda.


The Climate Change Vanguard

Small Pacific islands are on the frontlines of climate change, experiencing its impacts earlier and more acutely than most other regions. Rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, and more frequent extreme weather events have become their new norm, threatening not only physical landscapes, but also the islands’ cultural and economic fabric. An upcoming UNDP policy paper, for example, explores the impact of climate change on Pacific islands youth, with its implications for challenges youth around the world may one day face. As harbingers of the existential threat posed by climate change, Pacific islands’ experiences and adaptive strategies contain lessons that the global community cannot afford to ignore.


Adaptive Pioneers

Pacific island nations are, by sheer necessity, exemplars of resilience, often first to adopt new adaptive strategies. For example, through partnership with the Tuvalu government and several donors, UNDP’s Coastal Adaptation Project has made significant progress in land reclamation and shoreline protection, using sustainable and affordable techniques to keep the island above sea levels beyond 2100. The project uses highly sensitive lasers to measure land and seafloor heights, which allows for more targeted placement of large sandbags to stabilize the shoreline. The combination of precise mapping and innovative engineering strengthens the island against rising sea levels and future storms, showcasing a scalable model of climate resilience.


Investable solutions to harness Ocean potential

Pacific SIDS’ small populations, scattered across numerous islands, make economies of scale elusive. Dependence on imports, high transportation costs, and limited diversification further strain their economic stability. Youth unemployment rates hover around 15%. Despite contributing just 0.1% of global carbon emissions, the Pacific region faces escalating climate shocks, straining fiscal resources and exacerbating the risk of debt distress.  


Pacific SIDS’ vast oceanic resources can be leveraged for sustainable development. These nations control exclusive economic zones extending up to 200 nautical miles from their land, rich in both living (e.g., fisheries) and non-living (e.g., minerals) resources. Sustainable management of these resources can foster vibrant marine economies through sustainable fishing and aquaculture, the leveraging of marine biotechnology and bio-products, and resilient marine connectivity with a new generation of electric vessels, while also protecting and managing sustainably mineral extraction marine biodiversity.


Tourism, driven by the natural beauty of these islands, offers an avenue for sustainable economic growth. However, it must be managed in a way that preserves the unique ecosystems that attract visitors in the first place. Initiatives like the Blue Accelerator Grant Scheme and Fiji’s Sovereign Blue Bond are prime examples. Launched in 2023, Fiji’s blue bond focuses on nature-based coastal protection, scaling up aquaculture, developing sustainable towns and cities, and enhancing waste management systems.


Governance and Innovation

Pacific islands are becoming hubs of innovative governance, developing agile governance frameworks capable of responding to complex pressures, from social and economic shifts to environmental crises. 


Some states are pioneering virtual governance models to maintain statehood and citizenship in the face of rising sea levels. In Vanuatu, the introduction of the National Identity Card as the sole source of voter registration is a step towards more inclusive elections. Meanwhile, in the Solomon Islands, efforts to strengthen electoral institutions are enhancing participatory governance.  


UNDP has been instrumental in supporting these and other initiatives, helping to craft frameworks that are anticipatory, agile, and adaptive. This includes strengthening public financial management, enhancing transparency and accountability, and leveraging digital technologies to improve public services. 


For example, UNDP’s ‘Floating Budget Office’ supports independent and neutral budget analysis for Pacific members of Parliament, in a region where most parliaments are without an office or support staff who can provide such analysis – thus strengthening effective oversight functions and informing the budget debate and vote in Parliament. 


Digital Transformation

Digital innovation is another critical area where Pacific SIDS are making significant strides. Digital tools are being leveraged to enhance service delivery, expand financial inclusion, and improve connectivity. For example, the Digital Readiness Assessments in the Cook Islands and Niue have laid the groundwork for comprehensive digital strategies that address infrastructure, governance, regulation, business, and people. UNDP’s support has focused on developing national digital transformation strategies and building capacity for resilient, inclusive digital economies.


Expanding collaboration: 2024, a year for the Pacific SIDS

The unique circumstances of Pacific SIDS warrant robust international attention and support.  Small as they are, Pacific island states are giants in the realm of sustainable development. By paying close attention to these islands and supporting their initiatives, we can learn how to build a more sustainable and resilient world for all. The partnership between these island states and the United Nations is essential for global sustainability.