Small island developing states do not have the luxury of time

December 2, 2020


The COVID-19 pandemic has turned Small Island Developing States (SIDS) economies and livelihoods on end. Many of these island states depend heavily on tourism to drive their development. With international travel severely restricted this year as well as global supply chains disrupted, economic contractions of up to 15 percent are predicted. 

SIDS, while individually distinct, share a set of common social, economic and environmental characteristics making them a unique case for sustainable development. This puts them in a particularly difficult position to face the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effects on socio-economic welfare.  

They are also at the frontlines of climate change. Since 1970 it is estimated that SIDS have lost US$153 million to climate-related events. As a result, many also struggle with exceedingly high debt-to-GDP ratios, threatening their capacity to withstand these compounding crises.

Despite these challenges, island leaders have shown no lack of ambition to recover better and safeguard progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. They are at the forefront of climate action, appealing for enhanced global ambitions and efforts ahead of COP26. The unambiguous message coming from island leaders is that time is not a luxury they have.  

We must act now, as SIDS cannot afford to bypass the opportunity for transformation.

“COVID-19 has significantly disrupted economies and societies. Therefore, we must not only think outside the box, but we must also work outside the box,” said Kausea Natano, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu at the UN General Assembly this year.

SIDS see themselves as Large Ocean States, their ocean territories are some 20.7 times greater than their land area. As one of their greatest opportunities, they are pioneering the Blue Economy paradigm that promotes sustainable use of ocean resources while generating economic growth, jobs and social and financial inclusion, and  preserving and restoring ocean ecosystems.  

Seychelles has led by example, launching a first-of-its-kind sovereign blue bond, mobilizing US$15 million for blue economy projects.

A recent analysis shows that every US$1 invested in the sustainable ocean economy will yield at least US$5 in return. Expanding marine and coastal activities as a pathway to green recovery can diversify heavily tourist reliant economies, making them more resilient to future shocks.  

The blue economy is also essential for SIDS’ unrelenting fight against climate change. At the forefront of action, SIDS remain steadfast in their commitments to updating their Nationally Determined Contributions.

As a catalyst of these efforts, island states are accelerating digital transformation; investing in digital infrastructure and developing innovative solutions in response to the pandemic.

Investments in a submarine fibre optic cable are set to increase connectivity in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.  

To support these ambitious goals, UNDP’s ‘Rising Up for SIDS’ is an integrated approach targeting island states’ systemic vulnerabilities to act as a vehicle for green recovery and beyond based on three pillars of action:

1.      Amplifying climate action for decarbonized and resilient societies 

UNDP is increasing investment in supporting SIDS through their energy transitions, developing and implementing climate adaptation strategies and leveraging nature-based solutions. To realize their goals, UNDP is helping close the climate finance gap by mobilizing investment to facilitate the energy transition through initiatives like the Climate Investment Platform.

2.      Propelling the blue conomy for the wealth of island communities and health of oceans 

With international and local partnerships, UNDP is supporting both the preservation of marine and coastal biodiversity and the acceleration of the ocean economy sectors – centering on empowering and protecting livelihoods, especially vulnerable populations. Support is rooted in a commitment to the use of innovative blue financial instruments, including through the Global Fund for Coral Reefs.  

3.      Catalyzing digital transformation for inclusive societies and competitive economies  

Through strong partnerships and innovation networks, including the SIDS Accelerator Labs, UNDP is helping in their efforts to adapt to the digital age, adopting digital solutions including data-based decision-making processes. Accelerated and just digital transformation will act as a catalyzer for stronger climate action. It will also help SIDS remain connected to the global economy, boosting their competitiveness while improving social and financial inclusion.

UNDP's offer is rooted in a commitment to addressing one of the most pressing priorities for SIDS: financing for development. In the words of Tina Stege, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, “The COVID-19 crisis has compounded existing challenges, leaving many islands nations facing crippling debt, with the future of aid financing murky and insecure.”

Through assisting with mobilizing traditional and innovative finance through initiatives such as the Global Fund for Coral Reefs, UNDP supports SIDS in bridging their development finance gaps.

We are witnessing a moment of pivoting among SIDS. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly presented new and magnified existing hurdles. However, it also has inspired SIDS to reinvent, building forward stronger, greener, bluer in ways not previously imaginable. Now is the time to come together to rise up for SIDS.  

Watch the video to learn more about UNDP’s integrated Offer for Small Island Developing States.