SIDS live on the front lines of climate change”: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

Though largely ignored by the world’s media, for four days in September, Mauritius, Seychlles, Dominica, St Lucia and other Small Island Developing States (SIDS) held the political spotlight. World leaders like the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, 21 heads of government the EU’s Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and over 3500 delegates were in Samoa debating their sustainable development.

But why all this interest? What is so special about these little countries?

In fact up till recently, popular wisdom was that there really was nothing remarkable about them. In 1999 the World Bank published, Small States, Small Problems? Income, Growth, and Volatility in Small States, by Easterly and Kraay. They concluded that “small states have perhaps received excessive attention…are no different from large states, and so should receive the same policy advice that large states do”.

Small states objected, claiming that the report showed neither understanding of nor sympathy for their situation and predicament. They feared that such thinking would undermine prospects for securing the international help they needed to tackle the major development challenges they faced. They therefore continued their campaign to change perceptions even though the UN had already, at a Global Conference in Barbados in 1994, drawn up a programme of action to support them.

The UN met in Mauritius in January 2005 to consider SIDS environmental, trade and economic development challenges. Interestingly for the first time, the role of culture in their sustainable development was frontally addressed.

Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon. Photo: 360B

Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon. Photo: 360B

The Road to Samoa

At RIO+20, the Global conference on Sustainable Development held in Brazil in June of 2012, SIDS hammered home their case. They got the UN to accept that their small size, remoteness, limited resources and exports, and severe economic and environmental challenges made them uniquely vulnerable. The conference’s concluding document, The Future We Want, formally accepted SIDS are a special case for sustainable development.

Ever since, islands in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Pacific and elsewhere had been preparing their positions for the summit in Samoa. They wanted, not lip service but concrete support from the international community. However to be able to enjoy special attention and privileges in the economic sphere, notably finance and trade, SIDS would need to be formally recognised as a distinct group of countries. The Indian Ocean Commission proposed a list of SIDS for approval.

The Summit

When the Summit got underway on the first of September, the islands explained the obstacles to their sustainable development including those due to climate change. They stressed that they cannot tackle them successfully on their own, but need international partnership and support.

Their prosperity and quality of life are largely influenced by the terms on which they trade with other countries and access international finance and how climate change is managed. But without much power at the international level, SIDS have little control over those levers of their engagement with the outside world. Their fate is in the hands of others.

Barbados’ Prime Minister Freudel Stewart summed up the challenge in his call for action. He said, “If we do not actively shape the future it will impose itself on us in ways that are fundamentally at variance with our interests.”

First victims of climate change

Ban Ki-Moon told the Summit; “SIDS live on the front lines of climate change”. He also spoke of the existential threats that some like the Solomon Islands face, where “a small town on Taro Island is planning to relocate its entire population”.

St Lucia’s Environment Minister, Dr James Fletcher recounted how in 2010 following the worst drought in 40 years, Hurricane Tomas brought death and destruction when it “deposited 24 inches of rain on the island in 24 hours”. This erased 50% of GDP.

An apt analogy is that of the canaries taken down the mines in the olden days. As the air became poisonous, the fragile birds collapsed giving early warning to the miners even before they began to be affected. Small islands are like these canaries and climate change the gas in the mine that will eventually kill everyone if the warning is not heeded.

Several speakers pointed to the irony that whilst small islands are being disproportionately harmed by global pollution and consequent environmental degradation, they are not the culprits. Seychelles Ambassador, Ronald Jumeau explained that climate change is worsening existing problems of water scarcity and food security.

Arvin Boolell, Mauritius’ Minister of Foreign Affairs described how climate change is threatening lives and undermining development efforts; “we cannot be expected to make progress towards the next level of development when our survival is uncertain and our limited resources are being diverted to managing the impacts of climate change” he said.

The S.A.M.O.A. Pathway

A 32 page declaration, The S.A.M.O.A. Pathway, that had been drafted two months earlier by Ambassadors in New York, was dutifully adopted by the Summit.

In order to reach agreement, SIDS would have had to drop or water-down some of those key demands that other parties would have objected to. In that way confrontation was avoided and smooth sailing assured in Samoa; though at the expense of the interests of the SIDS themselves.

The declaration is well-meaning, but SIDS are not celebrating. They fear that achieving their major objectives, in both the economic and environmental spheres is as remote as ever.

Dr Fletcher reflected the mood saying; “despite all the declarations, affirmations and reaffirmations, overall progress in surmounting the numerous challenges facing our community of island nations, has, over the last two decades been modest at best. Indeed in some areas there has been noticeable regression”.

During a very brief window in September global sympathetic attention was on SIDS. However if they were not able then to get their needs addressed, what hope can they have when the world’s focus moves on, and SAMOA is just a distant memory? There is still a long way to go for the world’s small islands.