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Small Islands - Big Potential



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Anwarul Chowdhury

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury discusses the current status of small island developing states in the context of the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States.

The author is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States and Secretary-General of the Mauritius International Meeting for the Review of the Barbados Programme of Action.

Ten years ago, the international community gathered in Barbados to agree on a broad-based plan of action for the sustainable development of the small island developing states (SIDS). The plan covers 40-plus such islands sprinkled all over our planet, ranging from Tuvalu (with the smallest population, of 10,000) to Papua New Guinea (the largest, with five million) - two big concentrations being in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Vulnerability - economic, environmental and social - continues to be a major concern for countries in their development efforts. No single group of countries is as vulnerable as these small island states, and that places them at a distinct disadvantage compared to larger countries. Beyond their idyllic natural beauty lies a fragility that makes these countries so vulnerable that they needed to draw up a special global endeavour to overcome their complex challenges and make their development sustainable.

Their smallness is compounded by remoteness, isolation from the mainstream of the world economy and international trading system, ecological fragility and environmental degradation, marine pollution, and over-dependency on tourism as a major source of national earning. All these factors contribute to their slow and complex development process.

Sandra Pierantozzi While images of swaying palm trees and white-sand beaches prevail in the world's imagination, they are only one part of the story. In truth and in fact, the remoteness and isolation of Palau make it a very difficult place to develop a self-reliant economy, provide medical care and education to its people, and deter aggression and terrorism. Fuel and transportation prices are among the highest in the world and our most promising hope for the development of a sustainable economy, our pristine environment, is threatened by factors beyond our control, such as the failure of all industrialized countries to come to an agreement to implement the Kyoto Protocol.
Sandra S. Pierantozzi, Vice-President, Palau

SIDS contribute the least to global climate change and sea-level rise, but suffer most from their adverse effects and could, in some cases, become uninhabitable, as indicated in the Barbados Programme of Action. It has been rightly observed that "as island societies strive to raise living standards for growing numbers of people and struggle to survive in a complex global economy, they often sacrifice the fragile ecosystems which are among the most valuable assets." They continue to experience stress that they can hardly cope with by themselves.

Fradique Bandeira de Melo de Menezes As an island nation, Sao Tome and Principe continues to see our very existence threatened by global warming. Our shorelines erode, our national territory shrinks as the seas rise. Is my small country to end up nothing but a tiny volcanic peak sticking up above the waves with the last of our people clinging to the land left unclaimed by the rising sea? The Kyoto Protocol must be implemented by all for the benefit of all.
Fradique Bandeira de Melo de Menezes, President, Sao Tome and Principe

Both in its Millennium Declaration of 2000 and in the development goals identified in that historic document, the United Nations has recognized SIDS' special needs. The Barbados Programme of Action of 1994 is the first ever intergovernmental policy prescription to integrate the small islands into the world economy. But after decade-long serious efforts, this well-crafted and elaborate document has remained largely unimplemented. The well-intentioned commitments in 14 priority areas have failed to get the required political will to turn them into real actions.

The "new and equitable partnerships for sustainable development" promised to them have remained elusive. The need for national-level action has been repeatedly emphasized, but it has been often forgotten that these countries have limited capacity to respond to the never-ending challenges they face and to recover from recurring disasters. Despite all the demanding national-level actions they have undertaken, the requisite external support has persistently evaded them.

Kessai Note Along with other low-lying island nations, we are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We are already experiencing these dramatic effects - sea levels are rising, weather patterns are changing, and coral reef systems are being harmed. Urgent action is needed at the global level to halt and ultimately reverse the devastating impacts of climate change. Without such global action, our national efforts at sustainable development will ultimately be rendered meaningless.
Kessai Note, President, Marshall Islands

A serious effort was made in September 1999 - at a two-day special session of the United Nations General Assembly - to conduct a five-year review of the Barbados Programme, but the outcome did not have the desired effect of galvanizing the global support the SIDS needed. Indeed the overall disbursement of international assistance to them has fallen from US$2.9 billion in 1994 to US$1.7 billion in 2002. Though the Millennium Declaration, the Monterrey Consensus and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation all recognized their special needs, international support to these countries has been minimal.

Now the General Assembly has decided to undertake a ten-year review at the International Meeting in Mauritius in January 2005. The host country is also the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, the group that has the responsibility of substantive negotiations on behalf of these countries. With nearly a decade's experience of the implementation process, the United Nations is well placed to articulate a worthwhile outcome at Mauritius.

We must keep the focus on an outcome that is practical, cost effective, benefits the neediest in society - and is, above all, implementable. Focus on key priorities through enhanced regional integration would surely be considered a pragmatic approach. As we engage ourselves in the ten-year review of the Barbados Programme, the prospects for enhanced international development assistance are not in any way significant. Hence, a greater degree of realism is called for in the exercise we are embarking upon, especially in the priorities that the SIDS intend to set for themselves. Importantly, we have to determine what worked against the effective and speedy implementation of the Barbados Programme.

Baldwin Spencer Grenada and Haiti are now in a condition comparable to a massive bombardment. Against this backdrop, I urge the United Nations - every single nation large and small - to intervene in those two Caribbean countries devastated by recent hurricanes. The two Caribbean countries are certifiably disaster areas. In this age of globalization, where the emphasis is on bigness, being small is definitely a disadvantage of major magnitude. Small economies cannot easily diversify production. Jobs are concentrated in a limited number of industries, namely agriculture, tourism and services. Tragically, we are now encountering a situation where our unemployed young people are easily induced into the drug trade.
Baldwin Spencer, Prime Minister, Antigua and Barbuda

The smallness and the remoteness of SIDS continue to pose serious problems in providing international aid and enhancing foreign investments. In many cases projects and programmes are not viable when targeted for specific countries. However, many of the social, economic and human development projects and programmes could prove viable and yield better results when SIDS band together to integrate their economies and meet common challenges.

The small island developing countries need to increase their efforts to hasten the pace of regional economic integration. However, it is worth noting that, at the regional level, they have made advances in putting appropriate policy frameworks and arrangements into place to integrate their economic, social and environmental approaches to a sustainable development focus. These actions - including significant initiatives by the Pacific Islands Forum and the Caribbean Community - will undoubtedly help them to maximize the opportunities available.

Laisenia Qarase As we begin negotiations with the European Union for the continuation of [existing trade] arrangements, we are finding to our dismay that the World Trade Organization's insistence on free and open trade will effectively mean for many African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, including Fiji, a massive loss in export earnings from reduced prices. For our sugar industry, the direct consequence will inevitably be that the price the cane farmers receive will fall substantially below their production costs. These WTO hurdles are made more difficult by the loss of competitive margins through the withdrawal of schemes like the Generalized System of Preferences. The consequence is that many small island developing states, already disadvantaged by their smallness, distance from export markets, and regular devastation from natural disasters are now faced with serious uncertainty over their economic prospects.
Laisenia Qarase, Prime Minister, Fiji

Attracting more foreign direct investment to take advantage of SIDS' economic potential and to strengthen the hands of the domestic private sector is easier said than done. Their inherent handicaps - particularly small populations, lack of technological sophistication and narrow resource bases - pose obstacles in competing for the foreign direct investment needed if they are to avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the globalization process. Globalization is based on opportunities for cost reduction and economies of scale, which small islands cannot easily offer. Special and creative ways and means must be found to attract foreign investments.

Tuila'Epa Sailele Malielegaoi Our Pacific island nations, including my own country, know from bitter experience of cyclones that regularly batter our region, of the disheartening effect of disasters in setting back in a matter of hours hard-earned development achievements of many years. SIDS concerns and the vulnerability of our nations are therefore quite real. While we accept the primary responsibility for achieving the goals of the [Barbados] Programme of Action, the reality is that the support of the international community is indispensable to success. Trade is a vital component of sustainable development especially for small island developing states. We therefore continue to urge that the vulnerabilities of small states are taken into full account in the WTO negotiations particularly with regard to special and differential treatment for small economies.
Tuila'Epa Sailele Malielegaoi, Prime Minister, Samoa

The effectiveness of the monitoring mechanism is key in implementing any negotiated document among governments. It is also important to set the right tone by sequencing a congenial and practical negotiating process among all stakeholders. Regional meetings in Samoa, Cape Verde, Seychelles, and Trinidad and Tobago brought in an elaborate set of recommendations, which were blended together in a SIDS strategy paper at an interregional gathering in the Bahamas in January this year. There was then a three-day preparatory meeting in New York in mid-April involving SIDS and all their development partners.

Ralph Gonsalves Today in Grenada there is no economy, no functioning government as we have come to accept that term, and a highly traumatized civil society. The crisis in Grenada, occasioned by nature, prompts St. Vincent and Grenadines to give the highest priority to the International Conference in Mauritius in January of next year when the specific and distinct problems of small island developing states will be highlighted. We will be stressing the need for the international community to take urgent action on the problem of global warming and climate change which, if left unchecked, could lead in this century to a global human and economic calamity.
Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister, Saint Vincent and Grenadines

If the Mauritius meeting is to have a meaningful outcome that has the maximum support of the international community, it is essential that the donor countries, relevant United Nations entities, multilateral financial institutions, the private sector and civil society enthusiastically participate in and contribute to this process. The spirit of partnership is the most important ingredient in making the outcome worthwhile and its realization possible. The international community, equipped with the lessons of the last ten years, now needs to come together to support - in real terms - the genuine aspirations of the small island developing states and their determined effort for a new resurgence in Mauritius to bring true benefit and progress for the women, men and children of this most vulnerable segment of humanity.

Recognizing this reality, our slogan for the Mauritius International Meeting should appropriately be "Small Islands, Big Potential".


Further information
Francois Coutu, Development Section, Strategic Communication Division, UN Department of Public Information, Room S-1040 G, United Nations, New York, NY 10017, USA. Email: coutu@un.org. Web: www.un.org/smallislands2005/.
Nosh Nalavala, Communications and Media Officer, UN Office of the High Representative, 336 East 45th Street, UH-807, New York, NY 10017, USA. Fax: +1-917-3673415. Email: nalavala@un.org. Web: www.un.org/ohrlls/.

On the Web
Further information concerning the review of progress in implementing the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States can be found at the conference website. The Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary presents a listing of theme sites on Small Island Developing States.

Acknowledgements
The main text of this feature is taken, with permission, from an article published in Our Planet (Volume 15, Issue 1, 2004). The quotations are taken from speeches in the opening week of the 59th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004. A webcast of the declarations and the full text of the statements are available. The editors thank Francois Coutu of the Strategic Communication Division of the UN Department of Public Information and Nosh Nalavala of the UN Office of the High Representative for their assistance.

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Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Updated: April 12th 2013