Small islands,
big potential

Anwarul K. Chowdhury
assesses the prospects for a new resurgence of the most vulnerable section of humanity at the Mauritius meeting

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 5 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.

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.

Elusive promises
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.

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 $2.9 billion in 1994 to $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 August 2004. 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.

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.

Overcoming obstacles
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.

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.

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’

Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury 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 for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States.

PHOTOGRAPH: Dawee Chaikere/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: