Small is

Jagdish Koonjul
outlines the special challenges faced by small island developing states in their pursuit of sustainable development

Small island developing states (SIDS) face vulnerabilities and challenges that other developing countries are spared. They have to contend with challenges arising from their physical size and archipelagic formations, their geographic location and other factors relating to their ‘islandness’. Vulnerabilities arise from exposure to external shocks beyond their control, and from structural handicaps – exacerbated by, among other things, a high degree of openness, export concentration and dependence on strategic imports; remoteness and high transport costs; and susceptibility to natural disasters made worse by climate change and sea-level rise.

The United Nations has recognized that there is a special case among SIDS for sustainable development, and that they require special attention. The Barbados Programme of Action provided them with the basic blueprint for sustainable development, but there has been very little tangible progress in accepting their special case. Their efforts to secure a more sustainable future have not been matched by international assistance – which has fallen by half in real terms. Only a few have been able to obtain foreign direct investments and, in most cases, these have gone towards privatizing state monopolies. So while the United Nations has stated clearly that SIDS are a special case for sustainable development, the international community has yet to take concerted and practical action to implement that principle.

As assistance declines – and their commitments under international agreements increase – many SIDS have sought to integrate and optimize their resources to enable them to cope better. Many have established national sustainable development councils and coordination mechanisms. These have been successful to some degree but have not reached the level at which they could be considered implementers of national sustainable development strategies, or of mainstreaming sustainable development. This shortcoming has been recognized, and there is a genuine drive to seek effective mechanisms for developing and implementing such strategies.

The strategies were demanded by Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, reaffirmed by the Barbados Programme of Action, and reiterated in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. All SIDS regions have reaffirmed the need to have them in place. Promoting the concept will require some further work, and practical measures for integrating policies – for making a holistic approach to government – will continue to be a challenge. Practical steps need to be taken, and SIDS have called for ‘best practices’ in this regard.

Growing vulnerabilities
The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) has assessed progress in implementing the Barbados Programme. Meeting in Nassau in January, our ministers noted that some progress has been made – but largely through our own domestic measures, despite the impediments of our structural disadvantages and vulnerabilities. They recognized that these vulnerabilities are growing and that SIDS will have to pay greater attention to sustainable development and to building resilience. They recognized the importance of international assistance in these tasks, and expressed great concern at the ‘weakening economic performance of many SIDS since the adoption of the Barbados Programme of Action, due in part to their declining trade performance’. They therefore emphasized the necessity for the international financial and trading systems to grant SIDS special and differential treatment.

SIDS have traditionally produced few commodities and many have enjoyed preferential market access for their products for decades. Those preferences are now rapidly eroding. This is likely to cause tremendous economic upheaval in many SIDS, as they find themselves at a new threshold in international trade.
The fragility of coastal zones calls for careful management
Their major challenge is not just to increase their share in world trade but – even more important – to gain enough leverage to shape World Trade Organization (WTO) rules to take account of their concerns, allowing them a conducive international environment to pursue their development goals. This can only happen through their wide and effective participation in WTO negotiations, which unfortunately is not the case.

Their meaningful participation in the negotiations has been handicapped by the lack of a critical mass in WTO membership as well as capacity and financial resources. Accession processes are too cumbersome for them and many do not have permanent representation in Geneva.

Their small administrations face great difficulties integrating into the multilateral trading system. Their inability to participate actively in the multifaceted WTO processes and to implement and administer WTO agreements effectively – compounded by their very limited capacity to formulate and administer trade policy – is likely seriously to marginalize them from the global economy.

Tourism has contributed enormously to the development of SIDS and, as one of their few development options, it will continue to be very important for their future growth. But if not properly planned and soundly managed, it could significantly degrade the very environment on which it so depends. The fragility and interdependence of coastal zones – and of the unspoiled areas essential for eco-tourism – call for careful management.

The UNEP GEO Reports on SIDS regions show considerable diversity within island states. The diversity and fragility of their environments are reflected in the diversity and fragility of their cultures. Protecting the former is an important condition for protecting the latter.

Disruption and conflict
Climate change has long been our preoccupation. It is indeed appropriate and timely that the Pentagon is seeking to understand its implications, concluding in a recent study that it ‘would challenge the United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately’.

The study predicts ‘mega-droughts’, flooding and violent storms, all on an apocalyptic scale, driving ‘waves of boat people’ from country to country; frequent wars over basic resources such as oil, food and water; deaths from war and famine until the planet’s population is reduced to a level the Earth can manage; and rich areas like the United States and Europe becoming ‘virtual fortresses’ to keep out millions of migrants forced from land drowned by sea-level rise or no longer able to grow crops. It concludes: ‘Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. Once again, warfare would define human life.’ SIDS have been emphasizing the importance of addressing climate change for decades – and are already experiencing its effects. This year saw unprecedented ‘king’ tides in the Pacific, particularly in Tuvalu. In 2001, in Majuro, Marshall Islands, shop owners with ‘stores in the downtown area of the capital barricaded their front doors to prevent the one-foot deep water from washing in’.

Impacts on health
New and emerging diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and SARS, pose a special challenge, as do concerns over communicable and vector-borne diseases impacted by the changing environment and climate. Studies by UNEP and the World Health Organization have shown that climate change will have dramatic impacts on health, particularly in SIDS, whose capacity to cope with increasingly frequent epidemics causes great concern. The ranges of current diseases could be altered, with malaria returning to areas where it had been thought to be eradicated. In human terms, this would be a tragedy; in economic ones, it would ruin the SIDS tourism industry.

Security concerns are high on everyone’s agenda, but SIDS are particularly worried about the costs of adjusting to new security procedures at airports and harbours. They take a larger view of the subject to include issues of food security and water resources. While self-sufficient for centuries, they are now increasingly dependent on imported food. Changes in precipitation and in the frequency of storms are creating uncertainty over harvesting rainwater, used as drinking water in many SIDS since they cannot afford desalination. AOSIS will call upon UNEP to make a renewed effort to assist SIDS in this regard.

Capacity building, access to appropriate technology and means of implementation will also feature prominently in our discussions with the international community in Mauritius. AOSIS member states will seek to ensure that the meeting produces credible and practical solutions for the sustainable development of SIDS. We need the partnership of the international community – and particularly of such organizations as UNEP. Together we can strive for a sustainable future for SIDS, for generations to come

Ambassador Jagdish Koonjul is Chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

PHOTOGRAPH: Thomas Eells/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 Water, 1996
Issue on Climate change, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Tourism, 1999
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003
Issue on Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: