Redressing the
balance

 
Don McKinnon
describes how the Commonwealth and SIDS strengthen each other

More than half of the members of the Commonwealth – 27 out of 53 countries – are small island developing states (SIDS). They are a key part of our identity and have an important role to play. They contribute to the internal balance of the organization and to its global reach – and they allow the Commonwealth to play its part as a bridge between small and large nations, between rich and poor, powerful and vulnerable.

The Commonwealth was the first organization to recognize the unique challenges faced by small states – and in particular small island ones – and to raise international awareness of them.

The vulnerabilities of SIDS stem from a number of factors, such as size, remoteness and isolation, susceptibility to natural disasters, limited diversification, lack of access to external capital, poverty – the list goes on. These are built-in and are there to stay. But SIDS can grow stronger and develop wealthier, healthier, better-educated communities, if we assist them.

Defining progress
The 1994 Barbados Programme of Action presents a detailed strategy to help SIDS address some of these problems. While some progress has been made, there is a great deal more to achieve. The International Meeting in Mauritius on the Barbados Programme of Action provides an opportunity to review efforts and actions taken over the past ten years and define how further progress can be achieved.

Particular progress has been made, for example, in elaborating policy frameworks and negotiating multilateral agreements. More should be done, however, to integrate policy and to raise awareness of the Barbados Programme of Action as a blueprint for sustainable development in SIDS.

A number of new issues have also emerged. Chief among them is security – from food and water security to the challenges faced by poor and archipelagic states in complying with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

The Commonwealth has been closely involved with the preparatory meetings for the Mauritius meeting and provided support to member countries in preparation for the review. Through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, we supported the preparation of case studies on the implementation of the Programme of Action in the Pacific Region and helped member countries complete national assessment reports in advance of regional preparatory meetings.

Commonwealth consultations on the Mauritius meeting have also been facilitated through fora such as the Meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Group on Small States in Abuja, Nigeria in December 2003. When Commonwealth leaders met in Abuja immediately thereafter, they gave their full support to the Barbados Programme of Action. They highlighted the burdens that terrorism and its consequences had placed on small states. They noted that ‘global warming and climate change were life threatening to small island states and other low lying areas’ and reaffirmed Commonwealth support through technical assistance to address these concerns.

Trade concerns
In July 2003, heads of three regional organizations (Indian Ocean Commission, CARICOM and the Pacific Forum) requested the Commonwealth Secretariat’s help to elaborate a strategy to address SIDS’ trade concerns in the context of the Mauritius meeting. Trade experts representing these organizations met in Geneva and produced a draft text on trade issues that was considered at the inter-regional preparatory meeting held in the Bahamas in January 2004. During this meeting, the Secretariat also highlighted the Commonwealth of Learning’s project of a Virtual University for Small States, which gained the support of Commonwealth education ministers meeting in Edinburgh in October 2003. This initiative will use information and communication technologies to contribute to the sustainable development of human resource capacity in small states.

In response to issues raised at the regional preparatory meetings, the Commonwealth Secretariat, in close collaboration with the University of Malta, convened a group of experts in March 2004 to propose measures that would enable small states to strengthen their resilience in order to manage inherent economic vulnerability. The statement it produced was submitted to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to be circulated as an official document for the Mauritius meeting.

We also help strengthen the objectives of the Barbados Programme of Action in many other areas of our work. We recognize that small, and small island, states are often sidelined when decisions are made at a global level. They find it difficult to defend their interests in the face of the overwhelming influence of bigger players. Much of the Commonwealth’s work is aimed at trying to help redress the balance in their favour, by giving them tools to stand their ground and help level the playing field.

When a small island state government enters into negotiations with a large multinational about the exploitation of its natural resources, the chances are that it will lose out. The Commonwealth’s role is to provide experts who will strengthen the government’s hand and ensure that the country does not get a raw deal. Similarly when there is a dispute over maritime boundaries between a country the size of Dominica and one the size of France, it is clear whom the odds favour. In this case the Commonwealth provided the knowledge and expertise to prevent Dominica from becoming sea locked.
The Commonwealth’s objective is to make sure that less powerful players do not end up on the sidelines
It is the same over trade: the Commonwealth’s objective is to make sure that less powerful players do not end up on the sidelines. There is clearly a serious imbalance when it costs a US farmer twice as much to produce a bag of rice than, say, a farmer in Guyana, and yet the American can still sell it more cheaply. How can SIDS be expected to trade their way out of poverty when the largest economies – the United States, the European Union and Japan – dump commodities at a fraction of what they cost to grow? And how can they hope to compete globally when they are cut out from the industrialized world’s markets?

Generating consensus
We have been consistently putting pressure on developed countries to phase out agricultural subsidies. We provide trade advice to our small and developing member countries to ensure they are in a strong position to negotiate with larger players.

We have assisted our small, and small island, states to develop the World Trade Organization work programme targeted at small economies, mandated in the Doha Declaration. In addition, the Commonwealth recently received EUR17 million from the European Commission to build the trade capacity of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and ensure they too can reap the rewards of global trade.

The failure of last year’s trade talks in Cancún concerns everyone, particularly small states. There is a real danger that the project of a rules-based multilateral trading system could flounder. At their Abuja meeting, Commonwealth leaders showed their determination to help put the trade talks back on track and decided to establish a Commonwealth Ministerial Trade Mission. Last February, the ministerial group, which included the trade ministers of Barbados and Fiji, went on a mission to key capitals and engaged with major players to help generate a consensus on the way forward.

As an organization bringing together countries of all sizes, sea locked and land locked, and at every stage of economic development, the Commonwealth is ideally placed to make a difference in the lives of its people. SIDS have a great deal to gain from the Commonwealth. What other organization enables their leaders to sit at the same table with leaders of G8 countries, talk to them as equals and exchange views about matters of common concern?

In return, the Commonwealth is made stronger by its small island states members. They enrich it and are an integral part of its diversity. They extend its range of influence and allow it to play a crucial role as a consensus builder. The partnership between small island states and the Commonwealth is at the heart of the organization and is crucial to its future


The Rt Hon. Don McKinnon is Commonwealth Secretary-General.

PHOTOGRAPH: Laurence Fabbro/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 Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment, 2003


AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Ecosystems