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The Dilemma for Small Island Developing States: Recovery or Development?

A view of Antigua and Barbuda, the host of the fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4), 27-30 May 2024. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jun 3 2024 (IPS) - “We are facing unenviable decisions, between the recovery of today or the development of tomorrow”. These were the words of Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa, of Samoa at the opening of the 4th International Conference on Small Islands Developing States (SIDS4).

Few can deny the true of the powerful message of the Samoan Prime Minister who is also the leading the international group representing the small island states, formally the Alliance of Small Island States, AOSIS.

Yet who is listening? The small island states conclave that was hosted by Antigua and Barbuda between the 27 and 30 of May had two central goals.

On the one hand, once again raise awareness on the moral responsibility that the industrialized world, together with the petrostates have towards the most vulnerable, most fragile nations in the world.

On the other hand, the gathering was centered on charting the way forward with a new global plan that would replace the SAMOA Pathway, the blueprint that guided the priorities of these nations in the last decade that was built on the Barbados Plan of Actions, the first ever global plan for small island nations.

The new framework, entitled The Antigua and Barbuda Agenda for Small Island Developing States or ABAS like its predecessors, does not like ambition. It sets key and vital priorities and strategies upon their implementation the real survival of these nation islands will depend on.

It is also predicated on the indispensable and unnegotiable role that rich countries should play to support small island nations while they navigate climate warming.

Unsurprisingly, the problem is that, as always, developed nations struggle to walk the talk while claiming doing their part in supporting the island nations. Perhaps we should not question their good intentions but the problem is that the means put at disposal are not nearly close to what is needed: trillions and trillions in American dollars.

Certainly, the entire world was not focused on St. John’s, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda. No matter the hype that the United Nations tried to give to the event, unfortunately the world was not watching.

No matter the passionate speeches given there, including the pleas by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres “SIDS can make an almighty noise together to deliver meaningful change to benefit the whole of humankind”, Guterres said during his opening address.

He went further. “Small Island Developing States have every right and reason to insist that developed economies fulfil their pledge to double adaptation financing by 2025”.

While there was plenty of heads of governments from within the SIDS and senior officials within the United Nations, the gathering was mostly a no-show for many of the top players.

For example, Ajay Banga, the President of the World Bank was not there. The same could be said of Masatsugu Asakawa, the President of the Asian Development Bank and for Nadia Calviño, the President of the European Investment Bank.

These are the biggest multilateral lenders and it is hard to understand why they did not show solidarity with the most threatened nations in the world. You can now understand why no major funding initiative exclusively focusing on SIDS was launched during the SIDS4.

Yes. both the United States and the EU made some announcements but none was specifically designed for small islands nations. The States announced a scale up of international public finance to over USD 11 billion annually by 2024 while the EU committed to step up its Global Gateway by mobilizing EUR 300 billion in public and private investments by 2027 in sustainable development.

These are important commitments but will they really materialize? Out of them, how much SIDS nations will get? These are genuine questions that are feeding a well justified sense of skepticism for what the so called North is going to do for vulnerable and in danger nations.

In all truth, agencies like the UNDP and UNICEF stepped up their game.

The former announced an array of initiatives, including the Blue and Green Islands Integrated Program (BGI-IP), a $135 million joint initiative with the Global Environment Facility.

The program “emphasizes the crucial role of nature and expand nature-based solutions to combat environmental degradation in three key sectors: urban development, food production, and tourism”.

UNDP also produced an important policy brief, “Breaking through the disaster-response cycle in SIDS: aligning financing to urgent climate action” that offers an analysis of what is needed for the island nations to win over the battle against climate change.

UNICEF instead led the organization of SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit held before the official governments led forum. It is a symbolically important manifestation on how young people should be in the driving seat when leaders and global institutions talks about policy formulations that will directly impact the future generations.

Once again, another action plan or as called this time a Commitment to Action, was issued by the youths but we do know that such documents, despite the noble intention and efforts putting in preparing them, do not count.

That’s why we should ask ourselves when young people will be really allowed to take part in the real discussions, when the real decisions are taken. Unfortunately, we are still far from that moment.

The ABAS plan itself contains some interesting proposals but they are mostly technicalities that still need full endorsement of the international community. These include the SIDS Debt Sustainability Support Service and Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI), that are going to be tools tailored made for island nations to be able to have better deals in terms of getting the resources needed not only to cope with their vulnerabilities but also thrive despite of them.

After the closing of the summit, we can say that, despite the rhetoric, SIDS nations are on their own. They should all learn from some of their peers like Vanuatu and Barbados who both have been punching above their weigh with global initiatives to defend their own strategic interests.

The former has been taking the lead with a petition to the International Court of Justice for the so-called Advisory Opinion on the Obligations of States relevant to Climate Action.

The latter instead create a buzz in the international financial systems with Bridgetown Initiative that is supposed to free considerable financial resources for developing nations endangered by the climate crisis.

The new Maldivian President, Mohamed Muizzu, that so far came to be known to the international community for his strong anti-India stance, tried to mobilize the global attention on the St John’s summit with an op-ed essay for The Guardian.

He and the host of the event, Gaston Alfonso Browne, the PM of Antigua and Barbuda, are behind the SIDS Debt Sustainability Support Service and indeed have been relentlessly advocating for the rights of the small island nations.

One of the outcomes, important though hardly a gamechanger, will be the creation of a SIDS Center of Excellence in Antigua and Barbuda that, among other things, will be focused on data.

Interestingly enough on the 21st of May, UNIDO, probably one of the weakest UN entities, announced a similar imitative in partnership with the government of Barbados.

I would call all these initiatives “Add-Ons”, nice but not what is required.

An analysis by UNCTAD brings even more clarity on the daunting needs of SIDS.

While only contributing to 1% of global carbon dioxide emissions, they only had access to $1.5 billion out of $100 billion in climate finance pledged to developing countries in 2019.

Perhaps the most important recent news related to small island nations did not come from the gracious St. John’s but from the opposite side of the Atlantic. In Hamburg, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, delivered an Advisory Opinion on the request submitted to the Tribunal by the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change, a new SIDS led body, itself an interesting developed created just few years ago thanks to the leadership of Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda.

The conclusions of this opinion are fundamental because, slowly, step by step, we are building legal cases against green houses big emitters. First the tribunal ruled that “Anthropogenic GHG emissions into the atmosphere constitute pollution of the marine environment”.

Second, it said that “States Parties to the Convention have the specific obligations to take all necessary measures to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution from anthropogenic GHG emissions and to endeavor to harmonize their policies in this connection”.

Though non-binding, these statements will count on day.

The final press release issued by the UN at the closing of the SIDS4 summit, says that “The SIDS4 Conference has set the stage for the Summit of the Future taking place at UN Headquarters in New York from 22 to 23 September 2024”.

Do not count on that and the leaders of the SIDS nations that gathered in Antigua and Barbuda know it.

What perhaps is the most interesting aspects of the SIDS4 Summit might not be found in the official statements, a flurry of already well-known talking points. Rather what could matter the most is what the leaders of these nations have discussed among themselves behind the scene, far from the limelight.

The start reality is that they cannot rely on anyone to convince the world about their case.
That’s why only their determination, acumen and tactics will make a difference and what they know for sure is that they have to keep punching beyond their weight.

Simone Galimberti writes about the SDGs, youth-centered policy-making and a stronger and better United Nations.

IPS UN Bureau


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