UN conference promotes small islands’ resilient prosperity

Rebecca Theodore

As small island developing states (SIDS) face the brunt of climate change, the economic and social impacts of the post-COVID-19 era, and staggering debt burdens, the international community is gathering in earnest on the Caribbean island of Antigua and Barbuda to review their sustainable development progress.

The fourth international conference on SIDS is a crucial forum for addressing the climate crisis and fostering economic resilience. This event aims to assess the growth and challenges faced by these states in achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Despite their efforts, small island developing states struggle to build resilient prosperity due to the continuous cycle of devastation and recovery caused by climate change. Rising sea levels, damage to infrastructure and coral reefs, and extreme weather events such as tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, and cyclones consistently derail their progress.

Although small island developing states contribute only 0.2 percent of global carbon emissions, they suffer the most from climate change impacts. These states have become the frontline battleground for the climate challenge, all while their debt levels continue to rise due to the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters. According to the World Bank, the annual cost of damages from natural disasters in SIDS ranges from 1 to 8 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP), and climate change could increase these risks by 33 to 50 percent by 2030.

These statistics highlight a severe financing gap: SIDS receive seven times less finance than least developed countries, eleven times less than lower-middle-income countries, and five times less than upper-middle-income countries. Rabab Fatima, the United Nations high representative for SIDS and special adviser for the SIDS4 conference, emphasizes that weather, climate, and water-related hazards have caused a staggering $153 billion in losses over the last 50 years, posing existential threats to SIDS. This vulnerability must be considered when allocating climate finance.

If finance is a powerful catalyst for sustainable development, economic prosperity, and ecosystem preservation, international organizations such as the UN, World Bank, and World Trade Organization must account for this vulnerability in the global effort towards resilient prosperity. Post-pandemic COVID-19 repercussions exacerbate the challenges for SIDS. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of their economies, causing sharp declines in tourism and putting immense pressure on health systems. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that up to 169 million people in SIDS could be driven into extreme poverty by 2030. Youth unemployment rates exceed 50 percent, and falling commodity prices and exports continue to cripple economic diversification in these states.

In essence, the fragile economies of small island developing states are acutely vulnerable to sustainability threats, and in some cases, to their very existence. SIDS play a critical role in global biodiversity and security, making dialogues on global financial reform urgently needed. These islands often struggle to access the investment they need due to complex processes for negotiating, receiving, and managing funds.

Given these circumstances, bold government action and strong international support are crucial. The SIDS4 international conference presents a significant opportunity for these states to be recognized in the sustainable development goals agenda. Collective action towards enhancing economic diversification, resilience, and disaster recovery is essential. Strategies, policies, and initiatives to mobilize climate finance must focus on sustainable growth, tourism, marine management, ocean industry expansion, renewable energy, and ecosystems for the blue economy.

The role of the United Nations in addressing the needs of small island developing states must be strengthened. The effects of climate change, the economic and social impacts of the post-COVID-19 era, and overwhelming debt burdens are not distant threats—they are lived experiences. While it is commendable that SIDS are turning to their marine environments, renewable energy, and digital innovation to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change, effective responses from stakeholders, governments, civil society, and the private sector are necessary to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience.

In the quest to create a robust agenda for the next decade of action, the global effort towards resilient prosperity must guarantee a sustainable future for all.

Rebecca Theodore is an international journalist and syndicated op-ed columnist based in New York. She writes on national security, politics, human rights, and the environment. Email her at rebethd@aol.com.