Strategic funding unveiled at UN island conference

8 September 2014

Financial commitments of up to US$1.9 billion were pledged across almost 300 sustainable development partnerships last week at a UN gathering focused on small islands. Over one-third of these partnerships were unveiled for the first time at the event. 

The four-day international meet held in Apia, Samoa, known formally as the Third UN Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), brought together a range of actors to discuss and galvanise international action around the specific vulnerabilities and economic challenges presenting a group of 30-plus small-island countries.

Spread across three geographic regions, the group is home to some 63.2 million people, with a combined GDP of approximately US$575.3 billion. 

Although great variations exist between SIDS economies, the group as a whole faces a number of similar hurdles to achieving sustainable growth including multiple threats posed by climate change, limited resources, small populations, health and nutrition concerns, debt sustainability, susceptibility to external shocks, and a high level of dependence on international trade.

The partnerships – which involve some 166 states and governments, 85 UN bodies and nearly 1,200 civil society groups – target pertinent areas for this group and are also addressed in an outcome document from the conference dubbed the Samoa Pathway.

In an unprecedented move, the Samoa Pathway was negotiated at UN headquarters in New York, US weeks ahead of the conference, and signed off during the closing session last Thursday without further debate.

The document recognises the landscape of past international declarations relating to SIDS and acknowledges the efforts made by the group to advance on previously outlined goals. It also underscores, however, that progress on the three dimensions of sustainable development - namely, the social, environmental, and economic pillars - has been uneven, with some countries regressing economically in recent years.

As a result, a number of key areas are addressed in the document to help bolster SIDS' sustainable development opportunities and equitable growth capacities, ranging from investment in infrastructure and education, to boosting sustainable energy capacities, disaster risk reduction commitments, and blue economy conservation and sustainable use.

Island trade

Trade policy is included as a sub-section of the “means of implementation” (MoI) section in the document. Re-emphasising the unique and particular vulnerabilities of SIDS, which includes limited negotiating capacity and remoteness from world markets, the document outlines a series of actions to facilitate integration into the international trading system.

These include special and differential treatment provisions at the WTO; also referring to the global trade body’s programme on small economies; technical and trade-related assistance; the development partnerships to scale-up the participation of SIDS in the international trade of goods and services; and the mitigation of the impact of non-tariff barriers (NTBs) including through, among other things, the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement.

The 2001 WTO Doha Declaration that launched the ongoing round of trade talks mandates that the body consider and make recommendations on trade-related measures geared towards improving the integration of small economies into the multilateral trading system.

Over the past decade a number of decisions have been taken to that effect, including most recently, at the WTO’s ninth ministerial conference held last December in relation to linking small economies to global value chains for trade in goods and services.

In the international community as a whole a special programme area on sustainable development and SIDS was first included in “Agenda 21,” the non-binding action plan outcome of the 1992 joint environment-development UN “Earth Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which also called for a global SIDS conference.

Convened two years later in Bridgetown, Barbados, the inaugural SIDS event produced a 14-point programme identifying priority areas and actions for the group including the need to scale-up trade capacities. Among the various follow-up events a major implementation meeting was later held in Port Louis, Mauritius resulting in a series of additional strategic areas for SIDS.

Renewables boost

A high dependence on fossil fuel imports is among one of the most significant sustainable development challenges faced by SIDS. The cost of oil imports and debt servicing can reach up to 60-70 percent of GDP for the group, according to a report on SIDS’ blue and green economic opportunities, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in Samoa last week.

As a way out of this trade deficit and to help mitigate the effects of climate change, a number of SIDS are pursuing sustainable energy development strategies.

The conference last week accordingly saw a number of new partnerships struck and previous ones cemented in this area. Among others, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) announced a “SIDS Lighthouses” initiative that will seek to raise US$500 million to assist small islands’ sustainable energy projects.

Ocean partnerships

A host of new ocean-related partnerships with governmental and non-governmental actors alike were also unveiled at the Samoa conference in recognition of SIDS' symbiotic relationship with marine ecosystems and the blue economy.

For example, a group of Pacific SIDS launched a framework designed to help island nations protect and conserve critical nature areas. In addition, the conference also saw the launch of the Pacific Ocean Alliance set to help support ocean governance and policy cooperation, coherence, and implementation including in relation to the high seas – the area of the ocean beyond the control of any one single nation.

“No one nation or industry is solely responsible for putting pressure on our ocean, nor can any one entity find the solution in isolation. It is simple – we cannot protect and manage our ocean without working together,” said Tuiloma Neroni Slade at the conference, Pacific Oceans Commissioner and Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.

Many SIDS fisheries resources are highly valuable; for example, 1.4 million tonnes of tuna caught from the Pacific Island region weighs in at US$2.8 billion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“SIDS are basically environment-based economies, they depend heavily on fisheries and tourism. So they depend on their environment assets and that is where the opportunities lie for them,” explained Kaven Zahedi, Regional Director and Representative for Asia and the Pacific at the UNEP.

A project related to monitoring ocean acidification and modelling its impacts was also announced last week between the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) and a series of institutions, including the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The partnership will also seek to provide practical support for local fisheries communities by communicating the collected data.

Ocean acidification is caused by an increased volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in turn absorbed by the world’s waters, and thereby changing its chemistry.

Increased ocean acidity can cause the decay of coral systems that contribute to the support of a variety of fish stocks, a challenge particularly faced by the Caribbean, for example. The shellfish industry is another likely victim with shifting ocean pH balances hindering oyster development.

Additionally the conference highlighted and gave fresh impetus to other ongoing projects relating to sustainable fisheries management, illegal fishing, food security and nutrition.

The road ahead

Almost 30 percent of SIDS’ populations live on areas of land less than five metres above sea level. Meanwhile climate scientists have warned of expected rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather patterns. Last month news came that authorities in a town in the Solomon Islands had decided to relocate – a first for the Pacific Island region.  

The Samoa outcome document correspondingly included strong language around international climate action. UN members have pledged to hammer out a global climate deal by the end of next year with key markers, such as the upcoming Climate Summit in New York and an end-of-year climate conference in Lima, Peru, being closely watched for progress.

"This conference actually starts what the Secretary-General calls the drum roll of action," said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, (UNFCCC), the UN body home to the international climate talks.

While a degree of uncertainty reportedly remained at the end of the conference around the monitoring of the commitments made, according to Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB), the UN has indicated that this will be overseen by its Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

The “partnerships” model adopted by the SIDS conference nonetheless appeared to be welcomed by a number of parties.

“We are working with our partners – bilaterally and multilaterally – to help resolve our problems,” Ambassador Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, permanent representative of Samoa to the UN said in August.

“You don’t have to bring the cheque book to the [negotiating] table,” he added. “It’s partnerships that matter,” he continued.

SIDS issues are also featured in the recently proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) set to be discussed later this month as part of the post-2015 development agenda deliberations.

ICTSD reporting; “Swamped by Rising Seas, Small Islands Seek a Lifeline,” IPS, 11 August 2014; “Summary of the Third international Conference on SIDS: 1-4 September 2014,” ENB, IISD Reporting Services, 7 September 2014. 

5 September 2014
Ministers from the 21-economy Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) alliance meeting in Xiamen, China at the end of August outlined a new partnership framework that would establish closer regional...
9 September 2014
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott last week successfully repealed the nation’s tax on mining company profits, a levy introduced by the previous Labor government in 2012. After a seeming political...