Sustainable Development

Why small island states need scaled finance and amplified action

Homes are seen in ruins on the island of Barbuda just after a month after Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Homes are seen in ruins on the island of Barbuda just after Hurricane Irma struck the Caribbean islands in 2017. Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Jorge Moreira da Silva
UN Under-Secretary-General; Executive Director of UNOPS, United Nations, USA
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • This week, global leaders are convening in Antigua and Barbuda to discuss ways to support Small Island Development States (SIDS).
  • Despite their low share of cumulative historical greenhouse gas emissions, SIDS are disproportionately impacted by the increasing number and intensity of climate-related disasters related to the rise of ocean temperatures.
  • Finance must be scaled up to build a resilient and prosperous future for SIDS, and further solutions must be found to address the implementation challenges that countries face.

This week, global leaders are convening in Antigua and Barbuda to discuss ways to support Small Island Development States (SIDS) so that they can respond to their unique and pressing challenges over the next decade.

For these 39 small islands, home to approximately 65 million people, practical solutions can not come soon enough.

The unique vulnerabilities of these islands are well-documented, including their small size, remoteness, limited resources and vulnerability to external shocks, particularly to the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. Despite their low share of cumulative historical greenhouse gas emissions, SIDS are disproportionately impacted by the increasing number and intensity of climate-related disasters related to the rise of ocean temperatures.

They are also some of the most vulnerable economies in the world: they were severely hit by the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and they face higher levels of debt distress than other developing countries.

Over 40% of SIDS are on the edge of or are already grappling with unsustainable debt levels, and evidence shows that during and after every major disaster, private external debt in SIDS tends to rise. Between 2016 and 2020, SIDS paid in debt service 18 times more than what they received as climate finance. These vulnerabilities challenge the ability of SIDS to withstand external shocks and enhance their resilience.

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SIDS have limited access to finance

Further compounding these structural challenges is that SIDS have limited access to development resources and other concessional finance. SIDS receive very little official development assistance (ODA) as a share of the total ODA. And, high-income SIDS are largely ineligible for concessional finance and debt relief mechanisms based on their per capita gross national income, even when they are highly exposed to multiple natural, economic and social risks.

To address these challenges and pursue sustainable development, the world needs to support SIDS in tackling the climate crisis by responding, among other ways, across three dimensions: improving access to finance, overcoming implementation bottlenecks, and increasing their infrastructure and economic resilience.

We need practical solutions to broaden the development and climate financing options and address the debt and liquidity challenges of the SIDS. This includes diversifying SIDS’ access to concessional development finance and the ongoing work on the UN Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) is essential in this regard. The index will include economic, environmental and social vulnerability and resilience indicators to provide better access to concessional development financing for SIDS.

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Financial structures in need of reform

Yet, much work still needs to be done on reforming the financial structures and the wider development and aid architecture to improve effectiveness and make them fit for purpose for today’s challenges, including those facing the SIDS.

We also need to address the significant challenges that SIDS face in accessing and absorbing sufficient levels of climate finance. This brings us to issues around capacities for implementation ― whether human or technical capacity constraints.

Many countries ― including SIDS ― need more capacity to focus on long-term planning to identify national needs, assess financing needs, build project portfolios and be strategic in costing the necessary investments, all while aligning investments with national and international sustainable development priorities.

This is an area that the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) – the UN agency that I run – is focused on. UNOPS runs operations for the UN and other partners in the most challenging environments. We provide practical solutions in infrastructure, procurement and project management. For decades, we have worked with SIDS to support better access to renewable energy, water and waste management, marine protection and health procurement.

We work with governments to strengthen national long-term infrastructure planning, and in the wake of the pandemic, we supported SIDS partners in their efforts to respond and recover. We join the international community in assisting SIDS in addressing loss and damage, improving national adaptation planning, and undergoing a profound digital transformation to better serve their remote communities.

Creating sustainable and resilient infrastructure

We know, for example, that sustainable and resilient infrastructure is at the heart of SIDS’ journey to resilient prosperity. Infrastructure influences 92% of targets across all sustainable development goals. It is key to the SIDS' battle for survival. Sadly, there are too many examples of the scale of damage that climate disasters have left behind on these islands. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma led to the destruction of 90% of all infrastructure on the island of Barbuda, making half of its population homeless. It left two-thirds of homes on the island of St. Martin uninhabitable, with no electricity, gas or drinking water.

Yet, infrastructure’s role in building a resilient future for SIDS rarely receives the attention it deserves. This is misplaced. Infrastructure projects are costly and long-lasting. What we build today needs to respond to present and future needs, from sustainable buildings and transport infrastructure to ensuring the right energy solutions, from enhancing digital communications to water and solid waste management, among other issues.

This week’s conference is expected to adopt a new programme of action for the next ten years, focusing on revitalizing economies, investing in social development, managing disaster risk and preserving environmental integrity. Planning and delivering sustainable, resilient and inclusive infrastructure will be critical to these efforts.

There is definitely a need for scaled-up finance to build a resilient and prosperous future for SIDS. But we also need to talk about—and support the response to—the very real implementation challenges that countries face.

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