Attending the United Nations SIDS Symposium: Climate Change, Development, and the Challenges of Small Island Developing Nations

In February 2017, Professor Dana Zartner, Chair of the International Studies Department, attended a symposium in Nassau, Bahamas sponsored by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the Government of the Bahamas. The symposium – entitled Implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SAMOA Pathway in Small Island Developing States (SIDS): Equipping Public Institutions and Mobilizing Partnerships – focused on how SIDS can best integrate the 2030 Agenda and the corresponding SAMOA Pathway in national planning, policies, strategies and public institutions. Given their vulnerability to climate change coupled with development challenges, SIDS face special challenges in the coming years.  This Symposium brought together SIDS and key partners, including donor states, and created a form for discussion and collaboration on how best to equip public institutions and mobilize partnerships between international organizations, federal and local governments, civil society, corporations, and academia.

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The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action that encompasses people, the planet, and prosperity. Incorporating the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 169 corresponding targets, the 2030 Agenda provides for a more holistic approach to sustainable development than the earlier Millennium Development goals. With the 2030 Agenda, member states of the UN and affiliated stakeholders recognize the eradication of poverty in all its forms is one of the greatest global challenges and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development. According to the document, with the 2030 Agenda UN members are “resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want to heal and secure our planet.”   The 2030 Agenda is a key step forward in efforts to address issues such as sustainable development, climate change, poverty, and human rights because it recognizes the fundamental importance of the relationship between the natural world and health of our planet’s environment, and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development. This new approach is highlighted in the breadth of issues covered in the SDGs.

The Special Challenges of Small-Island Developing States

Small Island Developing States face special challenges when it comes to development and climate change that both distinguish them from more developed states or non-island states, but also which differentiate them from each other. On the former point, the key challenge facing the SIDS as a whole is that they are disproportionately feeling the impacts of climate change with rising sea levels, diminishing fishing stocks, and changing extreme weather patterns. On the latter point, one of the themes heard throughout the symposium sessions was that each state needs to recognize and address its own unique challenges in coming up with partnerships and a national plan to implement the 2030 Agenda. For example, some SIDS are a single island, whereas others are made up of hundreds of smaller islands – each of which may be very different in terms of resources, development, and climate impacts than the other. Policies will need to be very different for those two different states. The challenges facing the SIDS are numerous and for some of them the success of addressing these challenges will determine the very survival of the states. Like the canaries in the coal mine, how the SIDS are able to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change will foreshadow what is coming for other countries in world. As stated by Samuelu Teo Penitala, Special Envoy for the Office of the Prime Minister for Disaster Management of Tuvalu: “If we can save Tuvalu then we will be saving the world.”

perrychristie.jpgAs with all multilateral UN meetings, the Bahamas Symposium featured a combination of plenary sessions, open discussion, and break-out sessions. The meeting opened with a welcome introduction by The Right Honorable Perry Christie, Prime Minister of the Bahamas, who called on all participants to work to create partnerships to successfully implement the 2030 Agenda and the SGDs. He stated that the sustainable development goals provide a path by which we can preserve our planet for years to come. The SDGs are a set of goals every country can systematically pursue and the next steps must focus on how to achieve these goals while respecting the unique challenges of each state. Prime Minister Perry highlighted the special challenges that SIDS face and spoke about the necessary connections between citizens and government, between government and the private sector, and between civil society and international bodies to meet these challenges. He concluded: “No man is an island, and no one knows this more than SIDS.”

Over the course of the next three days, topics of conversation included developing integrated plans for realizing the 2030 Agenda, regional and global policy coherence, creating accountability and inclusive institutions, building trust and ensuring public participation, and developing effective partnerships. Through these discussions, many new ideas and possibilities for collaboration were put forward. For example, H.E. Mr. Troy Torrington, Deputy Permanent Representative to the Permanent Mission of Guyana to the United Nations Guyana discussed the keys to success that have worked for his country including the necessity of strong political leadership and commitment, a clear and integrated national plan, and movement towards the full implementation of the green state centered on the idea that national development must be sustainable development.

Ms. Gina Watson, Deputy Director for Planning and HQ Coordination in the Caribbean Program, Americas Directorate for the Government of CanadaGina Watson, followed with an explanation of the role of a donor country, such as Canada, emphasizing the importance of participation by all states in addressing the issues faced by SIDS, stating: “[W]e want to participate in the policy dialogue around the unique vulnerabilities of SIDS. The issues of climate change and disaster risk reduction are of particular interest to Canada as a donor.” Canada, in fact, has very close ties to numerous small island states, particularly in the Caribbean. One example of efforts being taken by Canada is to have Statistics Canada to work with Caricom (Caribbean Community) to develop data and analyses which can assist with numerous capacity-building opportunities.

As a small island nation, but a highly developed one, Malta was represented by its Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Pierre Clive Agius. HE Amb. AgiusAccording to Ambassador Agius, “mitigating climate change is one of the main areas of foreign policy of Malta.” And, while not a developing state, as an island nation, Malta understands the special challenges facing SIDS and the importance of meetings such as the Bahamas Symposium. Ambassador Agius continues: “These meetings are very important because often SIDS needs are very specific and they often hall by the wayside.”

Having a symposium specifically to address the needs of SIDS, provide a forum for all stakeholders to work together to map the SDGs to policies, strategies, and structures, while ensuring that the focus coming from the top-down takes into account what people at the grassroots level also think, is important. The Bahamas symposium was designed to facilitate implementation by creating opportunities for discussion between states that face similar challenges – from alleviating poverty to adapting to climate change – as well as bringing together these states with other actors to create partnerships that will more effectively address these challenges. As highlighted by Ambassador Agius of Malta, meetings like the SIDS Symposium are important because they bring together multiple stakeholders and the “inclusion of NGOs and academia bring value added to the process and mobilize very energetically scarce resources. Without inclusion of NGOs, climate change and development would have very little chance” of being internalized into national agendas.

The symposium also provided the opportunity for more developed donor states, such as Canada, Norway, and Italy, to interact with the SIDS to develop opportunities for continued collaboration. According to Deputy Director Watson: “One of the take-aways of the conference was a need to break down silos between the various actors working in issues such as climate change and sustainable development. It is important to have good donor coordination and dialogue with host governments and involve key stakeholders such as NGOs, academic and civil society to ensure there is not overlap or duplication of efforts.” Additionally, the SIDS are able to work with each other to compare notes on challenges and opportunities and find ways to share resources to minimize issues of duplication. State representatives are able to interact with members of civil society, corporations, and academic to find ways to develop public-private partnerships to provide needed assistance.

Overall, participants found the Bahamas symposium to be a very useful endeavor. As stated in the Informal Communique drafted at the conclusion of the symposium:

There is no single blue print for implementing the SDGs. SIDS face similar challenges but each one has its own specificities. But we greatly benefitted from exchanging experiences and lessons during the Symposium.

This Symposium has also given new impetus to our efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda and the SAMOA Pathway, drawing from each other’s experiences. Our discussions and proposed actions will inform the HLPF as the overarching UN platform to review the progress in achieving the SDGs, working with the rest of the United Nations system. SIDS are committed to regularly review their progress in the adaptation and implementation of SDGs at national and local level.

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The Role of Students and Academia in Implementing the SDGs

One of the unique aspects of the Bahamas symposium was the specific inclusion of academia as an important stakeholder in addressing the issues of poverty, climate change, and sustainable development. Students and teachers at all levels have a role to play in helping their governments, corporations, and civil society groups work towards implementation of the SDGs. As stated by Ambassador Agius of Malta, “The inclusion of NGOs and academia brings value added to the process and mobilizes very energetically scarce resources.”

This was evident in a number of the examples provided by delegates on the role of academia and education in their own countries’ efforts. Ms. Elibeth Lopez Parra, a Sector Specialist and Deputy Minister of Planning for the Dominican Republic described a project in which elementary school-aged children were asked to draw the Dominican Republic they want to see in 2030. These drawings were then utilized to facilitate discussions of what the SDGs mean for the Dominican Republic, as well as how the SDGs are perceived by the public (of all ages) and what is important to those on the ground.

The Italian delegate, Ms. Cristiana Mele, Counsellor with the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations, also discussed the role of universities in Italy’s efforts to facilitate implementation the SDGs. While not a SIDS, Italy has a diverse eco-system that strongly experiences the impacts of climate change, including coastal erosion and salinity. Italy has created partnerships between academia and policy-makers in Pacific Island states to detect gaps in state policy. As part of these efforts, it became apparent that capacity building is where many SIDS most needed assistance, including data gathering and assessment. Focusing primarily on SDG 14, which highlights conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources, Italy has most recently been working to assist with the implementation of a marine protected area.

Another key way in which students and universities can contribute to the implementation of the SDGs – in SIDS and elsewhere – is through research and data analysis. Big data was a big topic of discussion during the Bahamas symposium, with a number of state delegates specifically mentioning its importance to their efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda. The reality is that statistical capacities remain very weak in many developing countries – in terms of building databases and using them – and this is a place academia can provide concrete assistance. By training students in statistics you both provide a service that can help states implement the SDGs and assess the effectiveness of their implementation, as well as give the students a skill they can use throughout their careers.

Sidebar: Conversations with the Delegates

What is it like to be a delegate at UN meeting such as the SIDS Symposium? What advice do they have for students interested in careers in foreign service and diplomacy? Professor Zartner caught up with the delegates from Canada and Malta to find out.

How can students best get involved in addressing issues such as climate change, human rights, and sustainable development? What is the role for students and universities?

Ambassador Agius: “Especially when it comes to SIDS, students and universities have a very influential role through research and advice. Academia can amplify empirical evidence which, often becomes the victim of politics.”

Deputy Director Watson: “Students can best get involved in addressing issues such as climate change, human rights and sustainable development by learning about the issues through their studies, and by finding ways to put what they learn into practice. The latter can be done by volunteering for organizations working on these issues both locally and globally. … Students and universities can play an important role by undertaking research on climate change, human rights and sustainable development. Findings from this research can advance thinking and lead to new innovative program ideas.”

What advice do you have for students who are interested in a career in development work or in the foreign service?

Deputy Director Watson: “Study what you love and are passionate about – and that goes beyond international relations. If you have a flair for writing pursue communications courses. If you love project management learn about results based management. If you are good with numbers study accounting. International Development is a vast field. There are jobs for communications officers, project managers and financial experts among many others. Understanding the dynamics of international relations and best practices for international development provide a good background, but coming into this line of work with a practical skill will give you something tangible to offer.”

Ambassador Agius: “Consider a career in development work or in foreign service as a mission and not as a job. It is very challenging but very rewarding and in the end it always boils down to convictions to do good.”

For you personally, what was the best moment of the UN SIDS Symposium?

Deputy Director Watson: “The best moment of the SIDS symposium was when the Pacific Island Forum presented their work on streamlining all the indicators from the SAMOA Pathway, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. They mapped the most relevant indicators for all of these frameworks into one sub-set of about 30 indicators for all the Pacific Islands. This is a concrete example of something SIDS can do to lighten their reporting burden for all of these various international commitments, given that SIDS have limited capacity due to their small size.”

What has been your most memorable posting/achievement during your career? 

For Ambassador Agius, it is more than a single moment: “[T]the most satisfying moments are when I succeed in persuading others of my point of view.  Diplomacy is very much about persuading and convincing others of your point of view and often this means establishing and fostering friendships.  But there have been many memorable moments, presenting the credentials to President Obama at the White House was one of them – to be present in that office which is so historical is an experience in  itself.  But, perhaps, the most memorable event was a very humble language contribution I made at the United Nations which bridged very contrasting positions of two big countries.  The forum was the International Atomic energy Agency and the subject was actually about non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

Clive and Barack

What has been the most difficult part of your job over the years?

Ambassador Agius: As a representative of a small country like Malta, one of the biggest difficulties is “the struggle of a small country which is not often granted its fair share of attention. Indeed small countries are victims of their size even if more often than not, they know better. In the case of Malta, our diplomats have to live the contradiction of its size with its history and geography. The Law of the Sea and the concept of Common Heritage of Mankind where actually developed by Malta – evidence that size in the end does not really matter when it comes to contributions.” Also, Ambassador Agius continues, to be a diplomat is to be a “bit of a vagabond personality” where you “develop many acquaintances all over the world”, but it can be hard to develop real friendships.

What knowledge/skills do you think are most important for students to obtain if they are interested in foreign service or diplomacy?

Ambassador Agius: “A good diplomat has to be a curios person – a person that is interested in understanding and living his or her host country – its challenges, its strengths, its interests, its people. And in this knowing languages is very important.  I have found, throughout my career, that having a social and human conscience is a big asset and is becoming all the more important. Diplomacy is no longer supported by the muscles of the military but by standards, by values, by the promotion of good.  And, of course, then there are personal traits which play an important role – strong psychological health, patience, interest to interact and meet people…”


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