SIDS U.N. High-Level Review

Review of SAMOA Pathway

How dare you? They dared

Going down the rabbithole with SIDS

By Peter Hulm

PDF version

A Global Geneva Special Report (3000 words).

Different universes

You might think from the disparities between what SIDS leaders said and their partners answered at the UN in New York that they live in two different universes, just as Aquaman star Jason Mamoa — Hawaiian-born and Iowan-raised — asserted in his keynote address to the one-day meeting: "I have seen how one place can be oblivious to another."

The session, by the way, was on SAMOA. SAMOA means Small Island Developing States [SIDS] Accelerated Modalities of Action. The meeting on 27 September was to review progress since 2014 half-way through the 10-year programme.

It was set up to endorse a political declaration that included a 24-point call for action (i.e. no commitments), most of them good for any development programme. It did so by acclamation.

Swedish climate activist 16-year-old Greta Thunberg may have charged the adult world community at the UN with stealing her future (and her childhood that should be spent in school) with "How dare you!"

But the SIDS review meeting on 27 September 2019 showed that the international community dared. All the microstates hit by natural catastrophe in recent years reported how the system has shafted them.

'We wuz robbed'

The British Virgin Islands, 30,000 people hit by two hurricanes in 2017, was denied international development assistance. "The eligibility criteria on which international donors rely are so rigid that not even a direct hit from a category 5 hurricane was enough to justify a temporary relaxation of the rules to help a damaged society get back on its feet," it complained.

"The British Virgin Islands continues to be denied access to the Green Climate Fund and Global Environment Fund," its special envoy added.

Dominica, similarly, lost $300 m in public funds. Barbuda's recovery costs after a 2017 hurricane are ten times what has been pledged, Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley noted.

She added: "How many times must we spend the taxpayers money to come here and hear the same things over and over?"

Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness, who recalled that his country had reduced its debt from 149% of GDP to less than 95% in six years without any debt write-off through fiscal austerity, also told participants its water, which used to come from the east, now fell mainly in the north-west, for which the country had no infrastructure. Most free tax dollars therefore have to go on infrastructure.

In the Caribbean "we don't have the luxury to debate whether climate change is a real phenomenon," he said. "Every year one or two islands will be decimated."

The Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown protested: "We are being asked to borrow [at interest] to protect ourselves from the climate effects caused by the lenders. It just ain't right."

'End loans rather than aid for climate control' — UNCTAD

Reporting on the first UN Trade Forum held in Geneva earlier that month, UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development, said the forum concluded that the prevalent use of loans rather than aid for climate control in already heavily indebted SIDS "raises concern". It suggested considering the transformation of bilateral and multilateral debts into special funds for meeting environmental and economic shocks.

The trade forum also pointed out that SIDS are losing from terms of trade changes designed to control climate because they net importers of food, which increases living costs, while their specialized goods involve little trade. Further, they have little access to sustainable energy technologies. After disasters, SIDS also need support to provide "policy space" for recovery.

Debt swap plus a 'haircut': now SIDS First!

Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC (the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, reported on its 2015 debt swap for climate adaptation initiative in line with the forum's proposal but noted the ECLAC programme also seeks "a haircut of 10% or 20%" in bilateral and multilateral loans to invest in a resilience fund to invest in "public-private partnerships, infrastructure or even reforestation, green projects, energy efficiency, that are creating jobs".

This formula could also be combined with the Green Climate Fund, providing not only low-rate loans but also investment or guarantees, green or blue bonds.

St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda and St Vincent and the Grenadines are pilot members of the programme but this initiative had to be open to all Caribbean countries, she said. ECLAC had adopted the mantra of Caribbean First, and she issued a "call for action" to all other funders to "adapt our goal with SIDS First".

At a second 'fireside chat', the Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, announced that his organization was freeing $1 million in aid to the Bahamas immediately to help its northern islands cope after hurricane Dorian.

Now the bad news

However, the longer-term situation for small island developing states (SIDS) outlined by the U.N. Secretary-General at the start of the meeting, might undermine any hopes of preserving SIDS, particularly from the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published three days before:

Extreme sea level rises that used to happen once per century could occur every year by mid-century in many regions. The report warns that without major investments in adaptation, some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable.

Pollution, overfishing and acidification are taking a massive toll. We have lost half of all living coral in the past 150 years, while plastic pollution has increased ten-fold in the past four decades.

Demands from industry, shipping, mining and tourism are decimating resources, including the fishing grounds that sustain many island communities.

Small island countries also face high costs for transport, energy and infrastructure. They depend heavily on a few external markets, putting them at the mercy of price rises. Some are struggling with the security impact of illicit trafficking in people, weapons and drugs.

'Fear, uncertainty now our life'

In what was billed earlier as the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit, the deputy prime minister of Tuvalu, which sits in the Pacific Ocean at about 10 feet above sea level, made it all real, wrote Maria Sanminiatelli of AP.

Rising waters and temperatures, Minute Alapati Taupo said, have contaminated the country's ground water resources and damaged its reefs and fisheries.

"Our food and water security are severely compromised. A life of fear and uncertainty is becoming our way of life."

77 states promise carbon neutrality by 2050

Secretary-General António Guterres concluded the summit by listing 77 countries that committed to carbon neutrality by 2050. Seventy pledged to do more to fight climate change, and 100 business leaders promising to join the green economy and one-third of the global banking sector signed up to green goals.

"The ball they are moving forward is a ball of promises," economist John Reilly, co-director of MIT's Joint Center for Global Change,told the AP. "Where the 'ball' of actual accomplishments is, is another question."

What business means

We Mean Business, a coalition of non-profit advocacy groups working for action on climate change, announced on 23 September that "87 major companies" have joined its initiative in the two months leading up to the summit. We Mean Business said the 87 companies each year emit the equivalent of 73 coal-fired power plants.

The Swiss food company Nestle and the French cosmetics maker L'Oreal, are among those who have agreed to slash their carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

The Finnish telecoms company Nokia, the French food group Danone and the British drug-maker AstraZeneca are among those who pledged to align their operations with the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Putting crowd participation into SDGs

The Geneva-based World Economic Form and the United Nations on 13 June 2019 signed a Strategic Partnership Framework to accelerate implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Forum later announced that in January 2020 it will launch an open source digital platform called UpLink to encourage "mass participation from entrepreneurs, community groups and other interested parties or individuals to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals". It will be supported by Deloitte, Microsoft and Salesforce.

The Forum's Executive Chairman and Founder Klaus Schwab declares on the website: "Crowd engagement is the missing ingredient of the multi-stakeholder concept."


When the meeting began, Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Bainimarama expressed "our disappointment" that the Secretary-General's call for "better ambition in climate plans has gone unanswered by so many countries."

In the keynote speech, Seychelles President Danny Faure said: "Some progress has been achieved, but we are not satisfied with the slow pace of implementation and with the resources that are made available."

Relegated, not top-level

Perhaps, most telling in his acid comments, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, opened what was billed as a "fireside chat" (without a fireplace) in the Trusteeship Council Chamber with the observation that the SIDS discussion had been relegated to "a few hours on a Friday when most of our countries are speaking in the General Assembly."

He asked: "Where are our developed partners? Why are they not represented at the highest level?"

His judgement on the SAMOA programme: "Little progress has been made. Some things have worsened."

First responders

Sitting by him at the "fireside chat" were a World Bank official (not the top gun) and a non-Cabinet British minister, former banker Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the U.K.'s Overseas Territories Minister and the United Nations, number 2 in the Foreign Office.

Baron Ahmad announced that Britain will host a meeting early in 2020 on SIDS and access to finance, which might sound like a promise he won't have to to keep if Boris Johnson fails to survive as Prime Minister.

The World Bank representative said the bank's International Development Association (IDA) offers concessional financing to SIDS, most recently to Fiji in July, and it loaned $100 per head to SIDS countries compared to $10 for other IDA recipients.

Browne had perhaps good reason to be so skeptical in view of Barbuda's experience.

Problems of per capita earnings

The biggest complaints SIDS across the board was that

What SIDS want

Faure spelled out the SIDS needs:

Human inaction sending SIDS into abyss

Speaking less than a month after two of major islands were struck by Hurricane Dorian, Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told the General Assembly: "Small island countries "are on the frontlines of being swallowed into an abyss created initially by human activity and increasingly by inaction."

The political declaration

The Secretary-General's opening remarks at the review session noted:

Today's political declaration calls for ways to help Small Island Developing States to manage disaster risk, invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and transition to renewable energy.

It also urges international institutions to help Small Island Developing States, particularly highly-indebted middle-income countries, to access finance.

Despite contributing very little, practically nothing, to global warming, Small Island Developing States are paying the highest price. And because of their middle-income status, many are trapped in an accelerating and unsustainable cycle of disaster and debt. The world must step up and stop it.

Partnerships anaysis

UN has analysed, as summarized by the NGO IISD, the current SIDS partnerships on the SAMOA Pathway.

It lists 555 partnerships. The strongest focus is on oceans and seas (50% in the Pacific and 16% in the Caribbean). Climate change (13% in the Caribbean), sustainable economic growth (15% in the Caribbean), renewable energy (12% in the Caribbean) and disaster risk reduction come next.

The analysis concluded:

Overall, there has been a steady rise in the number of partnerships for SIDS since the 2014 Conference. The 2017 UN Ocean Conference resulted in over 1,400 voluntary commitments for implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14 (Oceans), which included many SIDS specifc partnerships.

A UN toolbox for partnerships was issued in July to help register projects and gather information, along with case studies.

The Pacific region has the highest number of registered partnerships (285), 117 of 147 global partnerships remain active, the Caribbean has 141 still active from 178. NGOs lead very few. The UN leads 52%.

Left behind

Identified partnership gaps in SAMOA Pathway priority areas include:

...and the UN itself

Ahead of the Climate Action Summit, the UN Secretariat announced a 10-year Climate Action Plan to achieve a 45% reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions and source 80% of electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

It pointed out, however, that its global operations represent only some 58% of the reported greenhouse gas emissions from the entire UN system, according to the latest Greening the Blue report, issued on 22 September by the United Nations Environment Programme. 

Down the rabbit hole

The last half hour veered into pure Lewis Carroll territory. Speaking for the Secretary-General (not present) , Under-Secretary-General Fekitamoeloa Katoa 'Utoikamanu told the gathering: "We heard the voice of SIDS loud and clear."

The chair said: "These deliberations confirmed what most of us already knew."

He then tried to stop the Nicaraguan representative from speaking, though the delegate said he was on the list of speakers, and finally gave the man two minutes instead of the generally suggested three.

What happened to 'loss and damage'?

The Nicaraguan supported Mia Mottley's complaint about taxpayers' money being used for meetings where they heard the same thing over and over, and noted the difficulty for small missions (Nicaragua has three persons) in covering all the meetings the U.N. convenes at once, and did make a proposal delegates had not heard.

He contrasted the meetings expenditure with "no finance for loss and damage" to poor and vulnerable states, despite the Warsaw Loss and Damage Mechanism in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, approved in 2013 by signatories to the Climate Change convention (CoP19).

'Act on the Warsaw mechanism'

His proposal: the upcoming Santiago CoP should "elevate loss and damage to the same category as mitigation and adaptation so that funding can be made available".

He was interrupted by the chair when he seemed to be running over his time. So he closed and said: "Thank you very much, sir, for your patience."

The chair made no comment on his appeal.

Nicaragua pointed out that finance under the mechanism had been blocked after 2013 "all the way to 2018".

'Vague commitment'

A commentary on the 2013 decision, entitled 'A climate for corruption' said: "The vague wording fell short of the kind of detailed commitments on additional funding and avoided a commitment to compensation that many developing nations had been seeking. The summit once again saw tensions between developed and developing nations laid bare, with poorer countries responding angrily to moves by Japan, Australia and Canada to water down previous climate commitments. There was also frustration at US opposition to the loss and damage mechanism and the failure of industrialized nations to make fresh emission reduction and climate financing commitments."

A litmus test? Your verdict

The U.N. Undersecretary-General may have been speaking truer than she knew when she told the SAMOA meeting: "SIDS truly are our litmus test on whether or not we can fulfil our promise for a sustainable development for all."

The UN's own news service focused on some of the least interesting statements, such as a young Papua New Guinea woman's declaration: "We may be small islands, but no man is an island." It also gave prominence to Momoa's heartfelt but hardly SIDS-based keynote. Typically, the best report on his speech came from the AceShowbiz website.

The Sustainable Development Twitter feed didn't feature any of the substantive criticisms of the current approach to helping SIDS or analyzing their capabilities of surviving.

The political declaration was described as "a concise action-oriented agreement." That doesn't mean action-packed.

And my search of the document found no call for implementing the Warsaw mechanism, except in passing in a section calling on nations to "enhance action and support to avert, minimize and address loss and damage, including through the WIM".

But then nor did anyone else — high, well-placed or in effective power — mention its lower status on the international totem pole of aid.

A favourite

My favourite speech: Alicia Barcena's (at about 17 minutes into the little-watched afternoon session). She detailed how ECLAC had revised its approach to the Caribbean in light of annual disasters, promised more action and challenged others to do the same for other SIDS. And it was short. But then I have worked with her and might be considered biased.


Programme and Political declaration (PDF).

SAMOA Pathway press summary (PDF)

Secretary-General's statement

Partnerships report

SIDS review morning session (3 hours, 12.6k viewers)

SIDS review afternoon session (3 hours, 854 views)

Statements submitted to Secretariat (4 posted as of 2 October 2019)