SDG 8 - Decent work and economic growth SDG 16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions

Supporting small island states

by | Feb 8, 2021

Marlene Attzs

1999 Split-site Scholar from Trinidad and Tobago

PhD Environmental Economics

University College London and the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus

Marlene Attzs is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Her research has a primary focus on sustainable economic development issues confronting Caribbean Island States. She is also a Civil Society Advisory Governor (CSAG) to the Commonwealth Foundation, the Commonwealth agency for civil society.

In this article, Marlene shares the challenges faced by small island developing states (SIDS), the impact of COVID-19 on pre-existing vulnerabilities, and the necessity of developing resilient strategies for future progress.

A map that shows Small Island Developing states (SIDS)

SIDS were first recognised as a distinct group of countries in 1992 by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). SIDS are located all over the globe, including in the Caribbean. Despite the geographic spread of these islands, they share several commonalties and challenges.

Some of these commonalities include small but growing populations, limited resources (particularly financial), geographical remoteness, and vulnerability to natural disasters and other exogenous shocks.

For the most part, SIDS are open economies which depend heavily on trade, and are often characterised as having fragile ecosystems. This combination means that sustainable development for SIDS is a multidimensional challenge, requiring multidimensional and intersecting solutions. Building resilience is a priority for these islands as they seek to navigate their inherent characteristics while simultaneously addressing development goals.

The reality of this group of islands’ vulnerabilities has become even more apparent with the development challenges presented by COVID-19.

Supporting health sectors

As high-income countries unleashed massive financial resources in 2020 to deal with spiraling rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, Caribbean island states struggled to raise additional financial resources to support their health sectors. Many island states simply did not have the fiscal space to reallocate budget to healthcare and for many Caribbean countries, COVID-19 has become both a social and economic burden.

Many governments have had to incur additional debt from borrowing to fund health responses; provide additional safety nets to support vulnerable members of society; close borders, which has crippled the tourism sector; and manage the threat of food insecurity as global supply chains have been disrupted owing to worldwide border closures (food imports account for 60% of the food consumed in the Caribbean).

In addition to the direct health and economic impacts identified there also indirect consequences due to COVID-19 that potentially compromise efforts for sustainable development in Caribbean SIDS.

Widening inequalities

The need to halt economic activity across several sectors to control this pandemic has highlighted inequalities and inequities in most island states, with many households unable to manage the impact of unemployment on livelihoods. It has unearthed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and inequities in educational access which must be addressed as part of any development strategy moving forward. The abrupt closure of all schools from March has had a significant impact on learners, as well as uncertainty about what teaching and learning might look like in a COVID-19 restricted society, particularly in countries with limited financial resources to invest in the technology required for online learning.

Data from the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) and from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) suggest that the poverty challenge predated the current global crisis and may have put a significant number of vulnerable persons at even greater risk from COVID-19. The FAO has estimated that 30% of the region’s population is absolutely poor, with six Caribbean islands having poverty rates between 20-29% of the population, and another six with poverty rates in excess of 30%.

The poverty challenge is compounded by chronic unemployment in many Caribbean countries, including specific cases of rising youth unemployment. On the issue of gender equality, the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that while girls and women generally outperform boys and men in education, this performance does not translate into the world of work in terms of overall labour force participation, employment, seniority, and ownership of businesses.

Compared with other regions, a high proportion of Caribbean households are headed by women and as such tend to be poorer and have greater numbers of dependents, increasing financial strain and insecurity.

Protocols for managing the spread of the virus, such as frequent hand washing, rely on the assumption that households have access to adequate water supplies. Social distancing measures are also having a negative impact on mental health, particularly amongst vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly, and those who live alone, as individuals are cut off from social contact. This has raised concern around the potential increase in mental health issues – from substance abuse as a coping mechanism, to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and self-harm, and ways to support those affected during and post-pandemic.

The way forward

Beyond the obvious global concerns of a reliable COVID-19 vaccine, widespread and low-cost access to this, and a return to sustainable levels of economic growth, the way forward in a post-COVID world, certainly for Caribbean island states, is likely to be fraught with new challenges, some of which will be layered on top the pre-existing conditions.

The Sustainable Development Goals provide a way to build resilience among these island states and therefore attention should be paid to providing greater support to SIDS in a post-COVID economic world order. Focusing on building economic resilience alone by addressing issues such as appropriate fiscal and monetary policies, however, is unlikely to help regain momentum towards achieving the development goals and objectives. While improvements in the economic trajectory will assist with other social dimensions such as poverty, deliberate attention must be paid to the plight of the most vulnerable members of society, through education and human capital development. A reduction in pre-existing and new vulnerabilities and closing of gender gaps are also vital.

In the same way in which COVID-19 continues to be a global challenge, achieving sustainable development requires resilience building across all nations, particularly for Caribbean SIDS – future generations are counting on it.