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Investing in sustainable development in small island states

18 August 2014 – The Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States will be held from 1-4 September in Apia, Samoa, raising global awareness about the drive for sustainable development in a group of countries that are vulnerable to a unique range of challenges. IFAD recognizes the specific needs of poor smallholder farmers and fishers in small island developing states – also known as SIDS – and the importance of meeting those needs in the post-2015 development agenda, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals. Next month's conference will thus be an important stepping stone for IFAD's engagement with small island states.

Coastline of the Pacific small island developing state of Fiji. ©IFAD
 

This is a critical moment for SIDS. The declaration of 2014 as the United Nations International Year of Small Island Developing States has focused attention on them, while World Environment Day earlier this year highlighted SIDS in the broader context of climate change. The SIDS conference in Samoa will be the last high-level UN event to be held before the Secretary-General's Climate Summit convenes in New York in late September, and it should help ensure that voices from small island states are heard in that forum.

When looked at together, however, SIDS are anything but 'small'. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs classifies 51 countries and territories as SIDS, with a combined population of more than 50 million. There is tremendous variety among SIDS in terms of size, geography, climate, culture and stage of economic development. And island nations are spread across the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

IFAD has supported projects in all these areas, financing 78 operations in 23 countries for a total of US$476 million over the past 35 years. At present there are 19 IFAD-supported projects, worth a total of US$139 million, operating in 14 SIDS. These initiatives recognize that small island states are not just like other developing countries. Instead, SIDS share a set of special qualities (smallness, remoteness, insularity and oceanic situation) that must be considered in designing successful development strategies.

Challenges to the agricultural sector
SIDS are vulnerable in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Their limited natural resources are increasingly under pressure from various factors, including deforestation for logging, as well as mining and inappropriate agricultural practices. Small islands are also highly vulnerable to disasters such as earthquakes, typhoons or hurricanes, floods, droughts and insect invasions. Climate change is exacerbating this vulnerability due to rising sea levels and other effects – and is, in fact, threatening the very existence of some island states.

FIJI: THE ORGANIC ISLAND. Farmers on Cicia island in Fiji cannot make money from organic crops without being officially certified, an expensive process, so now they are certifying themselves.

Another consequence of their size is that SIDS have small economies. They are characterized by small domestic markets and heavy dependence on a small range of primary agricultural products. With a narrow resource base for productive investment, they are highly dependent on international trade, especially imports. Exports are limited to primary products from agriculture, forestry, fisheries and mining. Export earnings also significantly depend on tourism. This, in turn, makes SIDS particularly vulnerable to global economic shocks and price fluctuations.

These factors, along with their distance from markets and high energy and transportation costs, present major challenges to the agricultural sector in SIDS. 

In addition, gender inequality is pronounced in most small island states, notably in relation to women's access to land. Inequality is also rife due to widely dispersed populations in some small archipelagic island states, where income and employment are concentrated near the administrative centres. Meanwhile, rapid population growth increases the pressure on already limited resources in SIDS, and the mass outmigration of young people has become a serious concern.

Building human, social and physical capacity
These vulnerabilities have a serious impact on food security. Precarious economic conditions, vulnerability to shocks and a limited natural resource base can affect both the quantity and quality of food in SIDS. Paradoxically, another effect on the food supply is a prevalence of unhealthy and poorly utilised foodstuffs, which can result in obesity. Thus, nutrition is an important area for development in small island states.

SÃO TOMÉ: SAVED BY CHOCOLATE. IFAD has joined forces with French organic chocolate company, Kaoka, to revive the cocoa industry on São Tomé, which was once the world's biggest exporter of cocoa.
 

IFAD invests in SIDS to help improve food and nutrition security, reduce rural poverty and enhance the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, rural dwellers and fishers by addressing their unique vulnerabilities. IFAD's efforts to build human, social and physical capacity in SIDS have included training, peer-to-peer learning, and supporting the establishment of women's, farmers' and fishers' groups.

The factors that make it expensive to do business in SIDS, like energy and transport costs, also make it relatively more expensive to mount development projects. But the special challenges should not mean that SIDS are left out of development assistance. IFAD is developing a SIDS-specific approach to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of its work in small island states.

Sustainability, opportunities, resilience
IFAD's strategic priorities in this area are guided by the progress, emerging trends and lessons learned from its past and ongoing operations in SIDS. These priorities – which also respond to the demands raised by small island states during preparations for the upcoming International Conference on SIDS – include the following:

  • Building sustainable small-scale fisheries, including aquaculture and mariculture of nutrition-rich fish, and strengthening fish value chains
  • Enhancing opportunities for smallholders to build vibrant businesses by catering to new dynamic markets such as organics, and by providing employment opportunities and access to finance, especially for women and youth
  • Strengthening resilience to environmental and climate change by facilitating access to relevant data and information, and mainstreaming environmental and climate change considerations in development planning.

Small island states should not be relegated to the margins of development discourse – or financing – because of their remoteness. For the people who live there, these small islands are not remote: they are home. The principles of inclusiveness and equity that have come to the fore in recent discussions of the global development agenda mean that the poor people who inhabit small islands deserve to be heard as much as those who inhabit plains, mountains or deserts. Furthermore, the particular obstacles – including higher costs – of pursuing development projects in SIDS can be addressed through better design, coordination and efficiency. IFAD remains an institution committed to going the 'last mile' to reach the rural poor, whether that last mile be on land or over water.