Today the government of Saint Lucia, alongside the Commonwealth Secretariat, is co-hosting the third Global Biennial Conference on Small States — a two-day conference where senior government officials, representatives from international organizations, and a wide range of development experts discuss the main challenges for states of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants or fewer. The conference objective is to provide an international platform for this group to share lessons and develop policy options.
This year the discussions will be focused on the theme, “building resilience in small states,” and will include panels regarding governance, economic aspects of resilience, environmental management, debt, and social cohesion.
Of the 53 members of the Commonwealth, 31 are small states — going by the population threshold — and 12 are from the Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica.
One of the main purposes of this conference is to help governments identify and prioritize areas where the international community can provide support, and help them achieve sustainable growth. According to Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, “small states tend to get marginalized in international discourse.… We are trying to be very practical in this, if you disaggregate all the problems that are contributing to the vulnerability of the states, then you have very specific assignments which you can give yourself.”
The forum will concentrate on five pillars: good governance, macro-economic stability, micro-economic market efficiency, social development and cohesion, and sound environmental management.
The problems that small states have to face are highly complex and vulnerable to global events. According to the Commonwealth Secretariat, these are countries that face unique special development challenges, such as limited capacity, poverty, income volatility, limited economic diversification, remoteness, isolation, and vulnerability to natural disasters and environmental change.
Sharma explains, “it’s more than poverty, middle-income states can also be very vulnerable states because of the effect which the global context is having on them.”
Also, small states are some of the most indebted in the world. Their high debt-to-Gross Domestic Product ratios, according to the International Monetary Fund, “jeopardize prospects for medium-term debt sustainability and growth.” These surpass 60 percent of GDP, which makes them effectively insolvent.
On this debt problem, Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam hopes that this conference serves “to see real recognition from the Commonwealth, which needs to be taken to all other international financial institutions, of the key specificity of the islands.”
On the eve of the third Global Biennial Conference on Small States, the recently created Open-Ended Ministerial Group met to delineate its scope. This working group was brought together during the Heads of Government Meeting, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last November.
In a resolution, representatives highlighted that the global economic crisis had disproportionate impacts on small states, making it twice as hard for them to recover. Therefore, they handed the Commonwealth Secretariat the task to create a group of ministers that could study different alternatives to find a solution.
This working group has the objective to advance “practical and concrete proposals to address the priority development concerns of Commonwealth small states, including through the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States in 2014 and development of the Post-2015 Development Agenda.”
According to Secretary General Sharma, the Group will “initiate partnerships and action to address a handful of small states’ priority issues, work through a specific Commonwealth lens, focus[ed] on vulnerability and resilience — and the need to ‘define’ countries in terms of their vulnerability, and examine resilience-building as a set of actions that need support.”
This conference takes place in a year that has been selected by the United Nations as the International Year of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). According to the United Nations, the objectives behind this decision are to celebrate the achievement and resiliency of SIDS efforts in overcoming their unique development challenges, and to activate international interest and support for sustainable development in these countries.
“We cannot have a one-size-fit-all; we have to have an approach which looks at the realities of these countries,” Seychelles Foreign Minister stated.