UNDP SIDS Bulletin | SIDS in 2022 and beyond

Benjamin Keller • 24 January 2022

Special Edition | SIDS in 2022 and beyond

As the new year begins, the world continues to battle a global pandemic, all within the context of a planetary climate emergency. Yet every new year also provides an opportunity to put our best foot forward and act. In 2022, UNDP will be putting its new strategic plan into action. Central to this will be continued collaboration with Small Island Developing States to support them on the path towards achieving the SAMOA pathway and 2030 Agenda.

2022 will be a crucial year for SIDS, with much to look forward to and opportunities for real change and impact. Of particular note,  the UN Ocean Conference will bring leaders together to support the implementation of SDG 14 on life below water. As the oceans continue to heat up, breaking devastating records every year, action - including leveraging digital and other types of innovation - will be imperative. Focus should also be equally placed on people and planet: 2022 has been declared the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculturerecognizing that small-scale fishing employs millions of people and feeds billions more.

Below you will find our take on the trends we expect to see this year relevant to the sustainable development of SIDS, in the hope that these inspire you and help you reflect on the challenges ahead and the integrated solutions needed. In the words of Haoliang Xu, Director of UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support: “To make a difference to people’s lives at this scale, we have to examine the systems and structures that shape development – not just the immediate challenges.”


Tonga volcano eruption: Damage assessment begun

The eruption of the submerged Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano on Saturday caused tsunami waves to crash into the island nation of Tonga. Early reports mentioned three confirmed fatalities and catastrophic damage to many buildings and infrastructure. The eruption also released gases that can cause acid rain and affect water supplies, and produced an ash cloud - disrupting flights in the area, as well as a near-total blackout of electricity. Infrastructure has been badly damaged, with the country seeing a near total blackout of electricity and severing of Tonga’s undersea communications cable has broken. The latter has impeded internet and phone communications in and out of Tonga. The full extent of the damage remains unclear, but a statement from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies  indicates that up to 800,000 people could be affected by the damages. In addition to immediate damage, the eruption could have serious and negative impacts on Tonga’s environment that may last for years.


The UN Secretary-General’s concern for casualties and solidarity with the people of Tonga and other Pacific nations affected by this disaster is echoed by UNDP. As part of the UN, UNDP stands ready to support recovery efforts. As the large waves caused by the eruption are felt in the Pacific as far as the western coast of the US and Japan, and with an acid rain alert raised in Fiji, we are reminded of the smallness of our planet - and how challenges and disasters and not constrained by borders. Once again, we are urged to rise up for SIDS as they stand at the frontlines of a natural disasters and climate change.


 Blue Economy: a year of opportunities for international political action

The role of the ocean along with its biodiversity has increasingly been recognized in recent climate debates and culminated in the recognition of ocean action in climate action during COP 26 last November. More specifically, the Glasgow Climate Pact invited stakeholders to integrate and strengthen ocean-based actions into their existing mandates and work plans. While ocean-based climate mitigation and adaptation strategies have been realized and translated into NDCs and policies of a number of SIDS, this global push can offer large ocean states additional opportunities to strengthen their ambitions to marine and coastal Nature based Solutions in their national climate strategies.      

Looking forward to 2022, clear commitments to curb ongoing ocean degradation are also needed. During the World Ocean Summit Asia-Pacific, held in December 2021, Ambassador Peter Thomson, the United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the Ocean, identified specific objectives for the upcoming ocean-related events to be held in 2022. He namely encouraged relevant stakeholders to agree to remove harmful fisheries subsidies during the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference, commence negotiations for an international binding treaty to end plastic pollution during the 5th session of the United Nations Environment Assembly, adopt the 30 by 30 protection target during the UN Biodiversity Conference, and put in place science-based solutions to stop the decline of ocean health the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.

For SIDS, restoring ocean health through such commitments would translate into greater opportunities for investment in the Blue Economy. In fact, a report published by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, revealed that every US$ 1 invested in mangrove conservation and restoration, decarbonizing shipping, or increasing production of sustainably sourced ocean-based protein is expected to yield US$ 3, US$ 2-5, and US$ 10 in benefits, respectively. However, for many Blue Economy sectors, private sector investment is impeded by the relatively high incurred risk. In addition, different Blue Economy sectors require different types of capital. For example, ecosystem restoration often requires impact-only investments such as grants (whereas aquaculture projects are mostly financed by debt and equity from the private sector), whereas a successful approach and a sustainable blue economy needs a diversified funding and financing strategy.

Much of this could be achieved through blended finance, where limited public or philanthropic capital is used to leverage private sector investments. Such financial tools should, however, be developed through close collaboration between financial experts and environmental practitioners so that ocean preservation and restoration are the primary outcomes of these investments. However, investing in healthy ecosystems is not the only requisite to support sustainable Blue Economies. SIDS are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts and external shocks. For instance, tourism, one of the key economic sectors in most SIDS, has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. There was an estimated 70% drop in travel receipts in 2020. While a slight recovery has been recorded in 2021, arrivals were still well below 2019 levels. Reimagining tourism through digital tourism, like the use of augmented reality technology to enhance visitor experiences, has the potential to increase the resilience of the industry by attracting new audiences and by providing a more sustainable product. Fisheries, another key economic sector for SIDS is at risk from Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. The use of digital tools, like electronic monitoring systems, Vessel Monitoring Systems, and Blockchain, can improve the Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance these fisheries for the benefit of SIDS. An integrated approach to the Blue Economy coupled to investments in creative industries and digital innovations can accelerate SIDS recovery through increased resilience, economic diversification, and new jobs creation for women, youth and persons with disabilities.


Food Security: building climate resilience and self-sufficiency through digital agriculture

Supply chain disruptions resulting from COVID-19 have had adverse effects on food security and nutrition in SIDS. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the various food-related challenges in SIDS - including an overreliance on food imports, vulnerability to external economic shocks, malnutrition, and high rates of diet-related non-communicable diseases. Could improved self-sufficiency play a role in tackling these issues?

Urban and vertical farming is on the rise globally, especially since COVID-19. The phenomenon of cultivating fresh agricultural produce even on limited land — a constraint shared by all SIDS — can help strengthen food security in SIDS by boosting local food production. This is made possible through non-traditional farming techniques such as hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics, along with the use of emerging digital technologies including the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence.

As an example, Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is one type of an advance in intensive indoor farming which uses hydroponics and a controlled environment to optimise production. Environmental parameters such as temperature, humidity, and lighting are monitored using sensors and tightly controlled to deliver yields. By minimising the need for inputs and enabling multiple crop cycles in a season, CEA can result in cost savings of up to 90% compared to traditional farming. However, key challenges in adoption of CEA - and other types of vertical and high-tech farming - include high capital costs and the need for expert knowledge in a variety of disciplines including chemistry, horticulture, and digital technology.

However, not all urban farming is about high-tech. Entrepreneurs in SIDS can innovate and design solutions that fit into local contexts. Innovators in Singapore (itself a SIDS), for example, are experimenting with multiple models of urban agriculture - from rooftop farms, the installation of urban farms into existing buildings, and better greenhouses (including ones in bus stops). The Government of Singapore is driving such initiatives as part of its goal to meet 30% of nutritional needs by 2030 (up from less than 10% in 2019). One interesting example is the Singapore company Archisen, who are shaping vertical farming solutions that could be scaled across other SIDS.

Singapore’s example reaffirms an important part of this puzzle: the need for governments’ stewardship in fostering local urban farming and agri-food tech ecosystems. The Member State Dialogues that took place in the lead up to the landmark Food Systems Summit in 2021 were an important step in developing national pathways towards sustainable food systems. By continuing these dialogues into 2022, working with all stakeholders, and leveraging technology and innovation, SIDS can chart a path for strengthening food security and resilience of their food systems.

Digital Transformation:  technology provides opportunities for recovery and resilience

The past two years have reaffirmed that digital is not optional. It is a central tool for public service delivery, citizen engagement, and catalysing new industries and opportunities. Digital also plays a crucial role in crisis response – countries with existing strong digital foundations were largely able to respond quicker to the COVID-19 pandemic. With this in mind, digital is an essential component of SIDS’ development journey - from driving investment and growth, to enabling critical communications. But these tools need to be leveraged effectively by SIDS. This includes ensuring they align with the unique needs and realities of our countries, including the threats that SIDS face. Most notably, the vulnerability of digital infrastructure  was sadly highlighted during the devastating incident in Tonga this week.

2022 could see digital efforts translating into exciting opportunities across the SIDS community. Discussions around ‘The Great Reset’  driven by the COVID-19 pandemic have re-focused attentions on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The barriers to exploring new and emerging technologies are lowering every day, whilst the natural agility and leadership of SIDS countries could be an important complement to developing testbeds and trials and shaping other explorations. For instance, as SIDS aim to move towards a large ocean approach, they are harnessing technologies to spark a data revolution for the Blue Economy in these traditionally data poor countries. Barbados is piloting digital technologies for the Blue Economy, installing pelagic data systems tracking devices on small vessels to inform fisheries management and conservation efforts, piloting the Blue Digital app with fisherfolk to improve data and traceability along the supply chain, and using drones and artificial intelligence to monitor Sargassum seaweed influxes.

However, 4IR isn’t just about technologies like 5G and AI – it’s also about redefining global supply networks, and global comparative advantages. Here, innovations such as 3D-printing – and interventions like makerspaces – are already gaining traction in SIDS. As we reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply chains, SIDS could become key players in these new global structures.

However, digital also could allow SIDS countries to no longer be constrained by physical boundaries, or their comparatively smaller sizes. Most famously, the governments of Estonia and Singapore recognised the importance of digital for their countries – and are now reimagining these structures and processes. With Barbados looking to establish an embassy in the Metaverse, could these new tools and innovations enable SIDS to lead aspects of the global digital economy? Recent developments in the digital world like Non-Fungible Tokens – an initial step into digital property ownership – are gaining traction with the creative community, including in lower-income countries. Could they catalyse the Orange Economy in SIDS countries?
Similarly the pandemic has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work, generating important opportunities for SIDS to overcome geographical constraints. As traditional tourism re-opens, remote workers will continue to be an important new market, with the natural beauty and climate of SIDS as a powerful draw for expats. Beyond their direct investment (the Barbados welcome stampers accounted for US$92 million spent on accommodations alone), this cohort represents a still largely untapped resource for driving innovation, partnership, and investment within SIDS economies. Remote work could also provide a much-needed solution to the domestic labour markets and brain drain. As demonstrated by the Dominica Work Online programme, this shift is providing SIDS with opportunities to create jobs for skilled nationals who can now find opportunities abroad, while staying at home.
Digital is providing important opportunities for driving collaboration within and beyond SIDS – particularly priorities such as cross-border data and relevant initiatives such as Open Banking (drawing on the strong fintech interests of SIDS). Similarly, increasing efforts around open-source and digital public goods demonstrate the importance and impact of working with – and learning from – each other. But, inequalities and risks remain. And any exploration or implementations of digital need to be led, owned, and shaped by SIDS. Countries should not be testbeds, playgrounds, or training sets for technologies from higher-income countries. As they equip themselves with new or emerging digital strategies, SIDS governments, such as Belize and Dominica, are empowering themselves to attract public and private investment to key areas and to lead a wave of transformation on digital skills, government services, and private sector innovation.  


Data: turning development insights into action

There are several key ways to enhance the value of data in SIDS as they continue to emerge as leaders of the data revolution in 2022.  A few areas of specific focus include to:

Foundational data infrastructure is crucial is enabling access to, analysis of, and sharing of data and innovations between and within SIDS. This includes national open data portals like those of Jamaica and Papua New Guinea, spatial data infrastructures, and data communities. Each of these play an essential role in making all other data innovations possible. The latter is particularly important, with a data community in SIDS made possible through the provision of digital tools, open data, capacity-building workshops, training curriculums, and finance mechanisms necessary to develop capacity of local research and innovation institutions. Support in growing local capacity of national statistical offices and bureaux will be essential to allow data to be integrated into policymaking and enable integrated analyses of vulnerabilities and the methods we can use to address them.

One key area is the marine data sphere, which is currently seeing enormous innovations in data collection, ranging from underwater or surface vehicles to collect data at depths and resolution considered impossible only years ago, to constellations of satellites collecting environmental and bathymetric data essential to mapping both the oceans and coastal regions for vulnerability and development potential analysis. Innovations in cloud technologies and machine learning and analytic techniques offer enormous potential for making this possible, but they must be matched by local technical capacity building as well as a larger analysis of the threats and challenges that accompany any endeavor in artificial intelligence.

As geospatial data continues to improve in resolution, accuracy, coverage, and access, it has become an increasingly central part of policymaking and the development agenda. To support this integration of geographic information systems into governance in SIDS it is necessary to support Marine Spatial Data Infrastructures (MSDIs). National MSDIs can support the collection and use of a wide variety of data in SIDS related to bathymetry, geology, blue economy infrastructure, marine ecosystems and climate, and oceanography. This can also act as a foundation for national response systems to support recovery efforts and respond to natural disasters, for both government agencies and the broader community to assess risks, effectively allocate resources, and support awareness initiatives. But for all this data to be actionable, it needs to be comprehensive and accurate. There is a need to close essential data gaps to make modeling efforts more accurate and relevant in SIDS.

Open data is a catalyst for digital economy in SIDS, with open data standards in particular playing a crucial role in helping solve the economic, technical, and legal obstacles for allowing data to become more accessible and valuable in the hands of the data community. But, open data needs to be developed in parallel with legislation that insures data privacy and security can protect the rights of individuals. To advance data governance, it will be necessary to conduct capacity mapping efforts on research and innovation infrastructure, institutional and governmental capacities, and data openness and availability in SIDS. Community mapping is one example of an efficient way to strengthen open data infrastructures as well as provide local information on demography, ecosystem services, and essential infrastructure. For geospatial modeling, SIDS often face challenges because of their diverse geographies concentrated in close proximity, with a scarcity baseline information necessary for training or validating models and research studies. Thus, SIDS are often left out of global modeling efforts, or the generated data requires further verification before it can be integrated into policy-making systems.

Within UNDP we are working on a unified Geohub to act as a spatial architecture for GIS studies and digital tools, including a comprehensive and standardized geospatial database alongside a set of analytic tools designed specifically for SIDS. By focusing on addressing the limitations and constraints for climate adaptation in SIDS, data-driven studies can show the areas and sectors with the greatest impact. A recent study mapping global development potential in renewable energy, agriculture, and natural resources shows the geographic distribution of energy sources with greatest possibility for SIDS. Data has shown that SIDS are also key holders of dense irrecoverable carbon ecosystems including mangroves, seagrasses and tidal wetlands, essential for protection of local social and ecological systems as well as the global climate system. A study mapping the global potential for marine aquaculture found vast areas to exist in nearly every coastal country suitable for aquaculture, far exceeding global foreseeable seafood demand; the current total landings of all wild-capture fisheries would require only about 0.05% of the ocean within the EEZs of SIDS. Also, since most SIDS are highly dependent on food imports with half of SIDS importing more than 80% of their food, this represents significant potential to leverage their oceanic power in the global seafood industry that has quadrupled over the past 50 years.

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