Palau. Photo: Pablo_Marx, Flickr

Photo: Palau. Pablo_Marx, Flickr

About Small Island Developing States

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are a distinct group of 38 UN Member States and 20 Non-UN Members/Associate Members of United Nations regional commissions that face unique social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities.

The three geographical regions in which SIDS are located are: the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea (AIS). 

SIDS were recognized as a special case both for their environment and development at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

The aggregate population of all the SIDS is 65 million, slightly less than 1% of the world’s population, yet this group faces unique social, economic, and environmental challenges. 

SIDS face a host of challenges including for many, their remote geography. As a result, many SIDS face high import and export costs for goods as well as irregular international traffic volumes. Yet, they must rely on external markets for many goods due to the narrow resource base.

For SIDS, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—the ocean under their control—is, on average, 28 times the country’s land mass. Thus, for many SIDS the majority of the natural resources they have access to comes from the ocean. Factors like small population size, remoteness from international markets, high transportation costs, vulnerability to exogenous economic shocks and fragile land and marine ecosystems make SIDS particularly vulnerable to biodiversity loss and climate change because they lack economic alternatives.

Climate change has a very tangible impact on SIDS. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate turned the 2017 tropical cyclone season into one of the deadliest and most devastating of all time, destroying communications, energy and transport infrastructure, homes, health facilities and schools. Slow onset events such as sea level rise pose an existential threat to small island communities, requiring drastic measures such as relocation of populations, and the related challenges this poses. These challenges are compounded by limited institutional capacity, scarce financial resources and a high degree of vulnerability to systemic shocks.

Biodiversity is an important issue for the livelihood of many SIDS, as industries like tourism and fisheries can constitute over half of the GDP of small island economies. However, the importance of these natural resources extends beyond the economy; biodiversity holds aesthetic and spiritual value for many island communities. For centuries, these communities have drawn benefits from biodiversity in the form of food supply, clean water, reduced beach erosion, soil and sand formation, and protection from storm surges.

Strong biodiversity not only generates revenue through industries for SIDS, it also helps prevent the incurrence of additional costs that can result from climate change, soil erosion, pollution, floods, natural disasters, and other destructive phenomena.

At the regional level, SIDS are also supported by inter-governmental organisations, primarily the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC).

UN Programmes of Action in Support of SIDS

Barbados Programme of Action - 1994

In 1994, the Barbados Programme of Action (BPoA) prescribed specific actions that would enable SIDS to achieve sustainable development.The Conference reaffirmed the principles and commitments to sustainable development embodied in Agenda 21 and translated these into specific policies, actions and measures to be taken at the national, regional and international levels.  The Conference also adopted the Barbados Declaration, a statement of political will underpinning the commitments contained in the BPoA.

Mauritius Strategy - 2005

In 2005, the Mauritius Strategy for further implementation of the BPoA was adopted to address remaining gaps in implementation.

SAMOA Pathway - 2014

In 2014, the international community gathered in Samoa for the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States to forge a new pathway for the sustainable development of this group of countries. The SAMOA Pathway recognizes the adverse impacts of climate change and sea-level rise on SIDS’ efforts to achieve economic development, food security, disaster risk reduction and ocean management, among other challenges. 
While many SIDS have made advances in achieving sustainable development, their inherent vulnerabilities—including small size, remoteness, climate change impacts, biodiversity loss and narrow resource base—mean that progress for many continues to be hampered, and their status as a special case for sustainable development remains. 

The SAMOA Pathway aims to address the unique challenges faced by SIDS and to support their development via the five priority areas:

  • Promote sustained and sustainable, inclusive and equitable economic growth with decent work for all, sustainable consumption and production and sustainable transportation
  • Act to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts by implementing sustainable energy and disaster risk reduction programs
  • Protect the biodiversity of SIDS and care environmental health by mitigating the impact of invasive plant and animal species and by properly managing chemicals and water, including hazardous waste, as well as protecting oceans and seas
  • Improve human health and social development through food security and nutrition, improved water and sanitation, reducing the incidence of non-communicable disease and by promoting gender equity and women’s empowerment
  • Foster partnership among SIDS, UN Agencies, development partners and others to achieve these goals