Caribbean islands aren’t hitting their development goals. UN seeks to help them along

From disappearing coastlines to the high cost of a healthy diet, Caribbean nations like other small island developing states are struggling to build resilient economies and invest in the future of their populations.

Those challenges, along with the islands’ spiraling debt, high interest rates and the damaging effects of extreme weather events like flooding and hurricanes, are among the topics that global leaders will tackle during a three day conference being organized by the United Nations, starting on Monday.

The fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Antigua and Barbuda, will include appearances by United Nations Secretary António Guterres, U.N. General Assembly President Dennis Francis and Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Patricia Scotland, among others.

In remarks on Sunday, ahead of the conference’s opening, Guterres said because small island developing states or SIDS, cannot achieve the sustainable development they need on their own, “mobilizing the resources needed by SIDS will require a sustained commitment from the international community. And public money will not be enough.”

“From financing renewable energy to promoting sustainable tourism and mobilizing capital for climate resilience, SIDS will need to leverage private sector investments, expertise, and innovation,” Guterres said at the Small Island Developing States Global Business Network Forum, which sought to mobilize the business community ahead of the conference.

Pushing the business community to do its part, Guterres said the United Nations is also doing its part by pushing for deep reforms, and the political momentum to ensure they happen.

Over the span of three days, Guterres and others will be sounding the alarm on some familiar themes — the need for access to climate financing and health, stopping hunger and ending poverty. Part of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, the actions are supposed to be achieved by 2030. However, they are “off track,” said Francis, adding that “urgent action is needed.”

This is why, he says, the goal of the gathering in Antigua will be to negotiate a new Global Development policy blueprint aimed at helping richer countries live up to the pledge of helping poorer, and smaller countries achieve the goals.

Francis said he does have an appreciation for the climate under which world leaders are being asked next week to take some tough decisions. For one, there remains the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine and the continued rise of food prices globally.

“While things seem normal, we are not yet fully recovered from the pandemic,” he said. “You’ve had war taking place in several places, but particularly in Ukraine and in Gaza, you’ve had rising inflation globally, you’ve had food insecurity, global food insecurity has risen significantly over the last four or five years in particular, and so the climate in which these decisions have got to be made, have become particularly challenging.”

“The hope is that appreciating that development really needs a shot in the arm because what we have now is really unsustainable development,” he said.

Francis said one of the big asks in the negotiations will be reforming the global financial architecture to allow vulnerable developing countries, “to be able to borrow money from the multilateral development banks at more affordable rates of interest.”

This is to allow countries to make the investments they need to protect their citizens from the effects of climate change, and make investments in programs to address deepening hunger, for example.

“What is happening at the moment is that they are being asked to pay exorbitantly high rates of interest and they have no choice but to borrow,” he said. “But in paying back the interest on those loans, they find themselves stuck in a situation of debt, they are racking up debt. And in repaying the loans, we find that they do not have the resources to invest in things like education, housing, health, transportation, because most of government revenue is spent simply to pay back the interest on the debt.”

One area in which this has had negative consequences is in tackling hunger. High interest rates means more debt and less access to financing to stand up programs to help populations struggling with high food prices, low employment and high food import bills.

A new survey, released ahead of the conference, by the World Food Program shows that an estimated 43% of the English and Dutch speaking Caribbean is experiencing some form of hunger pangs. The new report calls for more targeted investments and partnerships to address the root causes of hunger in the face of rising food prices and mounting input costs for farmers and fishermen in the Caribbean.

Regis Chapman, the World Food Program’s representative for the Caribbean region, said he hopes during the conference there is more recognition and appreciation for the “shocks” that islands in the Caribbean and elsewhere are exposed to and the ripple effects they have.

“When events occur, it’s a national crisis,” he said.

Chapman hopes to highlight some of the ways in which WFP is working with countries to promote targeted school feeding programs using locally grown agriculture products and to get people to eat less processed, imported foods.

“This is why I think the investments in school feeding and making them universal, is critical. When school meals are done well, there’s evidence that shows that for every dollar invested… your return can be much greater,” he said. “Again, that’s the role of local agriculture, that’s building in some of the behavioral change, that’s getting some of those diets to be better and reducing some of the long term costs.”

“We’re trying to introduce some tools that the World Food Program uses in other contexts as well,” he added. ”We have a menu planning tool that looks at seasonality, helps governments plan for that.”

Other programs, he highlights, is one recently launched in St. Vincent and the Grenadines called “We can.”

“What this is really about is how do we move people from social assistance to sustainable livelihoods and much more of this needs to be done,” Chapman said. “Again, we need resources to scale up these types of programs.”