The smallest footprint, the biggest problem: inside the push to measure the vulnerability of small island developing states – world


The world is in trouble. We don’t need to look any further than the last report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “red code for humanity”.

The IPCC report is just one of the more recent warnings. In 1972, a historical book entitled Limits to growth sounded the alarm. He said that population growth and waste beyond planetary borders will lead to an irreversible decline in human well-being and, ultimately, the collapse of the world system in the 21st century. The book predicted that the point of no return would be 2050. Other research has said that this point could happen as early as 2030, or maybe later than initially predicted, but still in this century.

Either way, the need for change is urgent. The extent of the loss and damage suffered by the world depends on its vulnerabilities.

Small Island Developing States: Measuring Vulnerability

While the world’s future is uncertain, the future of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is uncertain. More 72 million people live in 58 SIDS and the territories are exposed to aggravated risks with limited solutions in constantly deteriorating circumstances.

Although responsible for only 0.2% of global carbon emissions (2016), SIDS suffer the most from the impact of climate change. With the lowest manufacturing output in the world (less than 9% of GDP), their carbon footprint is minor.

For years, SIDS have pushed to create an index to measure their vulnerability and thus advocate for their sustainable development.

At Top of the earth in 1992, SIDS were first recognized as a distinct group of developing countries facing particular social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities. Two years later, at the first global conference on the sustainable development of SIDS, participating states requested an index to measure their vulnerabilities. The call was renewed in the big statements in the 2014 and 2019 SIDS summits. And in December 2020, GA resolution 75/215 requested the United Nations Secretary-General to report to the 76th United Nations General Assembly on the development and use of a Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) for SIDS access concessional financing.

Finally, an index: the multidimensional vulnerability index of SIDS

The call for a sophisticated index has now been answered.

United Nations Resident Coordinators in SIDS in the Pacific, Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea (AIS) met and partnered with Prof. Jeffrey Sachs and the Sustainable development solutions network to develop the MVI. In July 2021, they published a study titled “The Decade of Action and Small Island Developing States – Measuring and addressing the vulnerabilities of SIDS to accelerate progress on the SDGs. ”

The MVI measures economic development, structural and environmental vulnerabilities through 18 indicators in three different categories.

  • Economic vulnerabilities: Seven indicators measuring exposure to unforeseen exogenous shocks resulting from economic openness as well as dependence on a narrow range of strategic exports and imports such as food and fuel. A country’s exposure to declining foreign economic resources is measured by reliance on remittances, tourism revenues, and official development assistance (ODA).
  • Structural development: the boundaries include five indicators of geophysical vulnerability: population size as a measure of a country’s physical size, percentage of arable land, total internal renewable freshwater resources per capita, maritime connectivity and transport costs. The farther away a country is and the less connected it is to global maritime networks, the higher the costs of transport and trade.
  • Environmental vulnerability: Six factors defining vulnerability to natural hazards and climate change. The frequency and severity of disasters are taken into account. A distinction is made between hydrometeorological disasters (drought, flooding, storms and extreme temperatures) and seismic disasters (earthquakes and volcanic activity). As an indicator of vulnerability to sea level rise, the percentage of land areas where the elevation is less than 5 meters is included.

The selection of variables allows comparisons to be made between 195 countries and territories. The results show that, without a doubt, SIDS are the most vulnerable nations of our time.

Consider the numbers. The higher the “score” or number on the MVI, the more vulnerable the country is. The overall MVI score is 22.1. Scores for SIDS are 50-70% higher: 37.6 for SIDS in the Pacific, 34.80 in AIS and 33.72 in the Caribbean.

Unsurprisingly, the higher the MVI score, the slower progress on the SDGs. The growth limits for SIDS are much stricter than for the rest of the world.

Using the MVI

Developing the MVI is not an end in itself. The MVI can also be used, inter alia, for access to concessional finance, better national planning, debt servicing, access to financing instruments and to insurance and compensation schemes. Using MVI in debt restructuring, including suspension of debt service, debt relief and debt swaps, could significantly improve the fiscal capacity and creditworthiness of SIDS.

Importantly, IVM could help improve the use of ODA. While SIDS continue to receive higher levels of development assistance per capita, the cost of delivery is nearly five times higher than anywhere else, according to a OECD Report 2018. And one March 2021 Report by the International Monetary Fund concludes that given the high cost of building sustainable infrastructure in these countries, SIDS cannot fund the SDGs on their own.

The slow progress on the SDGs that SIDS have made to date, such as the The SDG index shows, is an indication that the losses from vulnerabilities outweigh the gains from development.

To achieve consensus around access to IVM-based development cooperation for SIDS, the UN Secretary-General, in his report to the 76th UN General Assembly, recommends the creation of a high-level expert group tasked with finalizing the IVM by 2022.

Through these and other measures, the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index will help people in small island developing States not be left behind.

* Written by ** Simona Marinescu, Ph.D. United Nations Resident Coordinator for Samoa, Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau. Editorial support from Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work carried out in the region, visit: https://samoa.un.org/. *

* For more information on the reinvigorated United Nations Resident Coordinator system, please visit section dedicated to the latest Report of the President of UNSDG on DCO. *


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