Small States and the Commonwealth

Posted on 28/02/2014
By Vijay Krishnarayan
Small States and the Commonwealth

Commonwealth Foundation Director, Vijay Krishnarayan, reflects on why 2014 is a big year for small states.

Indeed it is the International Year of Small Island Developing States! This is a constituency with particular importance for the Commonwealth as just under half of its members fit that description and the organisation has a long track record of supporting small states, highlighting their vulnerability to externally generated environmental and economic shocks. However, one area that has received relatively little attention is the importance of civil society organisations in articulating a development agenda for small states. 

In the Commonwealth Charter, which was endorsed by Heads of Government and launched last year, one of the sixteen clauses is dedicated to small states. In addition to committing to assisting small and developing states, it highlights the particular needs of Small Island Developing States as they tackle economic, energy, climate change and security related challenges, and build resilience for the future.

The Commonwealth’s signature on small states and SIDS in particular has been the concept of vulnerability, emphasising the exposure of small states to challenges related to scale, risk and capacity. In the Commonwealth Heads’ Gozo Statement on Vulnerable Small States, issued in 2005, the main characteristics outlined were: erosion of preferential trade access; growing debt burdens; disproportionately high security costs; natural disasters; HIV and AIDS; and rising youth unemployment. While some of these have changed over the past ten years, the economic argument remains strong and climate change has taken its place alongside to provide the new foundations for the concept.

Vulnerability has provided SIDS with a platform for advocacy in the global arena and a focus for capacity building, but it represents only one half of the development story. For a sustainable way forward weaknesses need to be addressed: but equally strengths need to be built on. In SIDS those strengths can be grouped together under the heading of resilience. It is this side of the equation, emphasising self-agency and building on traditions of struggle and resistance, which has resonated with civil society organisations. 

The potential for civil society to play an active role in building resilience in SIDS is manifest. The value of financial and social capital repatriated by the diaspora is substantial and takes place largely outside the realm of governments.

In the Caribbean, where emigration over the past fifty years has seen a steady outflow of the young and skilled, the diaspora has remained connected and makes a substantial contribution to the balance of payments. According to World Bank figures, the amount of money received in remittances in 2012 amounted to: US$2.1 billion in Jamaica; US$469 million in Guyana; and US$82 million in Barbados.  

The danger with these powerful statistics is that they can prevent a more profound imagining of the value of the diaspora. The way that contribution takes shape will be defined in large part by civil society, with its ability to organise across national and institutional boundaries. 

From this analysis it can readily be seen that civil society has a role to play in building resilience in SIDS, either through delivering services where the state is not able to, or advocating for policies addressing citizens’ needs and aspirations. Yet successive intergovernmental processes have not given adequate space to the consideration of the importance of the civic dimension to building resilience in SIDS. 

As the Commonwealth’s agency for civil society, the Commonwealth Foundation has a part to play in helping to build this dimension of resilience in SIDS and last year funded the participation of networks and alliances at a conference that started a global civic conversation on SIDS. The process continued at the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) in Sri Lanka. In the declaration that followed, the small states challenges were given especial prominence and were listed under the headings of: SIDS and Marine Environments; Sustainable Energy; Minority Rights; and Non Communicable Diseases. With specific regard to the Post MDG development goals they called for “a stand-alone goal for SIDS in view of their inherent, interlinked vulnerabilities and in pursuit of cross cutting resilience building. ” 

Civic voices have been missing from the SIDS discussion. This year the international conference on SIDS provides an opportunity to address this deficit. The Commonwealth Foundation is committed to supporting civil society inputs to this year’s Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States – to be held in Apia, Samoa in September. It is clear that civil society organisations are heading to Samoa – not just with an intent to ensure that their sector is visible in the specific discussions that will take place, for example, on climate change or economic development. They will also go with a vision for an inclusive, holistic and sustainable approach to development in SIDS. These are Commonwealth themes and this year the Foundation looks forward to playing its part in helping civil society to articulate them.