Carlos Lopes

Africa Cheetah Run

The Former Executive Secretary's Blog

“Small is Beautiful”: African Small Island Development States and Climate Change

1 November 2013
“Small is Beautiful”: African Small Island Development States and Climate Change

Of the world’s fifty-two Small Island Developing States (SIDS), six are in Africa. They include; Cape Verde, Comoros, Guinea Bissau, Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe and Seychelles. These countries range in size from the smallest, Seychelles, which is composed of 115 small islands representing the largest number among African SIDS, to the largest, Guinea Bissau, which comprises close to 80 islands.  For most, these countries trigger vivid images of tourist heavens characterized by tranquil beaches, palm trees, clear turquoise waters or colourful coral reefs.

Economist E.F. Schumacher’s seminal work in 1973, “Small is Beautiful”, sought to counter arguments to well-rehearsed economic maxims such as “growth is good” and “big is better”, and succeeded somehow, in casting some doubt on widely held views on growth and expansion. While most African SIDS would meet Schumacher’s categorization of smallness, and classify as beautiful, not all is well in paradise.

SIDS may indeed be beautiful, but they are in peril. Of all the threats facing SIDS, climate change is probably the most pressing. Although SIDS are inherently diverse socially, politically, economically and geographically; they share a number of characteristics that extenuate their vulnerability. This includes the distinct coastal zone concentration of their populations, infrastructure and socio-economic activities. For example, about 80% of the infrastructure and population in the Seychelles is concentrated along the coast of just a few islands. In addition, SIDS have a limited physical size and are susceptible to frequent and intense cyclones, hurricanes, droughts and storms.

The consequences of climate change and rising sea levels, are exposing SIDS to both irreversible and life threatening damage. The signs are evident from environmental degradation that threatens the diversity of marine ecosystems and resources utilized for livelihoods and food security. Coastal erosion also disrupts human settlements, infrastructure, social services, tourism facilities as well as agricultural subsistence. Water management-related challenges on the other hand are limiting freshwater resources while the risks of saline intrusion increase. Already vulnerable populations are threatened further by health risks stemming from vector borne diseases such as malaria or dengue.

In their entirety, such consequences only mount additional social, cultural and economic stress on SIDS, posing a threat to their very survival.  One only has to look to the Maldives in Asia to realize the gravity of rising sea levels. According to experts, Maldives could be uninhabitable within 50 years from now. It is literally sinking! The prospects for African SIDS could be just as devastating. Not long ago in 2004, a massive tsunami hit Asia and the tidal aftershocks rolled across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa’s east coast. These powerful waves were met with little resistance in the Seychelles which resulted in the capital Victoria being submerged in shallow seawater. Thinking ahead, more critical issues await SIDS. UNEP’s projections place Mauritius in the category of water-stressed countries and Comoros in the category of water-scarce countries by 2025. Cape Verde already belongs to that league.  

Paradox for the small

In contrast to Schumacher’s maxim, larger economies are predisposed to spreading the risks and burdens, both over time and space, thus absorbing the overall impacts of climate change. In the case of SIDS, the choices are reduced due to their geographic dispersion, remoteness and isolation from global markets. Coping strategies tend to be fewer and with heavy reliance on external assistance for post disaster recovery programmes. The paradox is that SIDS are paying for more than their fair share due to their smallness, and are “subsidizing” the cost of managing climate challenges that they are least responsible for. The combined annual carbon dioxide (CO2) output of all SIDS accounts for less than one per cent of global emissions. Yet SIDS are facing disproportionately greater vulnerabilities.

One size doesn’t fit all

The criteria that define SIDS are ambiguous. For instance, not all SIDS are technically “islands” although they lie along coasts, such as the case of Guinea-Bissau. Nor are all SIDS “developing states”, on the contrary, Cape Verde, Mauritius and Seychelles are middle income countries. By coming together, SIDS have been able to form a unified group for addressing environmental vulnerability and being recognized as a “special case” in multilateral environmental agreements like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Despite this, the distribution, scale and severity of the impacts of climate change tend to vary across the SIDS, yet all SIDS tend to be lumped together in one category. Both the homogeneity and heterogeneity of SIDS must be appreciated. In absence of this, the current international architecture is having a reverse effect on actually widening the solution space at national and local levels. International processes should instead be used to emphasize the need for customized and homegrown solutions for SIDS that reflect and are aligned to their own climate resilient development trajectories. For example, according to the Human Development report 2013, about half of the population in Guinea Bissau is living below the poverty line of $1.25 Per Person Per day. This is a stark contrast with Seychelles with less than 1% of the population living below the poverty line; placing the country among the healthiest countries in the world.

James Michel, the President of Seychelles[1] once stated: “A fair deal for SIDS means a truly sustainable governance structure for oceans. When harvesting the oceans for fish or other resources, they seem to belong to everyone. But, when it comes to dealing with sustainability of resources, of marine conservation or pollution, of piracy – the oceans seem to belong to no one”. These words underline the fact that SIDS stand alone in the face of rising temperatures and other biophysical impacts of climate.

What is next?

What then are the opportunities for SIDS to transform their vulnerabilities and better prepare for the impact of climate change?

First, social capital is of fundamental importance in the recovery and coping strategies of vulnerable communities. Investing in kinship and other forms of social capital improves the chances of being able to bounce-back after disasters. Even with the loss of biodiversity, biophysical losses can be compared with the kind of cultural losses that no amount of adaptation can fix. For instance, what would constitute a cultural fix for women rice growers in West Africa, faced with problems of salinization and “predatory” mangroves? How could they find a substitute to this tradition that has formed an essential part of their economic culture?

Second, strong institutions are fundamental enablers to an effective response strategy, either through adaptation or mitigation. They can provide the basis for formulating and supporting green economy policies that will allow Africa to stay on the run. Institutions can act as stewards and regulators for the management, distribution, measurement and ownership of natural resource goods and services. To graduate out of a special category, SIDS will need to think through innovative choices and solutions that will further insulate them from climate extremes and shocks.

Third, the economic and structural transformation of SIDS requires the engagement of a multiplicity of actors – the State, private sector, civil society and public-private partnerships. For example, the quality of institutions needed to usher in a new form of deliberative democracy acting on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, is one that can leverage opportunities in the energy and agricultural sectors to prepare for climate risks. The current primary products-driven and export-led growth model needs to build in value-adding export diversification. This is needed to broaden the revenue base and spread the rewards of growth across a larger section of the population. SIDS also need to invest in infrastructure to maximize trading opportunities and boost the inflow of investment to their economies.

Fourth, “small is beautiful” in terms of the abundance of natural resource endowment. SIDS need to better exploit their natural resource endowment.  Inclusive green growth is a frontier that could focus on affordable renewable energy services, the promotion of green jobs and the reduction of poverty. Already, interest in this areas and the role of low-carbon development to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is growing. For example, Cape Verde’s renewable energy targets and objectives for 2020-2030 include increasing electricity network coverage to 100% of renewable sources, and increasing energy efficiency by 30% through the promotion of new technology. Mauritius’s plan is to increase the share of renewable energy such as solar power, wind energy, hydro power, biogas and landfill gas, to around 35% by 2025. The Vice-President of Seychelles remarked at the UN General Assembly that SIDS are ideal locations and size for pilot projects in renewable energy and other areas, which can then be rolled out in other countries on a larger scale[2]. After all, the smallness of SIDS could actually be a blessing.

In addition, SIDS have the potential to incubate good technological options that can enable them to sprint towards greening their economies. Hard engineering solutions can insulate them from vulnerabilities such as oil price volatility, while pursuing integrated development will increase the resilience of ecosystems and improve human security.

Among key growth sectors, tourism is a major source of revenue. Currently the economic bloodline of most African SIDS and it holds huge potential for growth and development. Ecotourism can provide employment, generate income and help conserve natural resources, while promoting implementation of a biodiversity action plan.

Climate services and observational infrastructure that are used to predict weather patterns and identify climate related extremes tend to be weak in places where they are most needed. Investment in climate science and climate services would facilitate the production of high quality data and the development of early warning systems. In addition, it would initiate much needed research in the fields of climate change impact, vulnerability and adaptation. All this would better inform policy decisions.

Last but not least, while SIDS have made major efforts to carry out climate change adaptation measures, progress so far has tended to focus on public awareness, research and policy development rather than on implementation, largely due to financial constraints. Perhaps this is because there are only a limited number of financing options dedicated to adaptation (e.g. the GEF specialized adaptation facilities, the Adaptation Fund and the World Bank Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility). Neither option can provide the scale nor magnitude of resources needed to address the climate change problem. If SIDS are to have a chance, new financing players and partners are needed quickly to support adaptation responses to climate change. 


African SIDS tend to be overlooked in the predominant literature on climate change. Their differing vulnerabilities get drowned in a narrative that focuses on biophysical impacts with only superficial reference to the issue of social vulnerability. Local communities are in the frontline of climate change impacts. They are already adapting to climate variability and change.  After all, they have a history of surviving social and environmental changes with a wealth of indigenous knowledge that includes intricate systems of weather forecasting as well as mitigation and adaptation practices.  

However, effective and modern pathways for future adaptation will not happen in a vacuum. They will need to be facilitated, structured and organized within an institutional setting. The solution space must therefore be widened and the means for cost-effective, participatory and sustainable implementation facilitated.

Schumacher may not have been wrong after all, perhaps small is beautiful. The beauty of SIDS is in the ingenuity of its people, the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to rise to the many challenges of climate change, to invent themselves and to find renewed resilience in their institutions, social ties, networks and alliances of reciprocity.

[1] Delivered at a conference in Mahe in July 2013

[2] H.E. Mr. Danny Faure at the    67th General Assembly General Debate, New York, 25-29 September and 1 October 2012 Synopsis of the 67th United Nations General Assembly General Debate.pdf