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Empowering Sustainable Development in SIDS: The Crucial Role of Data

Sustainable Development in SIDS

Small Island Developing States are a group of 37 UN member nations and 20 associate members of UN regional commissions that face unique social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities, the most critical being climate change. Spread across three geographical regions: the Caribbean; the Pacific; and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea (AIS); these predominantly remote and low-lying islands comprise an aggregate population of only 65 million people, less than 1% of the world’s population, but are responsible for managing 19% of our oceans and the resources they hold.

In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, the international community declared Small Island Developing States (SIDS) a special case for environment and development and committed to assist them to meet their sustainable development objectives. More than 3 decades later, and after 3 global programmes of action (Barbados 1994, Mauritius 2005 and Samoa 2014), owing to their small size, ‘island’ setting, geographical remoteness, highly dispersed populations, nature of their economies, vulnerability to external shocks, health, equity, and other social related challenges, SIDS continue to remain a special case for sustainable development.

Notably, SIDS are particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, including, erratic precipitation, increasingly frequent and extreme weather phenomena, more frequent and severe tropical cyclones, floods and drought, diminishing freshwater resources, desertification, coastal erosion, land degradation and sea-level rise, which represent the gravest of threats to the survival and viability of their people, natural ecosystems, and overall sustainable development.

These impacts have major cascading consequences. Despite contributing less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, SIDS disproportionately suffer from the climate impacts of these emissions. Around 75% of SIDS coral reefs are threatened by climate change, and the cost of environmental adaptation is estimated between USD 22 billion and USD 26 billion yearly, SIDS grapple with high import and export costs, heavy reliance on external markets, and limited natural resources. Tourism, a vital sector constituting about 30% of their GDP, was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and is still recovering. With a population density that is considerably higher than the global average, SIDS are acutely susceptible to the catastrophic effects of natural disasters, which can incur annual damage costs ranging from 1% to 8% of their GDP. In times of environmental disaster, without adaptive measures, money desperately needs to be spent on reactive reconstruction rather than proactive endeavors. This situation is further exacerbated by fiscal challenges such as high debt, costly debt servicing, and limited access to concessional financing due to their middle-income status.

Underscoring the need for urgent global cooperation and support towards ensuring a more resilient and prosperous SIDS, the convening of the Fourth International Conference on SIDS (SIDS4) in Antigua & Barbuda from 27-30 May 2024, would determine the next 10-year SIDS Program of Action to supercharge the path of SIDS towards sustainable development and resilient prosperity.

The Crucial Role of Data

In 2014 the SAMOA Pathway reaffirmed the commitment of small island states to “strengthen the availability and accessibility of data and statistical systems”, and to “enhance the management of complex data systems, including geospatial data platforms, by launching new partnerships or scaling up existing initiatives”. In 2015 the UN’s 2030 Agenda (which launched the SDGs) committed to “exploit the contribution to be made by a wide range of data, including Earth observations and geospatial information”, and by 2020 to “enhance capacity-building support to developing countries, including for LDCs and SIDS, to increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by geographic location and other characteristics.”

These development ambitions and commitments have not happened! Despite the advances in data acquisition and transformative digital technology capabilities across the world, many developing countries still do not have access to high-quality, timely and reliable data, resources, tools, and technology to track progress toward the SDGs and climate goals. These gaps continue to make it challenging for countries to address national development priorities, achieve the SDGs and make informed development decisions that lead to better policies and investments. In particular, SIDS continue to face impediments that limit their ability to address the adverse impacts of climate change, inequality, limited resources, vulnerability to external shocks, geographic remoteness, and institutional challenges.

As a tangible means to prioritize the world’s most vulnerable communities and to enhance and strengthen the collection, analysis, availability and utilization of data as an asset class at the core of development, in September 2023, during the UN General Assembly in New York, PVBLIC Foundation, a founding partner of the SDG Data Alliance, signed a collaboration agreement with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Government of Antigua & Barbuda to collaborate on the creation of a SIDS Global Data Hub. The objective of the Global Data Hub being to provide access to new and relevant data and enabling technologies, enhance decision-making, build capacity, track progress, and strengthen the amount and quality of public, private and international development finance. At that time, the aspiration was for the SIDS Global Data Hub to be launched at SIDS4 and be a key implementation pillar for a proposed SIDS Center of Excellence.

Less than 8 months later, the Antigua & Barbuda Agenda for SIDS (ABAS) – a Renewed Declaration for Resilient Prosperity underscores that “SIDS face significant challenges in data collection, analysis, technical and institutional capacity, which hinders evidence-informed policy making, monitoring progress and accessing development financing, and we emphasize that capacity building for a stronger data governance and management will allow SIDS to support better data collection, protection, transparency, and data sharing” (Paragraph 19), and “welcomed and called for support for the efforts of SIDS in establishing a SIDS Center of Excellence in Antigua & Barbuda that will be launched at SIDS4, and which will include, inter alia, a SIDS Data Hub, a technology and innovation mechanism and an Island Investment Forum” (Paragraph 20).

To be housed in St. John’s Antigua, the SIDS Center of Excellence (CoE) will serve as a center for innovation, knowledge sharing and training for Antigua & Barbuda and all SIDS. It will be a hub for research, capacity building, and collaboration to enhance the socio-economic and environmental resilience of SIDS. Within the CoE, the SIDS Global Data Hub will develop and strengthen the institutional and technical capacity of SIDS by providing access to new and relevant data sources, enabling technologies, innovative dashboards and visualization tools, integrated information systems, capacity-building, resources, training, and global expertise – establishing a sustainable and enduring repository for comprehensive data on SIDS for SIDS.

Importantly, it is intended that the activities and capabilities of the SIDS Global Data Hub, growing and expanding over time with commensurate resources, will include building upon and implementing the global methods and practices of the SDG Data Alliance, as an integrated and federated systems-of-systems approach that connects governments, industry, organizations, and citizens at multiple levels – from global to local and community levels.

An integrated system-of-systems, the SIDS Global Data Hub will strengthen the technical capacity of SIDS; exploiting new data sources, enabling technologies, and information systems; and connecting governments, industry, organizations and citizens.

As we enter a period of reevaluation and change, there is a growing recognition of the role of data needs, availability and use towards the wider digital data and information ecosystem, including geospatial, Earth observations and other location-based information. The new SIDS 10-year Program of Action and monitoring framework provides a significant opportunity for the SDG Data Alliance and its partners to formulate and drive a new narrative that is future-focused and solutions-driven. The 2030 SDG Agenda is also being reevaluated as we look to the future. The opportunity exists for countries and communities to take a new approach, to evolve the SDG framework towards a more robust and implementable geographic approach – and begin to fulfill the development ambitions of the last decade for the next decade.

The role of data will be crucial for empowering sustainable development ambitions in SIDS over the next decade for several reasons:

· Informed Decision Making: Accurate and comprehensive data provide policymakers and stakeholders with the necessary information to make informed decisions. This is particularly important in SIDS, where resources are often limited and vulnerabilities to environmental and socio-economic challenges are high.

· Identifying Priorities: Data allows SIDS to identify their most pressing sustainable development priorities. By understanding their specific challenges, such as vulnerability to climate change, limited resources, and economic constraints, SIDS can allocate resources effectively to address the most critical issues.

· Monitoring Progress: The sustainable development goals (SDGs) require continuous monitoring and evaluation of progress. Data enables SIDS to track their advancement towards these goals, identify areas where they are falling short, determine appropriate interventions, and adjust strategies accordingly.

· Attracting Investment: Reliable data can enhance the credibility of SIDS in the eyes of investors, donors, and international partners. When SIDS can demonstrate evidence of their progress and potential impact through data, they are more likely to attract investment and support for sustainable development initiatives.

· Advocacy and Accountability: Data empowers SIDS to advocate for their needs on the global stage and hold themselves and other stakeholders accountable for achieving sustainable development targets. By providing evidence-based arguments, SIDS can effectively engage in international negotiations and partnerships.

· Resilience Building: SIDS are particularly vulnerable to external shocks such as natural disasters and economic crises. Data-driven decision-making can help build resilience by enabling SIDS to anticipate risks, strengthen infrastructure, and implement adaptive strategies.

· Capacity Building: Investing in data frameworks, infrastructure and capabilities strengthens the capacity of SIDS to collect, analyze, and utilize data effectively. This not only supports sustainable development efforts but also enhances overall national governance and management practices.

SIDS are at the frontlines of climate change, vulnerability to external shocks, and the local realities of geographic remoteness. By leveraging data effectively, SIDS can make informed decisions, monitor progress, attract investment, advocate for their needs, build resilience, and strengthen their overall capacity for sustainable development. SIDS4 provides a unique opportunity to announce and highlight commitments from SDG Data Alliance partners to support the expansion of the Alliance to vulnerable island states with heads of state and global industry leaders and will trigger a series of engagements to promote the work of the SDG Data Alliance and its expansion to SIDS in the coming year.

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