Fostering Science, Technology, and Innovation in Small Island Developing States

Young fishers in Curacao at sunset. (Uwe Anspach/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

During the United Nations’ multi-stakeholder forum on science, technology, and innovation (STI) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in May, the significance of STI was emphasized as well as its impact on development. While this has been acknowledged for decades, and STI remains a priority for all countries, it holds particular relevance for small island developing states and the sustainable development challenges they face.

The current global climate of rising nationalism and attacks on free trade does not bode well for small island developing states, who are reliant on a healthy multilateral system to address their economic, social, and environmental concerns. These concerns are more challenging for small island states to address than larger countries as they are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. There is a growing likelihood that large portions of the populations of small island development states will be climate migrants in the coming decades.

Moreover, given the state of global discussions on climate change, migration, and refugees, many of these states face an uncertain future. Their small open economies make them reliant on and advocates for a stable global economy and a fair multilateral trading system, which are both causes for concern given ongoing trade wars and rhetoric between global economic powers.

The international community has worked to address the sustainable development of small island developing states since the early 1990s, when the UN General Assembly convened the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. More recently, preparations have been underway for the five-year review of the SAMOA Pathway to be held in September of this year. Despite these efforts, small island developing countries remain some of the most disadvantaged in terms of sustainable development, and have not benefited as directly from the rapid technological advancements of the past fifty years.

In such a context, the current focus on STI within the UN system may afford opportunities that were not available before. There are advantages to be gained by small island states should they invest in and develop human resources to engage in the STI process. Harnessing homegrown innovations will ensure that these countries benefit from technological advancements.

STI should be viewed as a complement to already existing economic and environmental activities, rather than a substitute, and small island developing states would be best served focusing on areas which allow them to have a competitive edge, and also in sectors which will help to address some of their more urgent challenges.

A major area of focus should be the agricultural sector, which remains a growth industry for small island states despite competition from larger countries. The bioeconomy is still viable and requires new innovations in science and technology to progress the sector. Additionally, there is potential to establish a medical sector which utilizes the traditional knowledge of the unique flora and fauna of island states to develop new medicines that can address non-communicable diseases and other public health concerns.

There are small island states that have the potential for significant advances in the agricultural sector and have taken steps in this regard. For example, there has been an upsurge in coconut production in the Caribbean islands, taking advantage of global demand. Similarly, Prime Minister James Marape of Papua New Guinea recently indicated that his country will have a renewed focus on agriculture. The introduction of STI to this sector in small island nations should enhance their competitiveness.

Another sector is green technologies, which can serve the dual purpose of creating new innovative technologies to add to the trade capacity of small island states, and improve their ability to address environmental challenges. Developing green technologies for climate action, disaster risk reduction, the “blue economy,” and renewable energy are particularly important. Though the green technology sector is very nascent in most small island states, recent discussions within the international arena have shown promise and many states do have the resources to develop this sector.

A third sector is the knowledge economy, which has promise for small island developing states because growing it does not require large populations, large amounts of land for production, or proximity to other economic hubs—factors which often work against small island developing states. However, developing a knowledge economy will require significant commitments. The World Bank has identified four pillars for the development of a knowledge economy, and most small island nations will have to make substantial investments in along all the pillars.

This should not be a deterrent though, as there are similar challenges and commitments associated with transitioning to any new industry, as evidenced by investment in tourism intensive sectors. Given the uphill path in building a knowledge economy, the protection of intellectual property of any new innovations is critically important. If there are measures included in the global approach to STI that allow newcomers to earn revenue from their intellectual property and ensure ownership, then the financial rewards are more likely to remain in the island states.

A final sector with great potential for innovation is the creative industry. Investing in cultural exchange, music, and other arts can be a source of revenue for small island developing states, which can be used to address their many unique challenges. A prime example is the revenue Jamaica has garnered from the creativity around reggae music, culture, and tourism, and how reggae music as a medium is being used for public health and economic education initiatives. The unique cultures of many small island developing states can also be preserved and strengthened through national investment in the arts.

The groundwork in many contexts has already been laid, as many small island governments and entrepreneurs have already been involved in STI, the digital sector, e-commerce, and the knowledge economy. For countries where this has yet to occur, investment and incorporation of STI should happen gradually, as there are concerns—which the UN is seeking to address—over STI, and the digital economy in particular, being pursued in a sustainable manner. Many small island developing states are well-positioned to navigate the challenges they face if they are equipped with the appropriate tools. The upcoming review of the SAMOA Pathway is an occasion to examine the role that STI can play in cultivating opportunities for sustainable development in these countries.

Carlisle Richardson is former Ambassador of St. Kitts and Nevis to the United Nations, and a former Economic Affairs Officer of the UN, where he was one of the organizers of the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States.