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An isolated British territory in the South Atlantic, Saint Helena has faced several challenges in its bid to improve its infrastructure and grow the island’s economy. A recently built multi-million dollar airport has provided better access to its shores and enabled “Saints” (as the islanders are known) to bring new sources of income to their island, leading to a steady increase in visitors over time.

Keen on to capitalize on this new infrastructure and to continue developing its economy, the UK’s second-oldest overseas territory has found an innovative solution: joining a global support network that promotes sustainable development, international cooperation, and new funding opportunities. Saint Helena is considering acquiring Small Island Developing State (SIDS) status according to a new policy paper issued by the Saint Helena Government. This step might sound small but it could fundamentally change the territory’s relationship with other island communities and its ability to be involved with developments on the international stage.

SIDS are a group of island nations that collaborate through the challenges posed by their smaller size and remoteness to develop their infrastructures, economies, and societies. These islands tend to be constrained by dependence on international trade and are often vulnerable to external shocks and economic pressures. However, their size and quick ability to enact change give SIDS on opportunity for innovation, with the potential to be important voices in science and technology. Saint Helena is poised to join this international grouping – but what exactly does that entail? And what would it mean in practice for islanders?

Global Networks 

A view over the island of Saint Helena, including Longwood House where Napoleon was exiled and now one of the most popular tourist attractions. Photo by St. Helena Island Fansite.

In recent years, SIDS have been champions for innovation. From the Caribbean to Europe and the Pacific, these nations have been at the forefront of sustainable development. Keen on increasing their resilience and becoming more self-reliant, these islands are implementing new technologies and policies – and there is no reason why Saint Helena cannot also benefit from this network. The SIDS status is not limited to sovereign nations, with several of the United Kingdom’s overseas territories already participating, as such Saint Helena would be joining the likes of Turks & Caicos, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands.

The options available for Saint Helena:

  1. St Helena to self-declare as a SIDS through a decision by the island’s Executive Council.
  2. Apply to join the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) as an associate member.
  3. Consider an application to join the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) as a borrowing member.

The process behind gaining SIDS status has the potential to be relatively simple. By self-declaring as a Small Island Developing State, Saint Helena could become one, yet the benefits associated with being listed as a SIDS arrive via a different medium. Saint Helena could apply to join the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) as an associate member, which is the only one of the UN regional economic commissions open to non-self-governing territories. The island’s application would be bolstered by support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and could benefit from other UK overseas territories already part of the commission.

“This opportunity to connect St. Helena to the SIDS network is one that has been floated for a number of years, and it is wonderful to see it gaining momentum now. The potential networks that SIDS status provides could be an exciting contribution to St. Helena’s future and help the island to both share our own experiences and to learn from other islands.” – Tara Pelembe, Deputy Director of the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI)

Like other overseas territories, Saint Helena will be ruled out from certain financial help saved for sovereign nations but would still have access to certain funding opportunities earmarked for SIDS and UNECLAC members. As the government memo outlines: “There is no downside to Saint Helena declaring itself a SIDS and should do so in the near-term”.

The island will also benefit from the support network of experts and peers from the 46 entities that make up the commission as well as the opportunity to partake in more global conferences and programs. Saint Helena would then be able to compare notes with islands all around the world pioneering new technologies and policies while having possible additional funding opportunities.

Development & Innovation

Islanders celebrate the annual Festival of Lights. Photo by St. Helena Island Fansite.

Almost 2,000km away from the Angolan coast that serves as the island’s closest mainland neighbour, Saint Helena may be far from the seat of UNECLAC but admission to the grouping could enable the island to tap into new opportunities to develop the local economy. Additionally, having new financial options and the ability to participate in knowledge-sharing events with islands in similar positions could also help reduce the reliance on the United Kingdom.

The pathway to achieving SIDS designation is an interesting opportunity and Saint Helena stands to benefit greatly from integrating the group, posing the question of why the island has not made the move sooner. Over the years, Saints have showcased their resilience in many ways including through investments in their island homes, businesses and Saint Helena’s tourism industry – working towards capitalizing every possible opportunity to reinvigorate the economy. By becoming a SIDS, the island is building upon that resilience and moving towards a very promising future through international collaboration.

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