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Small Island Developing States

Decent work and sustainability intertwined for small states battling climate change

The international community has just concluded its discussion in Samoa about small island developing states, with decent work for all emerging as a key commitment, writes Bob Kyloh, senior ILO economist, who attended the conference.

Comment | 05 September 2014
Bob Kyloh
The president of the tiny nation of Kiribati is actively seeking a new homeland for its entire population of nearly 101,000.

Countries like Kiribati, represented at the International Conference on Small Island Developing States, held 1-4 September in Samoa, are on the frontline of climate change.

Many, including Kiribati and the island nations of Tuvalu, Niue and Nauru, are fighting for survival as they slowly sink below rising sea levels. They are under siege from the ever-advancing tide and are frequently hit by natural disasters.

The hosts of this UN conference had hoped for some major new commitments from the rich nations and the private sector, to make sustainable development more than just a slogan. The last two conferences on the issue had produced lofty conclusions and a long list of promises that were never implemented. This time, Samoa and the other islands desperately wanted a more realistic outcome, backed by firm financial commitments and a timetable for implementation.

Unfortunately the conclusions fall short of this objective. Competition from current geopolitical hot spots has captured the attention of global leaders. In addition, the fiscal legacy of recession has restricted the resources available for helping these remote island states.

Nevertheless, the final outcome document will play an important role in influencing other major events taking place in the next year, including the debate over the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN Climate Summit.

From an ILO perspective, the outcome was encouraging. Decent work for all is featured as one of the key commitments, while the full respect for international labour standards and the importance of green jobs are also mentioned. This will help ensure that decent work remains prominent in the upcoming debates over the SDGs.

Putting youth as a priority

The labour issue that resonates loudly in the small islands is youth employment. The Prime Minister of Barbados placed it near the top of his priority list. He emphasized the links between mass youth unemployment and various social problems including crime and drugs.

ILO Deputy Director-General Gilbert Houngbo (right) at the opening of the SIDS Trade Village, Samoa
The conference in Samoa highlighted some interesting contrasts between institutions in their take on youth employment, at least in the Pacific. There were more than 30 different international organizations, government bodies, private companies and NGOs advancing their projects concerning small enterprise development and entrepreneurship. The ILO has a challenge to stand out in such a crowded marketplace.

The World Bank believes that in these small Pacific islands: “Policy tweaks to the business environment aimed at fostering the emergence of an export-oriented private sector are unlikely to be effective in generating substantial employment growth.”

This is a message the World Bank reiterated at the ILO side event on labour migration, here in Samoa. Their representatives argued that because of these developing states’ remote locations and small size, the standard prescriptions for economic development cannot work. He argued that even if labour costs were zero, total costs would still be too high to make most private sector enterprises competitive in most Pacific countries.

In tackling youth unemployment, there is merit in tailoring policy advice to each country and its regional circumstances, as the World Bank is doing. The ILO is also promoting increased temporary labour migration from the Pacific islands to New Zealand and Australia. This was a major focus of ILO activities here in Samoa. Because wages are so much higher in Australia and New Zealand than throughout the Pacific islands, migrant workers can earn sufficient income in six or seven months to dramatically improve the life of their family and their community. Employers from the host countries report that the workers are highly productive and efficient in sectors where there is insufficient local labour. Thus, these schemes are generating a triple win.

Labour migration matters

The ILO brought together a provocative panel to explore how an expansion of well-managed temporary labour migration could be part of the solution to unemployment. During this panel, the trade union member emphasized the importance of not undermining existing labour standards in the host countries, while the employer focused on the need to enhance the skills of migrant workers and to maximize the benefits from remittances.

Conference on SIDS, Samoa
The World Bank representative pointed out that if Australia were to offer as many seasonal worker places as New Zealand, relative to its population, remittances from the scheme could reach 10 per cent of GDP of participating countries or 60 per cent of their current aid flows.

As I prepared to leave this island paradise it was the powerful commitment of ordinary local people that will remain in my memory. Every village and section of society has pulled together and played a vital part in making this conference an overwhelming success.

If over the next few years, the international community can demonstrate a similar degree of unity in delivering on the commitments made in Apia, Samoa, we will build a better world.