United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRCO) Themba Kalua with Prime Minister Mark Brown last week. MFAI / 23062306
As I sit in the Cook Islands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration at the government’s consultations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and National Wellbeing in preparation for the 2023 SDGs Summit in September, I am filled with immense hope for the future that truly leaves no one behind, writes United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRCO) Themba Kalua.
The Cook Islands is currently not a member of the United Nations. In the conduct of its foreign affairs the Cook Islands interacts with the international community as a sovereign and independent state, but the country does not have a direct seat at the UN General Assembly, the platform upon which countries will make commitments to and seek assistance with advancing their SDGs.
Since the 1990s the UN has maintained diplomatic relations ties with the Cook Islands, and also with Niue and Tokelau, recognising the right of these countries to establish diplomatic relations. These countries enjoy access to UN-sponsored conferences and are permitted to sign and ratify UN treaties open to “non-member governments.”
At the half-way point of the SDGs, it is clear that the majority of SDGs are offtrack partly due to multiple crises including the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN through its assistance to some of the smallest countries, is again showing that its commitment to Leaving No One Behind (LNOB) is much more than lip service. The UN recognises that achievement of the SDGs means in absolute terms that everyone on this planet enjoys no hunger; equality of opportunities; jobs, safe water and sanitation, good infrastructure, and climate protection, regardless of where they are located, born, their gender, sexual orientation, and irrespective of what their UN membership status is.
In this regard I commend the Cook Islands government for its wide consultations that included civil society, private sector and governmental organisations, with discussion on all of Cook Island’s SDGs. Moreover, for its efforts to ensure accessibility by the whole-of-society through the Cook Islands national consultations survey used to capture the views of all of society, which also evidences the critical role of technology. as a tool in securing Cook Islander’s wellbeing, the core of the country’s policy agenda.
As the new UN Resident Coordinator for the Samoa Multi-Country Office (MCO) with the responsibility for coordinating UN development operational activities in the Cook Islands,
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Niue and Tokelau, one of my first priority assignments is to help our member countries prepare for the SDGs Summit. The expectation during the upcoming SDGs summit is that world leaders will come to the summit with bold and more ambitious commitments to rescue the SDGs. TheSmall Island Developing States (SIDS) with the world’s smallest populations, in some of the most remote geographical locations, and among the most vulnerable in the world. Their resources are extremely limited, in effect requiring greater attention from the international community. The SIDS have demonstrated resilience and their will to survive and thrive is strong.
For this reason, I see great opportunity between now and 2030 for the UN and its partners to enhance their support to countries like the Cook Islands. Cook Islands’ national consultations demonstrated how small size complimented by strong political will, governance, and commitment to LNOB could be used as catalysts for SDGs achievement. Cook Islands is the first in the Pacific region to hold national consultations on the SDGs. All its citizens were granted the opportunity to feed into the government’s next 15-year SDGs policy agenda and by extension the Cook Islands Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, which will affect their lives and their children’s lives. These ae remarkable feats. Not many countries and citizens around the world will have the opportunity to do this.
Size of course is a huge hindrance to economic development, as it narrows economies of scale. When we add the Pacific countries’ remoteness from global markets, itmakes matters worse as all trade to and from these countries is, consequently, several times more expensive. There is no disputing that small, and even more so, micro-states such as the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau are disproportionately disadvantaged, especially with regards to mitigating the effects of climate change, to which they contribute least.
Nonetheless, pivoting on size as an advantage is not impossible. It is because of Cook Islands small size that it was able in short time to gather its people for dialogue on where and how it should invest in the country’s future well-being, reflected in its future commitments to the SDGs. As the UN MCO found in its Policy Brief – Reigniting SDGs’ Progress, the Cook Islands can reverse the negative impacts from COVID-19 on the SDGs by focusing on digital transformation, in addition to providing clean energy, biodiversity and infrastructure – part of the UN’s SDGs’ transformation toolkit. I want to draw attention to our first recommendation, especially considering the government’s recent launch of the national ICT Policy, which opens the gateway for a step change in digital transformation. Digital transformation is in my view the missing piece of the puzzle for SIDs. It is that gamechanger which solves their indivisibility cost problem and may just be the linchpin to LNOB.
SIDs regardless of their size must establish core functions of government at a per capita cost several times higher than larger countries. To build a bridge for example, or a seawall, which is critical to climate resilience, will naturally cost SIDs multiple times more than countries with larger populations, assuming that costs are spread equally across the number of taxpayers. This is the indivisibility problem. Digital transformation can reduce government’s operations cost exponentially and allow the private sector to conduct its business quicker, cheaper and more effectively. It can help connect remote Pacific countries to markets in a way they have never done before and be a boon for domestic markets and private sector
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My message to our partners, the private sector and others interested in progressing the Pacific region, is to let’s put our heads together and see how we can further take advantage of these countries’ small size. Rather than asking countries to constantly pivot, it maybe high time the international community pivot to better respond to countries’ challenges and using their size to their advantage rather than failing to address the consequences of it, may just be the approach needed to achieve a fruitful SDGs Summit, for ensuring that at the end of our deliberations, none of them are left behind.
Themba Kalua is the United Nations Resident Coordinatorfor Cook Islands, Samoa, Niue and Tokelau. He visited Rarotonga last week.