Opinion: Ending poverty means investing in social, economic, and environmental resilience

Devastation of the island of Jost Van Dyke after Hurricane Irma. Photo by: Ministry of Defence / CC BY

Imagine relocating the entire population of your country in the face of a colossal hurricane and two months later still not being able to get back home. Now imagine spending several nights in a shelter and taking a stroll the next morning only to find what you used to call community, city or country reduced to an apocalyptic scene.

This is no fiction. Irma and Maria, two back-to-back category 5 hurricanes, the most powerful ever recorded in the Atlantic, swept across the Caribbean in September, cutting a swathe of destruction, taking lives, devastating infrastructure, and severely damaging the economies of small climate-vulnerable countries.

Entire islands were decimated, such as Barbuda, the smaller of the two-island state of Antigua and Barbuda, and Dominica, both Members of the Caribbean Community, CARICOM. Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands were also devastated while The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands were severely affected. Haiti and St. Kitts and Nevis also suffered damage.

The island of St. Martin, divided between Sint Maarten, a constituent country of the Kingdom of Netherlands and St. Martin, a dependency of France as well as Cuba and the Dominican Republic were impacted, in addition to Puerto Rico and Florida, in the United States.

The principal economic sectors of tourism and agriculture have been very significantly affected, the resulting loss of jobs compounding the anguish of the loss of homes. In-depth damage assessments in Barbuda and Dominica are still ongoing, but initial estimates indicate recovery costs could be more than $3 billion.

These hurricanes were a game changer. Not even in the Caribbean, which is the most natural disaster-prone region in the world, had anything like this been experienced before. The occurrence of successive category 5 hurricanes signals a dangerous change in the intensity and frequency of climate-related storms, and heralds the advent of a new normal.

The number of severe hurricanes is projected to increase by 40 percent, if global temperatures rise by 2 degrees Celsius, and up to 80 percent should they rise by 4 degrees Celsius, according to a World Bank report. With the resulting sea-level rise, this will have devastating effects on all Small Island Developing States, SIDS, but particularly those in the Caribbean, this study confirms.

Since the hurricanes hit, the governments of Antigua and Barbuda and Dominica along with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency have been working on the ground hand-in-hand with United Nations teams, co-led by the U.N. Development Programme and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs with an urgent task. Also on the frontline have been other CARICOM Member States and specialized institutions, France and its departments in the Caribbean, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Women and men are working around the clock to build back better. They need more resilient communities that are ready to cope with the next hurricane season only seven months ahead.

But rebuilding from the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters will be impossible without international support, particularly considering the overwhelming climate-vulnerability and crippling debt burdens of these vulnerable SIDS. 

The needs are urgent. But there are three crucial opportunities at hand. First, the Conference of the Parties, COP23, in Bonn, Germany, from Nov. 6 through Nov. 17, is a vital moment for the world to come together and act on climate change. Then, on Nov. 21 at the U.N. headquarters in New York a UN-CARICOM pledging conference provides the opportunity for the world to support affected Caribbean countries as they build back better, especially considering that they have been bearing the brunt of climate change without having contributed to the problem.  

Finally, now, more than ever, it is fundamental that the international community rethinks traditional criteria for concessional development financing based primarily on GDP per capita. These affected nations are being denied full access to such financing based on being ranked as middle income countries. The criteria must take into account the economic and environmental vulnerability of SIDS.

Now is the time to act. If Caribbean countries are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 they need urgent accessing to financing — including for climate change adaptation. In view of such urgent needs, UNDP’s Caribbean Human Development Report, launched a year ago, called for improved standards that take into account multiple indicators, or well-being measurements beyond income alone.

If the world has vowed to eradicate poverty by 2030, it is crucial to invest in boosting communities’, countries’, and entire regions’ resilience on the social, economic, and environmental fronts.

Building back better is an essential part of this effort. We invite the world to support the Caribbean countries through global action on climate and during the CARICOM-UN High Level Pledging Conference: Building a More Climate-Resilient Community. We must all act now, before it’s too late.

Read more Devex coverage on disaster risk reduction and resilience.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Achim Steiner

    Achim Steiner became United Nations Development Program administrator on June 19, 2017 and will serve for a term of four years. He is also the vice-chair of the U.N. Development Group, which unites the 32 U.N. funds, programs, specialized agencies and other bodies that work to support sustainable development. Over nearly three decades, Steiner has been a global leader on sustainable development, climate resilience and international cooperation. He has worked tirelessly to champion sustainability, economic growth and equality for the vulnerable, and has been a vocal advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Irwin LaRocque

    Ambassador Irwin LaRocque, a national of Dominica, assumed the office of secretary-general of the Caribbean Community on August 15, 2011. He served as permanent secretary in various ministries in Dominica for more than fourteen years, including in the Ministries of Trade, Industry, Enterprise Development, Tourism, and Foreign Affairs, where he headed the diplomatic service. He also served as the principal advisor to the Government of Dominica on all matters pertaining to economic integration and regional and international trade. Ambassador LaRocque has a wealth of experience in management, public administration, economic development, trade, foreign affairs and diplomacy.