Small island developing states: a case study of standards in defining supranational regions and groupings
The original definition of SIDS from the United Nations conference in Rio de Janerio in 1992 described them as “low-lying coastal countries that share similar sustainable development challenges, including population, limited resources, susceptibility to natural disasters, vulnerability to external shocks, and extensive dependence on international trade.” However, United Nations (UN) agencies have never agreed a common definition of SIDS. The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) states “The UN never established criteria to determine an official list of SIDS. This unofficial list is used by the UNCTAD for analytical purposes only”. This lack of common definition results in a varying number of states that are classified as SIDS (Tables 1 and 2).
The groupings of SIDS are important because of two factors:
- 1The international support and assistance available to states that are classified as SIDS
- 2The reliability of the aggregated statistics that show the overall economic progress and health of these countries.
Theoretically, for a country to be considered a SIDS, four conditions must be met:
- 1Small in size
- 4Low-lying coastal line
Even with these four factors met, the country is not guaranteed the status of a SIDS and the exceptions to the rules are not clearly defined. For instance, the World Bank and IMF consider a country a ‘small state’ if the population is 1.5 million people or less, yet Jamaica has a population of 2.7 million and can be found in this grouping. Conversely, the smallest island in the Pacific region, Nauru, is not considered a small state.
To emphasise the lack of consistency; a section from the UN Conference of Trade and Development on “Small island developing states: origin of the category and definition issues” outlines the following issues: “Availability of a precise list of countries is, of course, no guarantee that concrete action will follow. But fuzziness and lack of clarity offer an easy pretext for inaction, and may even bring about spurious and unverifiable claims that action has indeed been taken.”
The case of SIDS is indicative of a bigger problem: the lack of clear and transparent classifications is widespread among the international data standards that define supranational regions and groupings.