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Source: Small Island Developing States

How can policies on trade strengthen resilience in countries that are particularly vulnerable to disasters? Experts and senior government officials grappled with this question at a virtual session during the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade and Environment Week on 18 November, focusing particularly on the role that trade facilitation can play in the process.

Facilitating the event, Brendan Vickers, Head, International Trade Policy Section, Commonwealth Secretariat, asked experts from Newcastle University and the Shridath Ramphal Centre of the University of the West Indies to offer their responses, alongside ambassadors from Barbados, the Pacific Islands Forum and the Bahamas.

Climate change is driving disasters

“With climate change, our region is seeing an increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters,” said Mere Falemaka, Ambassador of the Pacific Islands Forum to the WTO. She told participants that – in addition to human costs, such as the loss of life – disasters can also cause substantial economic damage.

Keva Bain, Ambassador of the Bahamas to the UN and other international organizations, also pointed out how COVID-19 compounded shocks resulting from hurricanes and other types of extreme weather events facing her country.

Jan Yves Remy, Deputy Director, Shridath Ramphal Centre, underscored that countries are not all equally vulnerable to disasters when they do take place.

Concurring, Andrea Wilkinson, University of Newcastle, emphasized the particular challenges faced by small island developing States (SIDS) and least developed countries (LDCs) – an issue highlighted in a paper she had co-authored for the Commonwealth Secretariat, one of the event’s co-sponsors.

What role for trade?

Bain told participants that extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tropical storms can disrupt the production and consumption of goods and services, as well as supply chains, and damage critical infrastructure. She said trade can “play a vital role” in easing access to food, medicines, building materials, and equipment when a disaster strikes, and in laying the foundations for the post-crisis recovery.

Falemaka also emphasized the role that trade facilitation can play in ensuring critical supplies reach people in need in a timely manner. She warned that inefficient customs clearance procedures can sometimes lead to perishable goods such as food being held up in ports for months, meaning essential supplies go to waste.

Despite being an observer at the WTO rather than a member of the organization, the Bahamas was benchmarking its own domestic legislation against the trade body’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, Bain said, in order to improve transparency and ease customs procedures at the border. After the initial emergency response phase, trade can be particularly important in helping restore livelihoods and regenerating economic activity, she added.

Identifying policy responses

Speakers identified technical assistance, development financing, and debt forgiveness as being among the toolbox of measures which governments and other actors need to use in order to respond to disasters and to be better prepared for them in the future.

Bain highlighted the challenge of economic diversification. She noted that affected countries tend to be “characterized by a narrow range of exports and export markets.”

Concurring, Falemaka highlighted that many vulnerable countries need not just to diversify their exports away from reliance on a narrow basket of goods, but also towards the provision of a more diverse range of services. She said tourism is still the major services export in many of the countries that are most at risk today.

Remy noted how her work on a Trade Vulnerability Index could help governments and other actors to better understand risk and vulnerability, and inform policy responses in areas such as the “special and differential treatment” provided to developing countries on trade. “Much of this is about preparation rather than recovery,” she told participants.

Chad Blackman, Ambassador of Barbados to the WTO and Chair of the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE), noted the potential for better regional collaboration to support efforts to prepare for and respond to disasters, giving the example of insurance as one of the areas where this could deliver better outcomes.

In conclusion, Falemaka emphasized the need to go beyond recurrently providing temporary relief when disasters do occur, and begin addressing underlying causes such as climate change. She called for governments to take ambitious action on climate change, including by updating national commitments made under the Paris Agreement on climate change, in the run-up to the next Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC.

The event was organized by Barbados, Newcastle University, Shridath Ramphal Centre, and the Commonwealth Secretariat. [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

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