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In Antigua, island youth build ‘wall of commitment’ to turn tide against climate crisis

The SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit taking place this weekend on the University of the West Indies campus of the beautiful island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which is hosting SIDS4, bonded together 80 or so young people from all three official SIDS regions – the Caribbean, Pacific and AIS (Indian Ocean and South China Sea) over 3 days of brainstorming.

They noisily and excitedly hunkered down in a large and airy university hall on Saturday to write down their own personal commitments to action.

The “wall of commitment” built by delegates from the SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit ahead of the SIDS4 conference in Antigua and Barbuda.
UN News/ Matthew Wells

The “wall of commitment” built by delegates from the SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit ahead of the SIDS4 conference in Antigua and Barbuda.

Another brick in the wall

One of the cardboard “bricks” even featured an empty plastic bottle – the scourge of many of their island homelands – taped inside with a rallying cry for “plastic-free islands, sustainable islands.”

The powerful event was the brainchild of Ashley Lashley, a lifelong activist who, after being crowned Miss World Barbados in 2018, set up the Ashley Lashley Foundation to build awareness of major social, environmental and health issues, especially through the prism of small island States like her own.

UNICEF Youth advocate and co-organizer of the SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit Ashley Lashley.

UNICEF Youth Advocate Ashley Lashley.

She’s convinced some powerful partners to join her crusade and advocacy mission, with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) organizing the youth summit along with the Government of Antigua and Barbuda.

The pioneering UNICEF Youth Advocate has been working for months on a “commitment to action” involving in-person and online consultations, which culminated in Saturday’s presentation and wall building initiative. 

“The focus is four overarching themes that are also linked to the SIDS4 conference: resilient recovery; environmental integrity and planetary sustainability; a secure future and safe and prosperous societies”, she told UN News.

UN reproductive rights agency UNFPA, the Caribbean Development Bank, and the Governments of Malta and Australia have also backed the summit, plus the Global Environment Facility, she added.

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Show and tell

On Friday youth delegates saw for themselves some of the environmental damage wrought by climate change on the shores and hills of Antigua, including the alarming die-off of coral reefs due to warming tropical waters.

On Saturday they took master classes in advocacy, communication, movement building and policy negotiating, culminating in the monumental wall. On Sunday they developed action projects to last ten years within their own regions.

“We are hoping that the projects can receive technical and financial assistance…We are in the middle but there is still a long way to go”, to unleash the full power in the room, she said.

Noah Herlaar-Hassan, 17, from the tiny southern Caribbean diving oasis of Bonaire, said vulnerable low-lying SIDS “are the first to feel the effects of many things”, especially the climate crisis.

“What people that don’t live on SIDS need to realise is that even if they might not feel the direct effects, they do have a large say in changing the eventual results…It’s our generation that will have to pay the biggest price and that’s why we are here today, to see how we can be stronger as a collective.”

Future in our hands

Adelaide Nafoi, 25, from the Pacific island of Samoa, told UN News she was at the summit doubling up as a Pacific delegate to SIDS4 to envision a better future for her country, region and the whole world.

Youth voices “hold the future of all our nations”, as “the changemakers of today”.

“To all the youth around the world simply remember that your voices are not merely echoes in the wind. Your voice changes the future of you, your siblings, your cousins, your families and your country.”

“I urge you to recognise the immense power that resides within each of you. It’s the power that brings change and can bring us to a better future…To anyone that is afraid to talk, now is your time to speak up because if you don’t – nobody will speak up for your youth and your nation.”

SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit delegate Renee Smith (left) after completing her section of the “wall of commitment” to be presented to the SIDS4 conference.
UN News/ Matthew Wells

SIDS Global Children and Youth Action Summit delegate Renee Smith (left) after completing her section of the “wall of commitment” to be presented to the SIDS4 conference.

Sharing and caring

Renee Smith, 28, from the Caribbean island of Grenada, added her brick in the wall by committing to ocean protection “through awareness and responsible behaviour among youth and communities.”

She said they shared the burden of being disproportionately affected by climate change and were together at the summit “so that the developed nations can hear our concern and assist to mitigate the impacts that we face.”

Sharing awareness across all generations is key, she added, imploring youngsters especially to continue preserving and protecting the ecosystems around them.

Once the SIDS4 conference ends, Ms. Lashley is determined that the energy generated in the youth summit will not dim, following through to the UN Summit of the Future and COP29.

“We’ll be developing a youth action taskforce…to really ensure that commitments to action and the action projects are being developed and monitored. 

“We as young people often speak about accountability of our leaders but the basis behind this summit is that we as young people and children are actually willing to be accountable for the actions that we are taking for future generations to come.”

Private sector role in mobilizing resources ‘essential’: UN chief

In his first major speech since arriving on Sunday in Antigua and Barbuda for the SIDS4 conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said a sustained commitment was needed from the international community to shore up vulnerable island nations “and public money will not be enough.”

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Multistakeholder partnerships, including with the private sector, will be essential”, he continued, addressing the SIDS Global Business Network Forum on Sunday.

Financing renewable energy, sustainable tourism and climate resilience will have to include private sector funds, expertise and innovation, he told investors.

Governments must take the lead with regulations and policy through strong and accountable public institutions, while development banks mobilize private funds at reasonable cost.

Private sector plan

He said there were three ways the private sector can play its part most effectively.

“First, by taking deliberate, time-bound action to align your activities with the Sustainable Development Goals, across all dimensions of your businesses.”

Secondly, prioritizing climate action with credible and verifiable net zero carbon emission reduction plans. 

“This means addressing emission reductions across the board, with a view to marine protection and decarbonization of the shipping sector”, the UN chief spelled out.

Third, he called on executives to push for greater ambition to reach the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – particularly climate action. 

The SIDS Global Business Network Forum has helped mobilize the private sector and “provides a clear entry point for the private sector into the SIDS agenda”, he said. 

Going digital

Now the network can expand digital connectivity and ensure accessibility and affordability, Mr. Guterres added, which is key to improving access to education and healthcare and enhancing disaster preparedness, prevention and response.

A “digital transformation” also means more diversification, particularly for women and young people. 

The global financial system is outdated, dysfunctional and unjust

“Strengthening the Global Business Network, together with the SIDS Partnership Framework, will help to support implementation of the ideas expressed today.”

He said financial challenges faced by small island States were also “symptomatic of financial turmoil in the developing world” overall. 

“The global financial system is outdated, dysfunctional and unjust, and is failing to provide a safety net for many developing economies mired in debt”, he added. “The United Nations is pushing for deep reforms to make it more representative of today’s world, and more responsive to today’s challenges.”

He ended with a call to work towards a better, more resilient, more sustainable future for all.

“Together let’s raise our voice for the reforms that are needed for a more fair and a more effective international financial and economic system able to provide to the SIDS the resources and capacities that they deserve and they need.”

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