Letters & Opinion

Conference Diplomacy and the Law of Diminishing Returns

By Cletus I. Springer


Economists would be familiar with “The Law of Diminishing Returns” which holds that as investment in an area increases, after a certain point, the rate of profit from that investment cannot increase if other variables remain the same. An oft cited example of this law is the farmer who keeps adding fertilizer to the same tract of land. Over time, he will find that his yield diminishes as the soil “tires.” This law/principle came to mind as I reflected that in May 2024, about 5000 people—including delegates from member states of the UN, and representatives of intergovernmental and civil society organizations—will meet in Antigua and Barbuda for three days for yet another UN Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

This low-season event will surely fill hotel rooms and generate jobs in Antigua and Barbuda. But what of the event itself? I confidently predict that just as they did in Samoa (2014), Mauritius (2005), and Barbados (1994), delegates will review progress made by SIDS towards sustainable development. They will re-state for the umpteenth time many of the challenges that SIDS face on the road to sustainability. They will debate and adopt an “action agenda” and a political statement (Declaration) calling on the international community to support the implementation of that agenda.

True Confession 

If these opening paragraphs paint me as a cynic of this process, then I plead guilty. I didn’t always feel that way. I confess that I was one of those who agitated for a UN conference to deal specifically with SIDS issues. At the time, I was a member of a CARICOM Task Force on Environment and Development and Head of Saint Lucia’s delegation for the preparatory meetings for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), that was held in Brazil in 1992. I consider the Task Force an unheralded success story in the annals of regional diplomacy. It was the embodiment of enlightened, functional cooperation and regional integration. I had just joined the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute (CEHI) in 1990, when I was named by CARICOM Heads of Government as a member of the group, which comprised a mix of seasoned diplomats such as Rashleigh Jackson (Guyana), Don Mills (Jamaica), Lionel Hurst (Antigua), Charles Fleming (Saint Lucia); and technocrats like Byron Blake, Drs. Mark Griffith, John Ashe and Ted Aldridge of Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and Jamaica, respectively, and Aubrey Norton, Fiona Pompey and Lance Carberry (Guyana). The technocrats carried the torch in technical meetings in Mexico, Switzerland, and Singapore, while the diplomats attended “closed door” meetings at UN headquarters in New York.

Overcoming the Asymmetry 

All intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) claim to operate based on equality that is, “one country, one vote.” This is a fallacy as those countries with power and resources have an outsized advantage over the less resourceful countries. At no time did the size of the Task Force exceed 12 negotiators. The U.S. by comparison had 3 to 4 times that number which allowed its delegates to comfortably cover all meetings for as long as necessary. Considering this reality, the Task Force agreed that whenever a member spoke from the floor at any meeting, he/she would do so on behalf of the entire Caribbean. Of course, it helped immensely that we had discussed the issues beforehand and had agreed on a common regional position.

Outstanding Accomplishments 

The crowning achievements of the Task Force were three-fold. First, it secured the inclusion of text in Chapter 17, section G of Agenda 21—which was one of two main outcome documents from the Rio Summit; the Rio Declaration was the other—acknowledging that SIDS “…are a special case both for environment and development [and] are considered extremely vulnerable to global warming and sea level rise.” Second, the document accepted that “…because SIDS options are limited, they will not be able to effectively plan for and implement sustainable development without help from the international community. Third, and more central to the theme of this commentary, the Conference called on SIDS, with the support of sub-regional, regional, or global organisations to develop and strengthen inter-island, regional and interregional cooperation, and information exchange, “…including periodic regional and global meetings on sustainable development of small island developing States with the first global conference on the sustainable development of small island developing States, to be held in 1993. So, this is how the SIDS Conference was born. Conferences are held every 10 years. Mid-term reviews are held every 5 years.

Getting such text into the document was a diplomatic coup. However, its accomplishment was by no means an easy feat. Some countries within the Group of 77 and China—the main negotiating block representing developing countries within the UN system—were uncomfortable with the idea of SIDS having their own “identity” in the document. At that time, SIDS had already begun to flex their muscles, albeit as a fledgling alliance in negotiations on a climate change convention.

Roots of My Cynicism 

Try as I might, my enthusiasm for these conferences has diminished significantly from the high that I experienced before and after the first SIDS conference in Barbados. The partnership theme of the second conference in Mauritius kept me hopeful and engaged; but by the midway point to Samoa, the thrill had gone. I went to Samoa under significant duress mainly to moderate a high level session involving the PMs of Barbados and New Zealand. But my heart was not in the event.

SIDS conferences are far cheaper than annual UN events such as the climate change conferences. Still, they’re not cheap and cost about US$50 million, including the expenses of the cost country, UN Secretariat staff and sponsorship of country delegates. If given the option, I believe SIDS would much prefer it if this money were shared among them. Certainly, from an impact or results perspective, it is hard for me to claim that UN SIDS conferences are helping to advance the sustainable development of SIDS. Certainly, the SIDS agenda has not changed, and for that matter, neither has the text of their various outcome documents. In some ways, this is understandable. After all, there aren’t many new things to say, or new ways of saying old things about sustainable development in SIDS. We can call on the international community to assist us until the cows come home chewing their cuds along the way, but it’s long been clear that the international community has its own agenda and will come to our aid only when it’s expedient for it to do so. PM Sir John Compton understood this, and this is why in his address to the plenary of the Barbados SIDS conference, he stated that whether others assist, Saint Lucia would do what it must do to achieve sustainable development. Now, I concede that it is quite possible these conferences help to support networking among national, regional, and global sustainable development actors; and generate mandates that they might use to mobilize funding for their respective programmes. However, many international organisations use their own elaborate processes to generate their own mandates.  Still, at the very least, we should ask ourselves: in what tangible ways have past conferences helped SIDS to leverage “new and additional” technical and financial assistance over the past 30-years?

Frustrating Failures

Frustratingly, many Caribbean SIDS have failed to do some of the very things that these international sustainable development agreements encourage them to do. I offer the following examples. First, few Caribbean SIDS have adjusted their social and economic indicators to reflect resilience building. Growth in the gross domestic product (GDP)—which is the total value of goods and services produced by a country in any defined period—is still treated as the main yardstick of development, without any correlation to job growth, poverty reduction, or environmental preservation. Second, governance is still too government-centric and does not routinely involve the private sector and civil society. Third, Caribbean SIDS are not moving aggressively enough to incorporate the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and indicators into their decision-making frameworks. Fourth, Caribbean SIDS are not doing enough to ensure that public policy making is informed by sound data. Much of the data that is being produced is not reaching key decision makers in the right format and as quickly and regularly as they need it to make timely and sound decisions.

The Financing Quagmire

I fully agree that SIDS must demand those countries who are causing climate change to help them to survive this scourge. But what if the developed countries refuse to do what is morally right and provide their long-promised financial assistance?  I believe SIDS are focusing too heavily on external financing while domestic financing remains underutilized. Commercial banks in the region are so liquid   they ought to be wearing pampers.  Moreover, there was a time when the CDB was the “go-to” source of financing for infrastructure projects. However, increasingly, Caribbean governments are tapping into money from outside of the region that carry fewer conditions and social and environmental safeguards.  I believe there needs to be a frank and honest discussion on the reasons why CDB financing is underutilized by some countries, as this trend may undermine the CDB’s ability to convince donors to give it more money.


I won’t be attending the 4th UN Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS next May. Still, it’s my fervent hope that delegates at this event will prove me wrong by producing an outcome document with bold, fresh ideas and with clear and firm commitments of technical and financial assistance from the international community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend