Ignoring big issues of small islands

UN conference in Samoa tackling challenges facing the world’s small island states attracts little media coverage

The conference centre has bunches of bananas hanging across its walkways. Not supermarket-sized bunches, but straight-off-the-tree bunches: big bunches. Security guards and delegates grab – and go. In the meeting room bins, it’s all polystyrene cups and skins.

The bananas aren’t the only unusual aspect of the Small Islands Developing States – or ‘SIDS’ – conference in Samoa. First, this is a once-a-decade event. Second it’s the biggest event ever held in any Pacific Island nation and, third, for a conference of 3000 people – including the Secretary General of the United Nations – few seem to care. The entire country of Samoa is decked out in flags and banners welcoming ‘SIDS delegates’ to their country. But the vast majority of those in any other country don’t know it’s going on.

Why? Because most of the world’s media isn’t there. Al Jazeera is the only international television station reporting from the conference, or on the issues it’s throwing up. No non-Pacific newspapers are represented. There’s a single reporter from Radio New Zealand relatively nearby, Australia’s media has sent no one at all. The media room is full not of journalists, but of public relations managers for the hundreds of NGOs and governments who are here. As the only journalist in the room I am besieged by people trying desperate for attention for their top man or woman. I’ve taken to working in another room so I can work for more than five minutes without interruption.

For the United Nations, whose conference this is, the lack of media attention is frustrating. One of the conference’s avowed aims is to ‘focus the world’s attention on the challenges of small island states’. In that, it has manifestly failed.

‘Vital partnerships’

That is a shame. The issues facing small island states are big and important. How to bring down the cost of energy so business can thrive and children can have light to read by?

Renewable energy may be one solution – and all sorts of innovative projects are being discussed at the conference or demonstrated around Samoa. How to prepare for disasters too: climate change is making them more frequent and more intense. And how to protect the world’s seas from over-fishing and pollution: ‘Small island’ states are often in the middle of a big ocean. Their health depends on them. 

These are issues that will endure. The trouble is, they are issues more than they are news. The United Nations hasn’t helped with the conference ‘sell’ by publishing its ‘outcomes’ in advance. Nor are they more than a long list of aspirations and intentions. No commitments, no formal deals. The UN’s media team is trying to salvage something: ‘vital partnerships’ are being forged is one of their key messages. Small islands now speak with ‘one voice’ ahead of climate talks in New York later in September. But that sounds like clutching at straws. And they know it. 

Even so, when so much ‘news’ is fleeting – tomorrow’s chip paper – it’s a shame that issues of real substance get so little airing. Small islands don’t to grab the spotlight very often: it’s a shame that now they have, they’ve grabbed one without much of a bulb. 

Al Jazeera is at the conference and proud to be there. It’s given us an opportunity to run features on the sorts of issues facing small states which – as climate change gathers apace – bigger countries will soon face too. 

The list of countries at the conference may sound like a list of honeymoon destinations – Mauritius, The Seychelles, Barbados, Fiji – but, in fact, this is a conference for underdogs, for countries well down the international league table. Much like in sport, those in the lower divisions don’t get much media coverage, however big the stadium in which they play.