Ambassador Sumbue Antas: On Vanuatu’s graduation and resilience
Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Republic of Vanuatu to the WTO talks about the graduation journey, Covid-19 and climate resilience, and how graduating from the LDC category means that the work has only just begun.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant economic and social consequences in countries around the world. In many cases, this crisis reversed the progress that had been painfully made. Considering all these factors, could you comment on Vanuatu’s economic performance over the past few years and how has EIF support contributed to your journey to graduation?
Vanuatu’s economic performance before COVID-19 was positive. We had a GDP growth of 4%. 100 every year. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, despite import, export and supply chain disruptions due to border closures, domestic and foreign direct investment continued to grow and Vanuatu continued to experience economic growth. Now, in 2022, we are beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic. However, we have been very fortunate to have the support of the EIF in recent years. The EIF contribution is a catalyst for the programs and projects implemented in Vanuatu. If we hadn’t had the support of the EIF, as part of this process, we might not have seen some of these activities that contributed to the graduation accreditation process. I think the future for Vanuatu is good, but we need to be aware of the situation and ensure that we meet the challenges and be innovative in our management.
Despite severe setbacks from accelerating climate change and the pandemic, Vanuatu managed to successfully graduate from the LDC list in December 2020. However, it still remains highly vulnerable to external shocks, with this in mind, could Highlight the main challenges Vanuatu is currently facing?
Vanuatu’s graduation from the LDC list in 2020 was celebrated by our citizens. In 2020, Vanuatu also celebrated 40 years of independence. It was a national holiday. In 1980 we took our place among the nations of the world as an independent country, and 40 years later we graduated from the list of LDCs. For us, as a nation, it was a huge achievement. There was a lot of confidence in our graduation and seeing Vanuatu take its place among the nations saying we were prepared for the challenges ahead. That said, our vulnerabilities haven’t gone away, they’re still there. Vanuatu’s economy is currently facing contractions, particularly in the tourism and transport sectors. Innovative policies and continuous reforms must take place, such as the revitalization of our national productive sector, the activation of electronic commerce and the guarantee of food security.
Changes are happening today, and we need to re-emphasize the areas Vanuatu should focus on now. We are witnessing a lot of refocusing on the productive sector. It is quite exciting and interesting that these changes are happening in Vanuatu. And I think the greatest opportunity for us is to engage in a program of socio-economic reforms as part of our degree but also as part of the changing environment around us.
In the face of these challenges and opportunities, to what extent are the operational principles of the EIF suited to the needs of a recently graduated LDC, such as Vanuatu?
The EIF is a multilateral partnership dedicated exclusively to helping LDCs use trade as an engine of growth. We are aware of the objectives of the EIF and create partnerships with our partners, other countries and international and regional agencies. Partnership is a very important part of what the EIF gives us. The EIF has supported programs and projects aimed at improving our ability to increase the production of goods and services not only for the external market but also for our internal market. In the area of food security, you cannot export food until you have provided food for your population. We must first secure this and then talk about exporting to other countries. This requires addressing national, tax and e-commerce infrastructures, such as government services, laws and regulations, processes and procedures. What we see today is that the EIF, our partner countries and our agencies support us and our efforts.
The EIF ensures that ownership is crucial for the successful completion of the program. Vanuatu has defined its own poverty reduction strategy, aligned with the UN 2030 Agenda, and the EIF and all other supporting countries and agencies are working together to support this strategy. EIF interventions in Vanuatu demonstrate this commitment to country ownership and working with these partners without overlap, duplication and waste.
Vanuatu has managed to do what no other Pacific Island country has yet managed to bring its customs and biosecurity processes online with the support of the UNCTAD Electronic single window project. Vanuatu is also a beneficiary of the EIF Regional Quality Infrastructure Project with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat and the UNCTAD and UPU Postal and Customs Harmonization Project. How important are these projects to Pacific trade and how have they benefited Vanuatu?
These projects are very important building blocks for the development of Vanuatu. They constitute the basis necessary to facilitate and develop our national processes and our foreign trade. They create efficiencies in procedures and processes and increase productivity in the economy. They are important for the development of the private sector, micro, small and medium enterprises, large companies and non-state actors. All players benefit from these initiatives. The support provided by UNCTAD and the EIF has been immense.
Vanuatu’s graduation from the list of LDCs was very impressive, especially since in recent years it has not only suffered significant economic and social fallout from repeated natural disasters, but also a significant drop in income from the tourism due to border closures during the global crisis. Covid19 pandemic. In this time of heightened economic vulnerabilities, some have questioned whether this is the right time for Vanuatu to graduate from LDC status. However, Vanuatu has proven that it is well equipped to move forward and continue on this development path. Looking ahead, how do you see Vanuatu’s journey towards sustainable development ahead?
There’s never a good time to graduate. Vulnerabilities will never go away. Our smallness, the tyranny of remoteness from our external markets, and natural disasters force us to become resilient, to adapt, and to ensure that we are ready for anything, and can respond and mitigate. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent decline in performance of some of our key economic sectors, including tourism, has had significant implications for Vanuatu. So, was it the right time for Vanuatu’s graduation? I think Vanuatu has already answered that question, we were ready and despite the circumstances then, today and in the future, we will take all responsibility. there is no doubt. Now we have to think about looking ahead and making sure we are ready for whatever comes our way. Graduation does not mean we have done a good job. It tells us that we have done a good job, but that we can do better.
With Bhutan, Angola, Solomon Islands and São Tomé and Príncipe scheduled to graduate and seven more LDCs envisaged in the coming years, there is much to learn from early preparation, courage, adaptability and Vanuatu’s emphasis on partnerships to ensure a smooth graduation process. What can you advise future graduates?
Everyone has different circumstances and situations, so we can only speak generally. We trust our friends in Bhutan, Angola, Solomon Islands and São Tomé and Príncipe and other LDCs who have strong graduation strategies. If we remember to be innovative every day, the country will continue to grow and grow. I can only encourage them to have a good transition strategy and also engage with partners and friends as they will contribute to their development aspirations.