Based on Epeli Hau’ofa vision in “Our sea of islands”, SIDS possess infinite power. But why are they still not wealthy yet?

In the famous article “Our Sea of Islands”, Epeli Hau’ofa solidly critiqued Western colonialism in the 19th Century for confining the Pacific Islands in the notion of isolated individual dots in a far sea, and that fatal description about these geographies and their people then became a ubiquitous stereotype in Western culture for centuries. This is the biggest fault because their purpose was deemed to hide the more-than-2000 years civilizations of the Pacific Islanders rooting in the first batch of seafaring inhabitants from Africa to disperse human civilization to the other side of the world. Hau’ofa asserted this is a “derogatory and belittling view of indigenous cultures” (Hau’ofa, 3). This articles aims to givemy two-cent thought on the role of  SIDS based on Hau’ofa critiques under modern globalization and sustainability scenario in the 21st Century.

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Photo by Mike van Schoonderwalt on

After colonialism and laisser-faire capitalism, neoliberalism was debated as a collective, academic theory, policy prescription which evolved in early 1930 to avoid the domination of Nazism; later on, in the 20th Century, it became a popular norm and policy practice for developed countries such as the EU’s and The USA with the prime function of allocating the wealth for society. It was then rebranded with a new name called  “globalization” with the objective to eliminate global barriers and inequality. The highlights are minimal trade barriers, the limited intervention of states or government on economy and capacity, and domestic markets’ deregulation. It sounds to help enrich emerging countries, but the inconvenient truth is that it is a new order of wealthy countries to allocate global resources on a larger scale than humans could have envisioned before:  A reborn of colonialism in modern time.  From my perspective, the principle of globalization was initially successful after the commencement of WTO, and its robust proceeding procedures and policies make the change to what seemed to be on a right track in global equality back to favour the North’s position of ultimate exploitation.

Additionally, globalization’s principles only focused on the economic pillar with little saying about the environment due to the high proportion of actors in WTO are corporations or MNCs from the prosperous global North. Also, the GDP was commonly used as one of the critical analyses for any nation since then. However, Ness et al. (Ness et al. 498-508) mentioned that this tool neither indicates sustainability status nor integrate with society and the environment indicator such as employment, education, GNP, human developing index, natural resources, disasters, climate change, which were the most critical topics for SIDS on their path since Rio+ 21 in 1992 (UNEP, UN DESA, and FAO). In the past, the environment’s view is seen as a trade-off with economic growth; green alternatives can be cost-competitive as well. However, recent scientific facts have shown that the entire economy’s growth depends on environmental preserving actions because nature is a vital business environment (Mark Starik, 215). The viable path to survive for our humankind is obviously genuinely lowering carbon emission and rapidly transforming to a sustainable green economy (UNEP). Thus, the world nations changed their view after two important international agreements, Kyoto and Paris 2015, where they committed to acting on climate change and transitioning to a green economy while reducing the carbon emission rate to zero by 2050. However, there was almost no precise mechanism to enforce the appropriate actions to Western countries even though the most polluters are from there,  and it is the truth that the SIDS or Pacific Islands are still under tagging of least developed countries under an inequality division of North and South globally.

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Hau’ofa sturdily stated about the root of the Pacific Islanders who once lived in an infinite spatiality “which comprised not only land surfaces but the surrounding ocean” (Hauofa, 7), abundant natural resources and most importantly, their human resources who were powerful in their mobility and capability of doing almost everything including articulating the proud trade routes around the world thousands year ago (11). After gaining independence since 1960 and right of EEZ in 1982, putting many efforts for recognized visibility and voice in international conferences (Rio+ 21 1992 and Barbados Programme of Action and the Mauritius Strategy of Implementation in 2005), and receiving a heap of generous support for green economy transformation and climate change prevention from the other rich countries, why are these island states still unstable and vulnerable? Are they vulnerable as NGOs explained that it is just a technical problem in direction and what needs to be done is following the Western role model of green programs, institutions, and policies and keep asking for supporting funds from the North countries (Hickel, 3)? So, after so much funding and developing programs threw into these island states in recent years, why are they still not moving forwards as their potential indicates?

Are they vulnerable as NGOs explained that it is just a technical problem in direction and what needs to be done is following the Western role model of green programs, institutions, and policies and keep asking for supporting funds from the North countries ?

(Hickel, 3)

I think about Kiribati island’s case from the article “Critiquing the Pursuit of Island Sustainability” (Baldacchino and Kelman). The case referred to the situation that this Pacific island too focused on advertising their branding vulnerability of climate change for the international funding purpose, but totally neglected the day-to-day issues. For instance, water contamination was blamed on climate change, though it mostly came from cultural and religious habits that need a proper education solution (Baldacchino and Kelman, 7). Other issues such as food production, medical and dwellings for residence are also ignored. Their adaptation projects got 6 million USD in funding and were promoted as beneficial for the whole island; however, it mainly profited the capital of Tarawa only (7).  The case reflected the discursive power when local people only get access to what the government wants to prioritize. Another inconvenient truth in this scenario is that a big proportion of that 6 million went to “international consulting agency” for planning and development service. It is, indeed, a game named “lobbying dagger” from capitalism. Steven Luke (Lukes, 89) defined this as the second dimensional or agenda-setting power. The power is led by international funds and agencies, combined and influenced the actor’s decision-making power, which is the Kiribati government backing with the big charity hands from the global North, but the real purpose is for these resourceful islands to stay at the state where they are staying. If not, what makes them keep selling out their prosperous resources surrounding the 200-miles-EEZ? This is the other side of liberalism’s new order of globalization which I call a Variant of Colonialism.

The Divide — Jason Hickel

 Dr. Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist, also criticized this mindset in his book The Divide, Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Market, published in 2019. Hickel also asked these questions mentioned above, and he critically doubted “why it is getting worse” after all (Hickel, 2)? The answer is probably too complicated to expose, or it is just what the current system wants us to know, which was how imperialism confined the Pacific Islands and told these stories to their societies at that time. Such stereotyped thoughts come from the impression that islanders live in a small closed system with limited resources and have nowhere to flee when unexpected tragedies happen, so they must need help, and “when this one thing is told over and over again, then that what they become” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). Hickel reiterated the thought of Hau’ofa that in the 1500s, there was no difference in incomes and living standards between Europe and the rest of the world (Hickel, 3). The dramatic changed happened when western power tied the rest of the world into a single international economic system or their own “routes of exploitation”, well-packed and branded as “Globalization.” Both scholars agreed that “the divide between rich countries and poor countries is not natural or inevitable. It has been created” (3).

The divide between rich countries and poor countries is not natural or inevitable. It has been created.


Overall, I have demonstrated my opinion about the sustainability trap to SIDS as critiqued by Dr. Baldacchino (Baldacchino and Kelman). As Hau’ofa stated, the nature of pacific islands was full of potential and capability to be successful as they once were if there was no interaction of imperialism’s confinement. Since then, inequality became the game of western countries evolving and swinging through times with different names: neoliberalism, globalization and international funding. It is critical now for the SIDS to get out of the trap beautifully named as sustainability and climate change, to identify their inside powerful advantages and to define their own route as they were once, which Hau’ofa termed:

The resources are no longer confined to their national boundaries; they are located wherever these people are living or otherwise. This is as it was before the age of Western imperialism. 

Hauofa, 11

By doing so, the action needed is to move from vulnerability and phony charity to the justice of inequality, debts, fair trade, employment and wages and reclaiming the commons (Hickel, 259).

It is critical now for the SIDS to get out of the trap beautifully named as sustainability and climate change, to identify their inside powerful advantages and define their own route as they were once.

Ken Atlantic

Works Cited

Baldacchino, Godfrey, and Ilan Kelman. “Critiquing the Pursuit of Island Sustainability.”, 2014,

“The Danger of a Single Story.” , directed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. , produced by TED talk. , performance by , 2009.

Hauofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, pp. 147-161,,contains,991998063602837&tab=innz&search_scope=INNZ&vid=NLNZ&offset=0.

Hickel, Jason. The Divide : Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018,

Lukes, Steven. Power : A Radical View. Macmillan, 1974,

Mark Starik. “Should Trees have Managerial Standing? Toward Stakeholder Status for Non-Human Nature.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 14, no. 3, 1995, pp. 207-217. CrossRef, doi:10.1007/BF00881435.

Ness, Barry, et al. “Categorising Tools for Sustainability Assessment.” Ecological Economics, vol. 60, no. 3, 2007, pp. 498-508. CrossRef, doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2006.07.023.

UNEP. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication. , 2011.

UNEP, UN DESA, and FAO. SIDS-FOCUSED an Analysis of  Challenges and Opportunities. , 2012.

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