There are currently 46 LDCs on the UN’s list and countries graduate once they reach certain development goals.
Eric Overvest: Sao Tome and Principe is doing well on social indicators, such as GDP per capita, but it lags behind others, such as the Economic Vulnerability Index, and that is what the UN gives a lot of support to, because it is the health of the economy that will enable the country to graduate from its LDC status.
For example, we helped the country market itself as a place where organic, high-quality products are sold. So instead of just exporting cocoa beans, they are exporting chocolate bars. Organic palm oil, coconut oil and vanilla pepper are also sold.
Finding the means to adapt to the climate crisis is also very important, and we have supported the government’s efforts to find more funding for protecting biodiversity and conserving marine resources. This country is moving towards the use of renewable energy sources; the UN backed the country’s first solar park, which opened last year, and solar panels are being installed in schools and health centers.
We also help develop the private sector; promoting a form of ecotourism that is integrated into the country’s culture and history, and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises.
UN news: What challenges could Sao Tome hold back even after graduation, and how does the UN plan to deal with them?
Eric Overvest: I would say it’s a shift in mindset from the idea of being dependent on foreign aid to a model where you generate the resources for your own economy, make sure you have the sources of growth to support your social protection system, to social sectors, and to ensure that your country can move faster towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
It’s about meeting your development challenges and looking ahead and seeing what we can do as a country to move forward. So it puts a lot of pressure on the country to make sure they are ready to graduate.
Linked to this is the migration challenge. Many are still looking for opportunities abroad, but the human resources needed to support the development process are needed within the country.
A particular challenge for São Tomé and Príncipe, and other small island developing States, is the vulnerability of the islands to the climate crisis, as we have seen floods, hurricanes and storms, which can have a very disruptive effect on the economy. In December 2021, about seven percent of GDP was lost to damage from heavy rainfall.
UN news: What advice would you give to the leaders of the least developed countries to help them achieve economic development and poverty reduction?
Eric Overvest: Invest more in the economy and growth sectors where you have the competitive advantages, where you can add value and where you can create more jobs.
You must analyze your weaknesses and strengths and develop a national development plan. And that requires commitment at the highest level, political commitment to invest in those economic sectors where you really see the future growth of the country.
I’ve seen it here in São Tomé and Principe. There is a real shift underway towards more private sector involvement and towards agriculture that is not based solely on commodity exports. LDCs need to find and develop their niche for future growth.
Eric Overvest is the UN resident coordinator in Sao Tome and Principe. He was talking to UN News on LDC5a major UN conference, held in Doha, Qatar from March 5-9, 2023.