Project Background

Starting with Ethiopia in 1941, no less than 129 countries have achieved independence in the last 70 years. This trend has been spearheaded by former colonies pressing for, and achieving, full sovereignty, as well as by the breakup of mulitethnic states (e.g., Soviet Union, Yugoslavia) in the face of agitations for self-determination. Models of 21st-century world governance are based on, and organized around, the sovereign state. There are now 193 such members in the United Nations. Most international and regional organizations, as well as diplomatic efforts, imply the exclusive operation of sovereign, independent states and their representatives. But this impetus towards sovereignty for the last remaining colonised territories – virtually all islands – has ground to a halt. In 1994, Palau was the last colonised island to acquire full sovereignty. Since then many island territories have opted to remain in a partially autonomous relationship  (Prinsen & Blaise, 2017; Baldacchino and Hepburn, 2012; Hepburn, 2012).

Meanwhile, various states are finding that a devolution of powers helps to: put into practice the principle of ‘subsidiarity’; enrich the democratic fabric and the general processes of governance; and provide a valid response to demands and claims by sub-national identities for policy discretions which may otherwise prove difficult within a centralized polity. Hence the emergence of the subnational jurisdiction (SNJ) or microterritory: a non-sovereign territory with a slate of executive powers (Hepburn and Baldacchino, 2016; Rezvani, 2015; 2014; Taglioni, 2011).

Islands are common locations for the above, two political dynamics. That many jursdictions are islands should not be surprising: the geographical and logistic parameters of being small and islanded conspire to encourage such territories to develop as distinct administrative units. In many cases, special jurisdictional features enjoyed by such islands have arisen in the context of colonialism. Other features have emerged in the context of federal politics (such as asymmetric federalism); to meet grassroots demands for devolution and greater local autonomy; or to construct subnational enclaves that enjoy specific legal regimes such as financial centres or export processing zones (Baldacchino, 2006a; Baldacchino, 2006b; Baldacchino & Fabri, 2016; Baldacchino & Milne, 2006; Grydehøj, 2011;  Taglioni, 2009; Watts, 1998).

Thus we have, on one hand, a cluster of small island states, most of whom fall within the 38-strong ‘small island developing states’ (SIDS) grouping that is recognized by the UN (e.g. Campling, 2006). Joining them are the four ‘developed’ European small island states of Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland and Malta. Collectively, we can refer to this group as Small Island States (SIS) (Connell, 2013). On the other hand, there are the 100-plus subnational island jurisdictons (SNIJs). As noted above, most of these are not interested in secession, and have confirmed this in various independence referenda (Dodds & Pinkerton, 2013). In some cases they appear to have benefitted from measures of self-government or para-diplomacy – often not shared by other component units of the polity – while remaining comfortably lodged within the purview of a larger, richer, metropolitan state. For these, the benefits of ‘autonomy without sovereignty’ include: free trade with, and tourist arrivals and export preference from, the parent country; social welfare assistance; easier access to external capital; tapping of external labour markets via migration; aid-financed infrastructure and communications; higher-quality health and educational systems; natural disaster relief; provision of costly external defence; and a climate of political stability and confidence which attracts investment (Baldacchino, 2010; Dunn, 2011; McElroy & Mahoney, 2000).

Meanwhile, the difference between small island states and SNIJs is growing increasingly fuzzy. Sovereign states no longer have a monopoly in maintaining and developing international relations. An increasing number of Subnational Jurisdictions (SNJs) and particularly Subnational Island Jurisdictions engage very effectively in comparable (para)diplomacy (Bartmann, 2006; Kuznetsov, 2014). Two-hundred-and-six ‘countries’ have international Olympic Committees and were eligible to take part in the 2016 Rio Olympics: these include the SNIJs of American Samoa, Cayman Islands and Cook Islands. The Organisation of Eastern Caribben States (OECS) includes Montserrat (a SNIJ) as a full member. The province of Quebec (a SNJ) is a full participating member of the Permanent Delegation of Canada to UNESCO. And the status of Taiwan is subject to debate  (e.g. Anderson, 2013; Krasner, 2001). In addition, small island states and subnational island jurisdictions are increasingly proving to be resilient, nimble and entrepreneurial in their political and economic relationships with their metropoles and other states (Adalsteinsson & Steinborsson, 2015; Baldacchino, 2015; Randall, 2015).

Based on this background and conceptual framework, this project will pool the knowledge and expertise of researchers and institutions (centres or institutes, universities, non-profit organizations, governments) and embark on a long-term initiative to develop a better understanding of the sustainable development practices and potential of small islands, and especially the role that sovereignty and international relationships play in achieving a more sustainable future.  This is important not only for the long-term future of small islands as entities, but also for the lives and livelihoods of individual islanders. This initiative builds upon an existing body of theory and empirical work on the development trajectory of small island states and subnational island jurisdictions, including comparisons of metrics between micro-states and larger political jurisdictions (Armstrong, De Kervenoael, Li & Read, 1998; Armstrong & Read, 2000) and, more specifically, between small island states and SNIJs (McElroy & Parry, 2012; McElroy & Pearce, 2006; McElroy & Sanborn, 2005). The evidence from some of this latter research is that SNIJs have outperformed their small island state counterparts across many indicators, including having twice the per capita income and half the infant mortality rate (McElroy & Perry 2012). Despite this evidence, this debate is not entirely settled (Bertram, 2015).  Moreover, the existing research has rarely approached these questions from the perspective of the relationship between sovereignty and sustainability and has not thoroughly engaged island institutions and peoples in these assessments in any meaningful manner. Ultimately, islands are important crucibles or living labs to allow us to better understand the ‘futurability’ of all human spaces (Baldacchino & Niles, 2011). Stated more succinctly, the specific objective of this research is to assess to what extent and how the political status of an island (SIS vs. SNIJ) influences the sustainability and lives of the people living in these places. It will do so by first critically examining the similarities and differences between Small Island States and Subnational Island Jurisdictions, including their relative capacity for implementing sustainable practices in socio-political, cultural-artistic, economic and environmental domains. It will then compare and contrast the island-to-metropole/mainland (SNIJs) or international (SIS) relationships for these groups of small islands.

A parallel overarching goal that extends beyond the life of this project is to contribute to changing the rhetoric surrounding the sustainability of small islands. Too often islands and islanders have been judged by what they don’t have, including people, natural resources and competitive advantages (Baldacchino, 2007).   Perhaps starting with Epeli Hau’ofa’s (1994) seminal argument that Pacific islanders were not living on “islands in a far sea” but are instead the inhabitants of a “sea of islands” , a countervailing narrative has emerged. This sees many island societies as resilient, nimble, flexible, connected, and adaptable to external events including climate change, (Lazrus, 2012), global tourism impacts (Scheyvens & Momset 2008), and the consequences of natural disasters (Kelman & Khan, 2013; Kelman & Randall, forthcoming). Oceans are increasingly being viewed as routes and highways instead of as barriers. Small island states, some now referring to themselves as ‘large ocean states’, as well as SNIJs, have developed much more sustainable capacities. Rather than being poverty-stricken and destitute, many island jurisdictions might be more accurately described now as innovative and entrepreneurial, including those that follow a Blue or Oceans Economy approach (Campbell et al., 2013; Pauli, 2010; Smith-Godfrey, 2016)

The short and longer term goals stated above parallel those of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and extend this priority to subnational island jurisdictions.  They also link closely to the mandate of the new UNESCO Chair in Island Studies and Sustainability, held jointly by the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and the University of Malta.  To accomplish this, we will build on the existing partnerships with island studies scholars, students, governments, and organizations worldwide. The scholarly outcomes of this research will be published in peer-reviewed journals, and shared widely, in appropriate forms, through groups such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), the United Nations Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and the citizens and stakeholders on these and other small islands throughout the world.


We propose to examine the relationships between and among SISs and SNIJs using a two-stage, mixed-methods approach. The first stage, to take place in Years 1 and 2, will constitute a comprehensive comparison of carefully selected pairs of islands (one small island state and one SNIJ) in a variety of settings. Pairwise comparison is often associated with mathematics (Saaty, 2008). However, island studies scholars (Dommen, 1989; Selwyn 1980) have suggested that despite the heterogeneity of islands, a pairwise comparison is a useful mechanism to identify underlying common characteristics. The literature includes several examples of pairwise comparisons of small islands, including several that are part of this initiative. These include Cyprus and Trinidad & Tobago (Karides, 2013),  St. Kitts & Nevis and Palau (Veenendaal, 2015), Puerto Rico and Newfoundland (Vézina, 2014), Corsica and Hawai’i (Androus & Greymorning, 2016), and the English SNIJs of the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight (Grydehøj & Hayward, 2014). Island pairs in this proposal have been selected based on a combination of the following similar characteristics: population size, colonial and/or post-colonial history, geographical region, economic structure, and area size.


Small Island State Subnational Island Jurisdiction
Palau Guam (USA)
Cyprus Lesbos (Greece)
Grenada Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago)
Mauritius Reunion (France)
Iceland Newfoundland (Canada)
St. Lucia Prince Edward Island (Canada)


This stage will consist of two components; the first is a series of surveys and focus groups of stakeholders on each island. The principal objective of the survey is to assess the well-being or quality-of-life of residents of each of the islands (SISs and SNIJs) using a perceptual/attitudinal approach and then link this back to an analysis of the relative capacity of these places to implement socio-political, cultural-artistic, economic and environmental sustainability. They will also allow us to gauge perceptions of the responsiveness, efficacy and accountability of local and national governing institutions as promoters and protectors of sustainability and sovereignty. The specific content of this survey will be determined after consultation among all of the participants but a number of models currently exist, including the Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia initiative (Dick, 2015; Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs, 2012; Tanguay, 2015), the Genuine Progress Indicator (Cobb, Halstead, & Rowe, 1995) and the Well-Being Index (Prescott-Allen, 2001). Approaches such as this are especially suited to settings where traditional indicators such as GDP and even the Human Development Index (HDI) fail to capture the most important dimensions of local capacity and potential.

The focus groups will allow us to delve more deeply into the themes emerging from the larger survey group results. The data from the surveys and the focus groups will be sent to UPEI for coding, translation, transcription and initial analysis and then returned to the sites for proofing.

There are several dimensions to this analysis that expand the scope of its relevance and efficacy. One is an examination of the sustainable futures at each site and the application of these results to inform local island policy and action. A second analysis is the pairwise comparison across each of the six sets of islands (SISs versus SNIJs). Finally, the third is an investigation that incorporates the stakeholder groups, i.e., households, government, NGOs/CBOs, and business, across all twelve island sites. We expect the results of this project will provide direction for many small islands and territories beyond those directly involved at this stage, to include other territories and islands dealing with similar issues. More importantly, this is the first step in implementing a project-based research collaboration among the disparate participants and partners and will lead to a more comprehensive global network of stakeholders for future alliances.

The second stage involves developing and testing a set of indicators or metrics of sovereignty and sustainability for the 42 small island states referred to above and a comparable number of SNIJs. We recognize that the development of indicators is not without epistemological and empirical challenges (Prinsen, 2015). However, we believe that a collaborative approach that combines the use of cross-sectional secondary data with a more comprehensive qualitative examination of the situations of specific pairs of islands will yield results that are useful for policy development on specific islands and are also applicable to other island jurisdictions. The project co-applicants, collaborators and partners, as described below, will be involved in the selection of the most appropriate metrics to be used in this analysis.


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