There are currently 46 least developed countries listed by the United Nations and countries degree when they have reached certain developmental goals.
Eric Overvest: São Tomé and Príncipe performs well in social indicators, such as GDP per capita, but lags behind in others, such as Economic Vulnerability Indexand that is where the UN provides a lot of support because it is the health of the economy that allows the country to graduate from its LDC status.
For example, we have helped the country market itself as a place that sells organic, exclusive products. So instead of just exporting cocoa beans, they export chocolate bars. Organic palm oil, coconut oil and vanilla pepper are also sold.
Finding resources to adapt to the climate crisis is also very important, and we have supported the government’s efforts to find more funding to protect biodiversity and conserve marine resources. This country is moving towards the use of renewable energy; The United Nations supported the country’s first solar park, which opened last year, and solar panels are going up at schools and health centers.
We also help develop the private sector; promote a form of ecotourism that is integrated into the country’s culture and history, and support small and medium-sized enterprises.
UN news: What challenges could hold Sao Tome back even after graduation, and how does the UN plan to address it?
Eric Overvest: I would say it’s a change in mentality, 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 maintain your social security system, to maintain social sectors, and to ensure that your country can accelerate towards UN achievement Sustainable Development Goals.
It’s about accepting 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 for graduation.
Linked to that is the migration challenge. Many are still looking for opportunities abroad, but the human resources needed to support the development process are needed at home.
A particular challenge for São Tomé and Príncipe, and other small island states, is the islands’ vulnerability to the climate crisis, as we have seen floods, hurricanes and storms, which can have a very disruptive impact on the economy. In December 2021, about seven percent of GDP was lost due to damage caused by heavy rains.
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 heavily in the economy and the growth sectors where you have a competitive advantage, where you can create added value and where you can create more jobs.
You need to analyze your weaknesses and strengths, and to develop a national development plan. And that requires commitment at the highest level, political commitment to invest in the economic sectors where you really see the country’s future growth.
I have seen this in São Tomé and Príncipe. There is a real shift towards more involvement from the private sector and towards an agriculture that is not just based on exporting raw materials. The least developed countries must find their niche and develop it for future growth.
Eric Overvest is the UN resident coordinator in Sao Tome and Principe. He spoke to UN News at LDC5a major UN conference held in Doha, Qatar 5-9 March 2023.