NEW YORK – Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness pointed to natural disasters and high debt burdens as significant barriers to Caribbean development on Wednesday during remarks before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

Despite recent strides in lowering Jamaica’s debt to GDP ratio, he said such gains could be eroded “in a matter of a few hours” in the case of a natural disaster, such as a major hurricane.

“As a Small Island Developing State, we remain extremely vulnerable to external shocks,” he said.

Holness highlighted national economic initiatives to support low-income people, such as micro financing for small and medium-sized businesses and increased allocations to social programmes.

“We are faced, however, with the challenge of recurrent debt,” he said. “But with bipartisan partnership and citizenship commitment, we have lowered our debt to GDP ratio by over 40%.”

Jamaica forecast in March that its GDP to debt ratio would fall to 96%, the first time the number has dropped below 100% in the past two decades.

To ensure the sustainability of such gains in small island states, he called on UN members to increase financial commitments towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“The sustainability of our efforts, therefore, requires adequate financing to fully attain the [Sustainable Development Goals]. This challenge poses a real threat to the hard-won gains generated by our responsible stewardship of the development process,” Holness said.

“I, therefore, urge development partners to redouble their efforts and contribute resources for the delivery of the 2030 Agenda.”

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves reiterated the vulnerability of Small Island Developing States to financial shocks. He encouraged greater international support in alleviating debt burdens through programmes such as a debt swap for climate action initiative.

“We must acknowledge that a special case for [Small Island Developing States] exists due to our unique vulnerabilities,” Gonsalves said.

He decried a “unilateral tendency by a handful of powerful states to weaponise trade and the banking and financial systems to buttress their quest for a global hegemony”.

Gonsalves called on high-ranking states to support small island nations by offering financial assistance and bridging the “development chasm”.

On Friday, small island leaders will gather at the UN headquarters to evaluate progress towards development goals, as outlined in the SAMOA Pathway. From the Caribbean, comments are expected from Mia Mottley of Barbados, Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda, and Evelyn Wever-Croes of Aruba, among others.

Kayla Young is reporting for the Compass from the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York.