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  • Writer's pictureOdyssean Institute Team

Pathways to Resilience: Learning from the Small Island States Resilience Initiative

Small things shake the world: viruses, molecules of CO₂, intangible algorithms giving us artificial intelligence. Governments and human society struggle to anticipate, adapt to, and respond to these shocks and developments. For example, governments were repeatedly warned about the likelihood of a global pandemic prior to 2020, and yet the world was fundamentally unprepared for COVID-19. 

Given the reluctance of government actors to prepare, how do we build resilience for even worse crises that could be on humanity’s doorstep, like an abrupt sunlight reduction scenario (ASRS)? If we are unprepared, these events have the potential to spiral into an unprecedented catastrophe — some fear even civilizational collapse. We have to learn from historical and contemporary case studies. 

“Small Islands, Big Challenges”

Just as certain regions would be disproportionately affected in an ASRS, the burdens of climate change do not fall equally across the world. As we know, residents of developing nations and the Global South tend to bear the brunt of extreme weather events and rising sea levels. In response to pressure from Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery launched the Small island States Resilience Initiative (SISRI) in 2014, in order to assist 39 island countries fighting against recurring disasters and climate instability. Funding for the initiative is sourced from the European Union, Japan, and other members of the World Bank. 

With help from 45 staff at the World Bank, SISRI backs up technical interventions by supplying participant countries with additional loans and grants, with the goal of increasing investments in resilience by at least 25% between 2016 and 2020. Rather than sending island states deeper into debt, some loans are constructed as “debt for resilience swaps,” allowing nations to reduce their debt burdens by showing that the money has been invested into resilience-building initiatives. Some specific examples of successful SISRI initiatives include combining “grey” and “green” coastal defence (e.g., sea-walls and mangrove restoration) in the Marshall Islands and Jamaica; supporting voluntary relocations from communities at risk of river flooding to safer, adjacent higher ground in São Tomé and Príncipe; and bringing three-dimensional maps using LiDAR technology to village leaders in Samoa to help them identify local flood and landslide risks (GFDRR, 2017). 

At its core, SISRI embodies a shift towards decentralised resilience management within a framework of global risk, understanding that while global problems require global solutions, individual actors — governments, organisations, communities — must enact specialised preparations and responses to those risks. Regular assemblies of these stakeholders ensure that lessons learned from certain interventions can solve implementation bottlenecks in other contexts, empowering local agencies to chart their own course towards resilience while fostering global knowledge exchange. 

Zooming Out

In 2021, King and Jones posited the idea of “nodes of persisting complexity”: countries or regions which, due to their “favourable starting conditions,” would be better-off than average in the event of a “de-complexification event,” or civilisational collapse. Given a potential global catastrophe such as an ASRS, fostering connections between these “nodes of persisting complexity” has the potential to fortify not only their own relative well-being, but could lead to positive externalities for the rest of the world as well. 

GRAIN seeks to establish the groundwork for connections between institutions using informal diplomacy, which can act as a foundation for more formal arrangements such as preferential trade agreements. Further, it seeks to identify and present potential ‘win-win scenarios’ to the relevant stakeholders, essentially making a case for why they should collaborate on resilience and preparedness measures.

In a global catastrophe at such a grand scale, we can expect to see mass migration of refugees into less vulnerable states. (We are already experiencing an increasing number of internationally and internally displaced climate refugees.) Therefore, it is in the best interests of the world that these states prepare to care for not only their own population, but potentially a massive influx as well. Alternatively, establishing guarantees of food aid and infrastructure assistance from the better-off to the worse-off may help in alleviating a migration crisis. 

In Conversation

Looking at SISRI, it may seem counterintuitive to focus on those countries which may be relatively well-positioned to produce food surpluses, conduct international trade, or produce vital machinery in a crisis. However, it is extremely unlikely that any one region will be guaranteed to accomplish more than one or two of these activities, and all of them — and more — are necessary for recovery. Simultaneously, we are unsure of how any potential abrupt global crisis would play out, meaning it is vital to build redundancies into our current and future systems even when we have confidence in them for now. By initiating a ‘Global Resilient Anticipatory Infrastructure Network’ (GRAIN) and using it to guarantee continued trade and diplomatic relations between nodes of persisting complexity, we would have a better chance of ensuring stable supply chains for crucial goods both inside and outside of these countries.

GRAIN, as it is envisioned, encourages the same kinds of interventions and investment strategies that back up SISRI. Flexible loans and grants can encourage measurable infrastructure improvements, with positive ramifications on the economy. The process of having national agencies manage their own funds while requiring them to produce measurably positive outputs builds the local operational capacity for resilience, and lays the groundwork for future iterations of similar projects (GFDRR, 2016). Creating a more robust supply chain with redundancies can create present-day benefits as well, in the event of smaller crises such as war or another pandemic. 

We also have crucial lessons to learn from the formation of SISRI. After all, World Bank assistance for climate and disaster resilience is normally limited to 180 million USD per year; it’s remarkable that such an initiative arose in the first place. This is due entirely to prior efforts by small island states to band together and represent their own interests in the international arena. Since 1990, the Alliance of Small Island States has tirelessly advocated for the rights of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), most of which now benefit from SISRI, to the UN and around the world. Similarly, it may be possible to hold states of “persisting complexity” to a higher standard, and require political actors to dedicate energy to representing the interests of humanity (as well as their own interests) by investing in resilience efforts and fostering trade agreements to potentially mitigate disaster. 

It is easy to imagine how many opportunities for creating a better future were missed by SISRI’s late entrance into the climate catastrophe. We need institutions to do better work in crafting proactive policies that can use the foresight we have as a planet to protect our future. Only long-term resilience strategies will give us the capacity to avert catastrophes instead of simply responding to them. Now that climate change has already become a slow crisis, SISRI’s “just-in-time assistance” is applicable to the particular problems faced by its participant states, but is insufficient for global-scale abrupt catastrophes. Still, it is our profound hope that international cooperation, despite many hardships in the way, will prove to be a meaningful lever for crafting a flourishing future.


Boyd, Matt and Nick Wilson, 2023. “Island refuges for surviving nuclear winter and other abrupt sunlight-reducing catastrophes.” Risk Analysis vol. 43, no. 9.

GFDRR, 2016. “The Small Island States Resilience Initiative (SISRI)” SISRI Knowledge Note No. 1. Small Island States Resilience Initiative. The World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Washington DC.

GFDRR, 2017. “Small Island States Resilience Initiative: Small islands, big challenges.” Small Island States Resilience Initiative. The World Bank and Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Washington DC.

King, Nick and Aled Jones, 2021. “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity.’” Sustainability vol. 13, no. 15.

Med, 2022. “Resilience to global Catastrophic food shocks” Healthy and sustainable diets,  Voices vol. 3, iss. 11.

Odyssean Institute. “Global Resilient Anticipatory Infrastructure Network (GRAIN).”

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