‘Humans are social animals. We are naturally attracted by leaders,” said Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist from Sweden. She was addressing world leaders at the recent Austrian World Summit in Vienna, last month. Thunberg was pointing out that their positions come with a responsibility, to tell the truth and to act for the collective benefit of humanity.

But what about us, ordinary people? What is our responsibility?

When a new idea is presented, people often ask: ‘Who said that?’ The ‘who’ is often more important than ‘what’ was said, when people generally decide what to do. As ‘social animals,’ we have developed a tendency to follow natural ‘leaders,’ rather than good ideas.

As the new UNDP Resident Representative to the Maldives, I see this nation and its people looking ahead to a future of unprecedented opportunities for development, which can be accomplished in harmony and balance with the environment. We call it sustainable development. However, to realize this opportunity, we must all agree that now is the time for a shift from ‘politics’ to ‘development’— from ‘who’ to ‘what’.

So, what are some of these opportunities?

The Maldivian economy could be a driver of equality among people. For example, while the Maldives’ fisheries sector currently accounts for 10.5% of national employment, its contribution to the national economy is only 1.7%. This suggests that many people are sharing a small portion of the national income.

A fairer economy demands more diversification, involving a wider cross section of the population, with a greater variety of markets and clients. Maldives has a proportionally significant young population, who are energetic and eager to contribute to the economy. One of the striking findings of a recent study, commissioned by the UNDP, is the degree of readiness and willingness of the country’s youth to contribute to the economy. This is possible if the right ecosystem is in place – a political, social and economic environment that facilitates opportunities. There are several examples of how the country’s growth pattern could match its ambitions of benefiting many more people and leaving no one behind.

Since landing in the Maldives, I have become aware of the local tradition of balancing livelihood needs and environmental sustainability. Surrounded by turquoise oceans and shimmering sands, the country’s stunning beauty is a magnet for millions of foreign visitors. While tourism is a major contributor to Maldives becoming a Middle-Income Country (MIC), we must be careful not to compromise its natural beauty and precious biodiversity, which the people of the Maldives have protected for thousands of years.

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, worldwide, ‘almost 33% of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened.’ The five biggest causes are changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasive alien species. For example, marine plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, affecting at least 267 species, including 86 per cent of marine turtles, 44 per cent of seabirds and 43 per cent of marine mammals.*

Maldives is experiencing the risk of marine biodiversity loss at an unprecedented speed. We have a collective responsibility to protect this diversity and preserve this interdependent eco-system for future generations. So, sustainability is the priority for Maldives’ development. At the upcoming Maldives’ Partnership Forum in Malé on 17-18 June, ‘Blue Economy’ is at the heart of the government’s plan and discussions with development partners.

All the above are possible only if we, the people, understand, believe, and act on collective priorities. People believe and act, when they know they have ownership in policies, when they participate in their formulation.

When people have an opportunity to have their say and have their voices heard and acted upon, there is accountability, transparency, and it gives rise to effective governance with checks and balances and lays a solid foundation for sustainable development. This is the reason why Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—'peace, justice, and strong institutions’— is an enabler for all the other goals. In that sense, it is indispensable.

The journey of the Maldives is not a sprint, rather it is a marathon.It will require patience. And it’s not about ‘who’ leads, but about ‘what’ we, the people, do together to achieve a just and prosperous Maldives. A country which benefits not just the present generation, but which sustains benefits for generations to come.


* Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), May 6, 2019, Media release, https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment, and Global Assessment Summary for Policy Makers, https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/downloads/spm_unedited_advance_for_posting_htn.pdf

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