How can small islands survive the coming climate crisis? Plan for smaller aid budgets and more disasters.

Rising seas threaten the first line of houses in Grenville, the second city of Grenada W.I.

As India and Bangladesh begin the long and costly process of recovering from Cyclone Amphan, what other countries in the time of COVID-19 have the will and the resources to aid them? Look to Vanuatu, a small Pacific island state, for answers.

Vanuatu was struck last month by the most devastating cyclone in its history, but the world was distracted by a bigger disaster — COVID-19 — and aid commitments are falling far short of what is needed.

COVID-19 is showing us a harsh truth — when developed countries are distracted by disasters at home, they send less bilateral aid to developing countries, even when those countries badly need it.

COVID-19 has parallels with the climate crisis, as both are global crises that afflict developed and developing countries alike. But the COVID-19 crisis will pass, and the climate crisis will not. Bilateral aid to developing countries will surely decline and may already have peaked.

Multilateral organizations can pick up some of the slack on a temporary basis, but developing countries will have to become radically less dependent on donor support for disasters and economic growth.

Most developing countries are far from able to manage even small disasters independently, let alone function economically without large transfers.

To get there, they will need stronger economies and better governance.

Right now, aid is uncoordinated and projects are designed based on political expediency. But the best return on investment comes when several projects are focused on one sector or geographic area.

For climate resilience, aid should focus on cities and urban areas, where economic activity, government services, and infrastructure are concentrated.

Well-structured assistance programs can turn cities into hardened hubs that can survive a disaster and act as launchpads for supporting the rest of the country.

Done well, aid projects can reduce CO2 emissions (mitigation) and protect against disasters (adaptation) while also building the capacity of governments (technical training and support) and stimulating private-sector activities.

This asks for more than the business-as-usual model of aid — it requires coordination among different actors, greater engagement of local officials, and the time and patience to train people.

A model can be found in the Climate Smart Cities: Grenada program, which wraps finance around a package of mitigation and adaptation projects that focus on the capital city of St. George’s.

The program is a success, and the key is synchronization under one implementing partner, New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, and a willingness on the part of the donor, the Green Climate Fund, to try a new approach.

In Grenada, a team of experts worked with government officials and local leaders to write proposals to protect and revitalize the historic core, reinforce a coastal road, upgrade the airport and protect the tourism sector, based on the latest data on climate risks. The team then visited the slums and informal areas around the city and worked with non-profits to craft a proposal to generate jobs for young people and improve agricultural yields by managing floodwaters. Finally, they trained local leaders to make a 30-year plan to densify the city. All of these projects were packaged for funding by aid agencies.

The approach was comprehensive and thorough, grounded in science. Scaling it will be a challenge, however, because it goes against the current priorities of donors, whose work is organized by sector, not geography, and which don’t coordinate with other agencies.

More work has to be done upfront to coordinate, more control has to be given to the delivery partner and to the country, and it all has to happen much faster than is the norm for development projects. More training of local officials is needed, and less parachuting in with plans du jour and slick renderings.

But widespread implementation of programs like Climate Smart Cities: Grenada is the best way to fundamentally transform societies and economies, and that is what the climate crisis demands.

The prospect of success is tantalizing — to enable a developing country to survive a disaster on the devastating scale of Vanuatu’s cyclone, and rebuild, even when the world isn’t watching.

Patrick Lamson-Hall is a Research Scholar at the New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management and Project Coordinator of the Climate Smart Cities: Grenada program.