Climate Resilience in the Caribbean: The Perspectives of a Harvard Student 

Renata Koch Alvarenga, an MPP student at the Harvard Kennedy School, has partnered with the World Food Programme to develop policy recommendations for climate disaster preparedness in Caribbean island states. Her qualitative research has highlighted the importance of social protection in building resilience capacity.
Feb 13, 2023
By Renata Koch Alvarenga

As a climate justice advocate, I have always been interested in small island states. The effects of climate change on islands are clear, urgent, and frightening, which makes the effort of these countries in climate adaptation a form of resistance more powerful than ever. That is the reason that I spent the three weeks of my final winter break as a Harvard student learning more about the Caribbean, visiting two beautiful, yet climate-vulnerable islands: Puerto Rico and Barbados. 

While the experience in Puerto Rico was part of an insightful climate seminar hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico Río Pedras, the trip to Barbados enriched the research for my Master’s thesis on disaster-risk management and finance in the Caribbean. 

One of the most rewarding experiences of being a Master of Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, is writing our version of a Master’s thesis – the Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE) –  in which students develop policy recommendations for a client organization of their choice. My PAE is being done in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP), which is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, working directly in emergencies and through food assistance for communities in situations of conflict, instability, and disasters. 

A priority for the WFP Office in Washington D.C. is strengthening the relationship with key International Financial Institutions on disaster-risk finance in the Caribbean. This is where I come in. For the past few months, I have been meeting with experts in the region to understand the gaps and opportunities to deliver more critical funding for the islands that need it, and how to be as effective as possible in this delivery — not only supporting the post-disaster systems for adaptation, but also building resilience and improving the wellbeing of those most vulnerable to climate change. 

Climate adaptation and resilience in Caribbean countries is a matter of survival, as the region is severely and disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. Environmental disasters have large economic and human costs, which are increasingly evident in a region that is not only economically vulnerable – because of debt, a legacy of colonization, but is also more susceptible to climate risks. The average estimated disaster damage as a ratio of GDP is six times higher for Caribbean countries1

Barbados is a hub for many key agencies working across the Caribbean, including the United Nations House, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, and the World Food Programme Caribbean Multi-Country Office – which supports 22 countries and territories in the region, serving as a central office for Small Island Developing States. This is why I chose to travel to Bajan2 territory for my research. 

Besides getting to see the crystal-clear water and white sand beaches in Barbados, I had the opportunity to speak to the WFP leadership on the ground and witness their work to support the Caribbean community in preparing and adapting to the environmental disasters that strike the region every year.  

Renata Alvarenga (HKS, 23) at the WFP Multi-Country Office with Juliette Maughan, Senior Partnerships Officer

Despite having been established only in 2018, the WFP Multi-Country Office in Barbados already doubled its office size last year, which reflects  how quickly it has established itself in the region as a leading organization for disaster response. In conversations with other stakeholders on the island, such as the British Government and the Government of Barbados, I understood that WFP is widely seen as a respected and valuable institution in the region, with strong working relationships with Caribbean governments. 

I also learned that hurricane season in Barbados extends between July and November, and that preparation for this unpredictable period starts early. This is the case for many islands around the Caribbean, whose reality is characterized by deep uncertainty and vulnerability. Working on climate disaster preparedness in island states involves much more than analyzing policy and data; it demands institutions to be operational at their highest level.  

To prepare for this trip, I read extensively about social protection, which includes social assistance for those in poverty, social insurance, labor market regulations and social justice for those in marginalized contexts, protecting people from societal shocks.3 The WFP works directly with governments on enhancing their national social protection systems to manage risks and shocks. After being on the ground, I started to truly understand why social protection is key to building the resilience of those most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  

In my meeting at the Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs of the Government of Barbados, social protection for disaster-risk reduction and finance was at the heart of our discussions. Using social protection as a tool for emergency responses is clearly needed, but progress is slow across the Caribbean.  

Renata Alvarenga (HKS, 23) meets with Andre Pollard, Coordinator at the Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs, Government of Barbados

It is most common that financial resources for vulnerable countries in the region can only be accessed in the aftermath of environmental disasters, but not before, which makes it difficult to foster the capacity for resilience in these Small Islands Developing States. In Barbados, I saw potential for change  that prioritizes acting earlier in a crisis to reduce humanitarian needs before they manifest.  

As I return to Cambridge, I will continue exploring these links among social protection, disaster-risk finance and anticipatory action through conversations and research. However, I am thankful I got to witness a small part of what these challenges look like on the ground, in the beautiful island of Barbados. My conversations there will undoubtedly shape my thesis and vision for climate resilience. 

The United Nations House, in Bridgetown, Barbados.