Stunning beaches and sea views on the beaches of Barbados © PIXABAY

Barbados: a tropical paradise and strong diplomatic force
Matthew Wilson, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Barbados to the United Nations, reveals his hopes for the future of his country
1 Jul 2023

How did you reach the position of Permanent Representative of Barbados at the UN in Geneva?

With a bit of luck, the support of mentors, a lot of hard work and a passion for representing my small, but powerful country of 260,000 people.

I began my career as a foreign service officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Barbados and was first posted to Geneva in 2002 at the Permanent Mission where I focused on trade negotiations, discussions in the then Human Rights Commission and at the ILO.

Then, I took a little break for a while to see life from the other side. First at the World Trade Organization where I focused on Aid for Trade and development including in the cabinet of then WTO Director General Pascal Lamy, and then as Chief of Staff to Arancha González the former Executive Director at the International Trade Center, where I got a much better sense of the impact of trade on the ground and the need to invest more in MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Sized Enterprises) especially those that are youth and women led. I then worked on partnerships and diversity and inclusion at the ITC before I was offered the opportunity to come full circle to the Barbados Permanent Mission here as Ambassador and Permanent Representative.

Leadership matters, vision matters, contributing to the global commons matters and I saw all of this in the direction that Barbados was moving to and I wanted to be part of that ride and to contribute in whatever way I could.

What are the main highlights of your career?

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the career I’ve had so far. Representing my country, and especially representing one like Barbados is really a privilege.

My career has been all about experiencing, learning, and then giving that back to other people so they can also benefit from what I have been able to learn from. I think mentoring is something which I feel really strongly about. We need to encourage discussions around diversity and inclusion and give people the permission and space to do so. 

It’s an incredible privilege and my aim is to do the best for my country, but importantly to contribute to the global commons. 

Now that you are outside the system, what is your view on the UN and the impact it has on the world?

The world needs the United Nations and its agencies, including the World Trade Organization. Small countries in particular need the UN. It provides a platform for diverse voices to be heard and for all to be part of global decision-making. Without these multilateral platforms many developing countries would continue to be rule takers, continue to see their specificities and priorities sidelined, and quite frankly global decision and policy making would be a lot less diverse. We need the UN, the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions and this is why we also need to be part of the efforts to help them to reform and be more relevant and reactive to the priorities of the full membership.

This is fundamental to the Bridgetown Initiative that has been the brainchild of Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley and her team: to have a global architecture fit for purpose.

The UN has values that many of us can agree with: equality, focusing on peace rather than on conflict, championing the importance of economic and social development, gender equity, and youth entrepreneurship.

Is there more that I think the UN and its agencies can do? Yes, a greater focus on demand driven capacity building, on creating rules that speak to the needs of the most vulnerable countries and communities and a need to be more reflective in its staffing of the countries and the people it serves. This means we need to have more diversity in the Secretariat, not just in terms of gender, but in terms of language, culture and background. This adds to the richness of the United Nations that reflects all of us.

Do you think member states, including small, developing islands like your country, can play a role in pushing for more diversity, equity and inclusion in the UN and its agencies?

Smaller countries need to be more involved but the UN needs to be sensitive to the capacity constraints they face as well. We need to strive for that sweet spot where smaller players can become more involved in decision-making, put more candidates forward for some of these global agencies, create greater linkages with academia and civil society in country so they can see how the UN can work for ordinary people on the ground. More importantly, we need the UN to be more intentional in building on traditional expertise and knowledge in developing countries and ensuring that capacity building really does build sustainable toolboxes in vulnerable countries and communities where there can be less dependence on external support.

We also need everyone to be more intentional in calling for gender equality, at all levels. Here I applaud the Secretary-General for his progress on the gender score card and want to see this replicated around diversity and geographical representation and clearer policies to address racism, prejudice of all kinds and harassment in the workplace.

What is your agenda as an ambassador here in Geneva, regarding climate change, and also the global agendas that Barbados has interest in developing?

My main agenda is advocacy as it’s very difficult for some larger countries to understand what it means to live in a small island at the frontline of the climate crisis. Rising sea levels will destroy coastal communities, the warming ocean will have a massive impact on biodiversity, on fisheries, and lead to increased hurricanes. The rising temperatures will have an impact on productivity, and on capital equipment. It really is an existential crisis. Caribbean, African and Pacific ambassadors must lead the charge for advocacy.

Secondly, issues around capacity-building and access to finance. The problem with small countries like those in the Caribbean is that because we have relatively high GDP per capita, we are not able to access finance on concessional terms, even though we have clear vulnerabilities. One thing we’ve been trying to do here as ambassadors for the Carribbean is to get our major funders and donors (including within the UN and WTO) to understand we need support. We don’t want to dilute the critical support going to least developed countries, but there needs to be certain windows for SIDS who have clear needs around climate finance agriculture, industrial investments and access to green technology.

And then the third point is to make sure that discussions don’t happen in silos. So I’m really happy when I hear the High Commissioner for Human Rights speak about the need for a discussion on the climate crisis and human rights. I want to ensure that the global trade rules set at the WTO align with our environmental commitments to achieve low carbon emissions.

Barbados is known for its touristic, beautiful places, but apart from what we see from the internet, and the pictures, what are the aspects of your culture that you are so proud of?

Two years ago we became a republic. We now have a Barbadian Head of State. Why is this important? Because it means that every single Barbadian can aspire to one day become President of their own country. Secondly, we have a very rich cultural heritage: music, entertainment, culinary arts and of course Barbados is the birthplace of rum- the best rum in the world!

In summary, I would say come for the beaches, but also come for the culture, the food, the conference facilities, the history, the architecture. It really is a place where people can live and do business very comfortably. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
Read more articles about DIPLOMACY