Opinion: Ocean investments must reach developing countries

Funders put billions into the ‘blue economy’ but are ignoring its core principles of equity and sustainability, says Essam Yassin Mohammed
<p>The blue economy as seen from Mindelo harbour on São Vicente island, Cabo Verde. Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America all currently receive only a fraction of global blue economy investments (Image: Juan Vilata / Alamy)</p>

The blue economy as seen from Mindelo harbour on São Vicente island, Cabo Verde. Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America all currently receive only a fraction of global blue economy investments (Image: Juan Vilata / Alamy)

It is often said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Yet, when it comes to investment in the ocean, this tide is rising predominantly in the Global North.

From supporting economic growth and livelihoods to protecting the health of the ocean and its vital biodiversity, such investments must be built on principles of equity and sustainability. Indeed, consideration of these principles is generally part of the definition of a ‘sustainable blue economy’, as distinct from a broader ‘ocean economy’ encompassing all things marine.

Yet, despite its foundational principles, nearly USD 6 billion of investments labelled as being part of the blue economy between 2017 and 2021 have largely been skewed towards Europe and Central Asia. These regions received USD 4.4 billion, according to analysis by an international team of researchers, of which I was part. Moreover, blue economy renewable energy projects – mostly offshore wind – have attracted more than half of that global total.

What is the ‘blue economy’?

The World Bank defines the blue economy as sustainable use of the ocean “for economic growth, improved livelihoods and job creation, while preserving the health of ocean ecosystems”.

Other critical marine sectors in the Global South have been sorely neglected. Aquatic foods, for example, received less than 10% of the total blue economy finance we examined. This is despite it playing a growing role in meeting demand for sustainable sources of food and income, especially in low-income countries.

Our analysis also identified several “red flags”, indicating investments that risk undermining the rights and opportunities of coastal communities in the Global South. These include concerns that projects could increase private control over previously public assets, aggravate existing inequalities, and exclude local communities from coastal areas. Most red flags – 136 of 229 – were for the first of those problems, which we term enclosure.

Three steps to a better blue economy

Some three billion people worldwide rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, with ocean-based sectors accounting for up to 11% of GDP in lower-to-middle-income countries, compared to just 2% in high-income countries. To maximise the potential of the blue economy to create a more sustainable future and shared global prosperity, donors and investors must correct their course now to avoid leaving developing countries in their wake.

Firstly, there needs to be greater transparency. Our analysis was limited to money labelled specifically by governments, NGOs, and investors as “blue economy finance”. But it is clear that many more ocean investments are not labelled as such, preventing holistic scrutiny over money flows and impacts.

All interested parties – from governments to investors and the public at large – need better access to clear, detailed information about where money invested in the oceans is going, and what these investments are achieving. The “blue economy” label should be accompanied by transparency on sources of funding and potential beneficiaries of projects.

By enshrining transparency as a core principle of the blue economy, governments and funders can foster greater accountability. This will help ensure that projects and initiatives genuinely adhere to sustainable and equitable practices, and do not leave the most vulnerable communities behind.

Secondly, governments and funders must ensure that blue economy investments are shared more equitably around the world.

Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Latin America all have rich marine ecosystems that support the livelihoods and food security of millions, but these regions receive only a fraction of blue economy investments. Of the investments directed towards specific geographies, these regions received just USD 750 million, or around 12% of total blue economy finance. If anything, Global South countries and regions need proportionately more investment in the blue economy, as they depend more heavily on the ocean-based economy yet rank among the most exposed to climate hazards that impact marine health.

For instance, while aquatic food systems are essential in addressing poverty and rising food insecurity in South Asia, blue economy initiatives in the region account for just 0.1% of global blue economy investments. This is a clear disparity that must be urgently addressed through more equitable finance flows.

Finally, governments and funders must rebalance investments into more sectors to help build a more diverse, equitable and impactful blue economy.

At present, just over half of the USD 6 billion invested into the blue economy in recent years has gone to marine-based renewable energy initiatives. This has left other critical sectors with minimal support, such as ocean conservation, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture (known together as aquatic foods), and climate adaptation. For example, the aquatic foods sector received USD 585 million and conservation just USD 89 million, compared to USD 3.1 billion for renewable energy.

It is imperative to boost funding for a range of different initiatives to ensure that the blue economy generates benefits for all people around the world. This includes community-led conservation projects, sustainable fisheries management, and initiatives that build the resilience of vulnerable coastal communities to climate change.

The blue economy is increasingly becoming recognised for its untapped potential to support sustainable livelihoods, biodiversity and food security. But delivering on this promise will only be possible with fair and equitable investments that leave no one behind.

Events such as the forthcoming International Institute of Fisheries Economics & Trade (IIFET) Conference from 15-19 July in Penang, Malaysia, offer important opportunities to re-align and deliver on the promise of a resilient blue economy. This includes reaffirming a commitment to the principles of the blue economy and collectively identifying strategies to increase transparency, equity and investments across the sector.

Doing this will help unlock shared prosperity for people and planet across all corners of the ocean.