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Could participatory approaches make the blue economy more inclusive?

Nihad Ahmed, Research and Policy Intern, Nesta

As part of SIC’s work on social innovation policy, we have been exploring how more participatory policy approaches - approaches that involve more citizens and others ordinarily excluded in the policymaking process - could help improve responses to some of the key policy challenges of our time. The blue economy is one such issue which illustrates the benefits of applying these approaches. It is a concept which, in spite of its bottom-up beginnings, has been largely pursued using top-down policy strategies.

The blue economy emerged from the urgent need to manage our marine resources more sustainably. The concept is not intended to achieve environmental goals alone however.  Over 40 percent of the global population depend on ocean resources for their survival, and so the blue economy has also been presented as an instrument for better serving the interests of these populations. Yet to date, the voice of those concerned has been missing from the debate, and a question remains about how likely it is that the blue economy can deliver its social and environmental promise unless more participatory policy approaches are adopted.

Why the blue economy?

Driven by strong calls from small island developing states and coastal economies, the concept of the blue economy arose out of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development to address the issue that the green economy wasn’t giving adequate attention to the needs of ocean management and coastal populations. Proponents of the concept sought an alternative model that would address some of the greatest stresses being placed on marine and coastal resources: in particular how current consumption levels in rich countries have shifted undue harm onto ocean ecosystems and the populations whose survival depends upon them. This has been felt by the poorest and most vulnerable in developing countries, who have suffered the worst effects of waste and pollution, and in many cases, have lost their livelihoods to big industrial projects. But the issue goes far beyond impacting ocean-based economies - in fact, entire islands are being submerged and large swathes of land eroded as a result of rising sea levels.

The concept’s timeliness is clear. It has been adopted widely by governments and major players in the global policy arena, including the World Bank, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the EU and the African Union. And since being launched as part of the SDGs, the concept has shown promise as way of improving policies and processes for the long-term management of fisheries and aquaculture.

The need for more participatory approaches

Achieving the social and environmental promise of the blue economy however requires more than institutional buy-in. It requires that the voice and experiences of those communities whose livelihoods and food sovereignty depend most on ocean and coastal resources are taken into account. To date financial institutions, large private corporations and big conservation agencies have been invited to join in discussions and shape the blue economy policy agenda. At the same time, these same consultations have failed to involve indigenous, vulnerable and marginalised communities most impacted by any proposed changes on ocean and coastal management in the process. For example, small-scale fisheries, who account for over 90 percent of the world’s capture fishers and fish workers have already expressed their concern about being excluded from the process of reforming fisheries management.

Without a voice in the process, there are fears about the negative consequences that privatising access to fish resources will have. The measures, which use forms of rights-based management such as international transferable quotas (ITQs) are intended to restore depleted fish stocks, strengthen food security and incentivise long term sustainability of fisheries. However cases worldwide have shown that ITQs have not had a favourable track record in practice. These approaches fail to support inclusive fishery policy outcomes, tending to favour large-scale industrial fisheries while preventing the safeguarding of small-scale fishers.  When ITQs were introduced in Chile, for instance, they put 90 percent of quotas in the hands of just four conglomerates. Meanwhile in Iceland, they resulted in ten of the biggest fishing companies owning more than 50 percent of the quotas – and are thought to have played a key role in the country’s financial crisis of 2008.

Achieving blue economy goals - from the bottom-up

There are some examples which show promise that more human-centred approaches to the blue economy are possible. Take for example the FAO’s “Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries” The Guidelines are intended to support the visibility, recognition and enhancement of the role of small-scale fisheries and to contribute to global and national efforts to realise food security and poverty eradication. To ensure the needs of vulnerable and marginalised groups were placed at the heart of the process, a participatory approach was adopted and representatives from small-scale fishing communities and other relevant stakeholders were consulted in order to co-define these principles and guidelines. The TRY Oyster Women’s Association in The Gambia is another example of the kind of socially innovative approach needed to address the challenges posed by coastal erosion and degradation in an inclusive manner. Through education and training, marginalised female oyster harvesters have been empowered to sustainably manage delicate mangrove ecosystems in a way that genuinely takes into account their needs.

These examples show real promise in how the social and environmental goals of the blue economy might be supported using more inclusive, participatory means. Moving ahead, it’s essential that communities that have relied for generations on the ocean's natural resources for their survival play an active role in designing and implementing ocean and coastal conservation programmes. Top-down and one-size-fits-all conservation strategies are almost certainly doomed to fail. Instead, participatory approaches present an opportunity to advance blue economy responses that are experimental, and which respond to the local challenges by drawing on the knowledge, insight and participation of local communities. Only then can the social and environmental goals of the blue economy be fully realised.


We’re interested in hearing from policymakers who are applying HCD or other social innovation approaches to policy. Please join in the wider conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #socinnpolicy to share your own experience