World Bank and a New Partnership for Global Oceans

Some months ago, I received an email from a representative of The Economist magazine office in Hong Kong regarding the organization of a global conference on the ocean under their sponsorship. I was surprised, to say the least, that my advice might be sought, and took some time to give it. My hope was that they would transcend the typical agenda, look as they so often do presciently into the future, and perhaps frame their meeting in new terms with other than predictable participants. Naïve beyond my years, ideas and individuals were suggested, taken under advisement by higher-ups, and rejected. The conference, held in Singapore, has now concluded and its agenda reveals, I suppose predictably, the usual suspects, topics, and points of view. So it goes.

One important participant organization, however, was The World Bank, represented by their President, Robert B. Zoellick. Now we all know that The World Bank is a formidable player in the evolution and implementation of international public policy, translating theories and ideas into significant investments that can, and often do, implement change, for better or for worse. The Bank, funded primarily by the northern and western donor economies, is a giant financial force in our world, with the power of the purse to advance new projects and applications globally, although most often in the developing nations.  When the Bank sets it sights on a problem, things move and shake through the inexorable power of money.

Thus, when Zoellick announced at the Economist conference that the Bank was turning its attention to the ocean, it was real news, $1.5 billion worth of news, an enormous amount to be invested through a new Global Partnership for Oceans, into what one hoped would be new ideas, new strategies, and new solutions. In his remarks,  Zoellick stated, “As a starting point, the Global Partnership for Oceans is committed to mobilizing at least $300 million in catalytic finance.  These are funds that would be used for technical assistance to support key governance reforms that can create the necessary incentives for long-term investment in oceans, as well as to help operate marine protected areas, and monitor and communicate lessons learned. Working with governments, the scientific community, civil society organizations, and the private sector, we aim to leverage as much as $1.2 billion to support healthy and sustainable oceans.  This would total $1.5 billion in new commitments over five years.” Impressive, and surely useful.

But when you read further, you begin to wonder if this grand design is anything more than a new overlay on what already is? For example, all the players, the members of the “new” partnership, are the same organizations as before. Zoellick continues, “Conservation International, the National Geographic Society, The Nature Conservancy, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and Rare Conservation are prepared to add their expertise, great capacity for innovation, and advocacy… The Global Environment Facility, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, the UN Development Program, UN Environment Program, and Food and Agriculture Organization are committed to working with the Partnership.” In other words, these organizations will align their existing agendas with the new resources, an injection of new funding for the same ideas designed and implemented by the same people as before.  I do not wish to denigrate the work of these NGO’s and agencies; they are well-intended, well-funded, and successful in many, many ways.  But they, and their strategies, have been in play for decades, and to what avail? In that time, the deterioration of the ocean has continued on every front.

Here are the key issues to be addressed under this initiative: marine protected areas, rights-based fishing, wealth accounting, aquaculture, seafood certification, and pollution. It is true that some progress has been made with protected areas – new areas added yes, but in aggregate inconsequential to the total necessary to make a difference. Aquaculture methods and standards have been improved; many of us carry those cards in our wallets indicating what seafood is certified or sustainable. Rights based fishing is an adaptation of a concept long-advocated by indigenous peoples which has shown some success in some areas in comparison with other regimes previously advocated by these same organizations. Coastal pollution continues unabated. And wealth accounting, otherwise known as ecosystem service analysis, is still an economic and planning tool in its infancy. Why is it that this whole thing seems to me nothing more than re-packaging the status quo in a new, more glossy wrapper?

Zoellick announced the convening of the Global Partnership at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC in April. There will be another meeting.

Peter Neill | March 24, 2012