Dennis Hardy, James R. Mancham Peace and Diplomacy Research Institute, University of Seychelles
In June 2023, government ministers of ten African countries met for three days in the capital of the western Indian Ocean state of Comoros. The event concluded with ‘The Moroni Declaration’. It contended that African coastal states are on the frontline of impacts of biodiversity loss, climate change and coastal zone degradation. Ministers called for the establishment of a connected network of regenerative and inclusive coastal seascapes, forming what is known as the Great Blue Wall. And they also looked towards increased public and private investment in sustainable coastal and marine value chains, responsible fisheries, green infrastructure, ecotourism, renewable energies, and blue innovation [IUCN 29 June 2023].
At the heart of these discussions was the inventive idea of the Great Blue Wall, envisaging a network of interconnected ocean conservation measures along the East African seaboard and between island states in the region. The proposed network crosses maritime boundaries and calls for the cooperation and involvement of constituent nations. Therein lies the paradox. On the one hand, it transcends different jurisdictions, responding in kind to the seamless nature of the ocean itself; one can hardly gainsay such a vision. On the other hand, in crossing boundaries, it relies on the willingness of individual jurisdictions to act in the interests of the larger entity.
The Great Blue Wall is a multilateral concept and, while the logic behind it is sound enough, the evidence of countries working together for the sake of the planet does not inspire confidence. From the mixed record to date of multilateral organisations confronting regional challenges, to the failure of all nations to combine effectively to counter global climate change, there are good reasons to view the prospects of success in this new venture with, at the very least, a degree of caution.
Ticking all the boxes
The idea of the Great Blue Wall is rightly claimed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is intended to give a boost to ocean conservation across a region that is rich in natural resources, but which is also beset with challenges. Countries within the network include those along the East African coast – Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa – together with the islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion (through France), Comoros and Seychelles. An estimated 70 million people in coastal communities could benefit directly from the scheme, which extends over two million hectares of shared ocean space. Through concerted and sustainable policies, there is the potential to restore and conserve the sea in this region, with gains that can include the capture of 100 million tons of carbon dioxide [IUCN 14 October 2021].
First mooted at the IUCN World Congress in Marseille from 3 to 10 September 2021, the Great Blue Wall initiative was widely welcomed as a positive contribution to ocean conservation and a regenerative blue economy. James Michel, former President of Seychelles described it as a ”a unique approach for the region, Africa and the world subsequently” [IUCN Story ‘Global launch of the Great Blue Wall 10 November 2021]. From Marseille, the proposal was taken later in that same year to Glasgow, where, on the margins of COP26, it was officially launched as an ocean-based priority. Flavien Joubert, Seychelles Minister for Agriculture, Climate Change and Environment, highlighted the practicality of the Great Blue Wall: “The beauty of the Great Blue Wall initiative is that it is not a far-fetched chimera but an actionable ambition because we already have building blocks in place. It is a matter of accelerating and scaling up these national actions and catalysing investment towards this grand initiative.” In addition to the ten member countries and the IUCN, international support came from the African Union (AU), the Unted Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the World Economic Forum (WEF). In terms of a good press and strong endorsement from member countries and beyond, the Great Blue Wall could hardly have received a better start.
To demonstrate how progress could be made, very shortly after the COP26, a conference was held in Tanzania, at which the concept was explained in terms of a network of ‘seascapes’, each contributing in its own way to the value of the whole [Brief for Consultants, IUCN]. An example was offered, in the form of the “Towards a Blue Future in the Tanga-Pemba Seascape”, a project funded by the Irish Government. The idea is to create a vibrant blue economy in the north-east of Tanzania, between the mainland settlement of Tanga and the island of Pemba. Economic benefits could be expected for local communities as well as measures for different aspects of ocean conservation. The Tanga-Pemba scheme illustrates the potential development of the Great Blue Wall. It does not require a grand scheme to be put in place but can be advanced, one project at a time, according to a common plan.
Twelve months after its launch in Glasgow, on 09 November 2022, an event to mark progress with the Great Blue Wall, was held at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt. Although credit was rightly given to the IUCN for formulating the idea, it soon evolved as an African contribution to worldwide efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. At the ninth African Regional Forum for Sustainable Development 2023, in February 2023 in Niger, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, emphasised the pivotal position of Africa as the locus for the Great Blue Wall, and the largest potential beneficiary. At a time, he said, when the continent was suffering from crises like instability across the Sahel and the repercussions of a cut in wheat supplies from eastern Europe, a unified approach to the blue economy was essential as a source of relief.
But where are the building blocks?
The Great Blue Wall is a multilateral concept. It ticks all the ocean conservation boxes and is wholly comprised of African membership. What is more, it could provide a model for collaboration in other parts of the world too. Or could it? For all its undoubted strengths as an idea, it contains one inherent flaw. It is not clear how it will be implemented. Who will take the lead? What is the level of dedication needed to bring it to fruition? Is it anything more than a wish list? There has been no shortage of words. But that is not enough on its own. Something more tangible is needed to build a wall.
In principle, the obvious approach is to match like with like. The Great Blue Wall is a multilateral concept so why not complement it with a collaborative approach to delivery? There are many strands to globalisation, and multilateralism has evolved as a response in kind; world problems require more than the uncoordinated actions of individual nations. At the apex of the multilateral pyramid is the United Nations but is it anything more than symbolic? Now beyond the halfway mark, the laudable initiative to promote sustainable development across the world is failing on most if not all counts. One of the problems is that an organisation like the UN can only move as fast as its diverse membership allows. Everyone will sign up to utopian ideals but what if major players like China and India fail to implement key measures? To add to its structural weakness, the UN has also been criticised for its inherent inefficiencies – an organisation that is virtually ungovernable [The Guardian, 7 September 2017].
Similarly, the situation is replicated in its various agencies. To take just three examples, the World Health Organization (WHO) is too often mired in controversy; the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is not trusted to deliver dispassionate decisions; and the International Maritime Organization (IMA) is generally viewed as being behind the industry in its recommendations. They are all very good at arranging worldwide conferences with large numbers of delegates who eagerly await the announcement of the next major event. None of which necessarily brings about much-needed change on the ground.
In contrast with the endless talking, the Great Blue Wall needs skilled and dedicated builders. Practical people led by an enthusiastic visionary, who will be trusted to act in the best interests of all the member nations. There are certainly individuals who could fit this bill, perhaps a retired president from within the region or a secondment from an international organisation? Ocean champions like Enric Sala or the philanthropist, Dona Bertarelli, can really make things happen. But one thing is certain – unless there is outstanding leadership and a designated budget, the project will simply drift. The world cannot afford to let another opportunity slip through its fingers. It is time to be pragmatic – to adopt a unilateral approach: choose the right person, end further delay, and get on with building the wall. And, when that is achieved, follow the example with other worthwhile projects. If there’s a will, it really can be done. The time for mere wishing is over.
Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).