Leveraging the Blue Economy for Gender Equality in Samoa

By Kanni Wignaraja and Aliona Niculita

October 15, 2023

The women of Lu'ua, Faga preparing the tray of limu or seaweed to be taken to the sea for cultivating

Photo: UNDP Samoa

Renowned Pacific writer, Epeli Hau’ofa, summed up perfectly the Pacific Islands’ deep ties to the sea when he wrote: Oceania is us. We are the sea. We are the ocean. We should not be defined by the smallness of our islands, but the greatness of our oceans.

This is the lens through which the Pacific Islands see the Blue Economy – an existential issue that will determine the economy, nourishment, culture and identity of its people. In 2017, Pacific Forum Leaders endorsed the “Blue Pacific” identity to reaffirm the collective identity and connections of Pacific peoples with their ocean environment.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines the Blue Economy as the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, jobs, and social and financial inclusion, with a focus on the preservation as well as restoration of the health of ocean ecosystems. It is a relatively new paradigm in the development discourse that focuses on the use and management of ocean and marine resources, balancing the aims of growth and environmental sustainability. It covers a wide range of economic activities including fisheries and aquaculture, marine protected areas, ports and shipping, coastal infrastructure development, renewable energy, marine tourism, and more.

With the economic potential of the oceans and the seas being better analysed and measured today, many island countries are investing greater financial, technological, and human capital to develop maritime economies and leverage their unique ocean resources. Samoa for instance has adopted the Samoa Ocean Strategy (SOS) 2020-30, and both the island nations of Niue and Tokelau are developing sustainable Blue Economy strategies.

The success of these strategies cannot rest on governments alone and will depend on joint and coordinated efforts of a wide range of partners – domestic business, international multinationals and the bilateral and multilateral partners involved. It must embed and centre on the communities, and most importantly the women, whose lives and livelihoods depend on these waters.    

According to a 2020 World Bank report on Gender Integration in the Blue Economy portfolio – Review of Experiences and Future Opportunities, women play a particularly significant role in the balance we are seeking in managing Blue Economy sectors, encompassing activities in fisheries, aquaculture, processing, trading of marine products, waste management, coastal tourism, marine conservation, and coastal disaster risk reduction. Yet, gender norms often prevent women from developing and contributing to their full potential. While this is true for many other sectors as well, given Samoa’s dependence on optimizing the benefits of the blue economy, this obstruction hurts even more.  

International efforts have shown that the more effective integration of women in coastal economies, with empowered roles in both economic and conservation activity, brings significant value to make both ends work.  Therefore, a key question is how can we best leverage Blue Economy initiatives to promote and foster gender equality?

Social and cultural aspects of the Blue Economy often remain absent in the policy and investment discourse. It is our collective responsibility to change this and bring in issues of equity and justice, local cultural traditions, and the differentiated impacts of development strategies on men and women. This would also steer Pacific Islands towards a more balanced approach to benefitting from their oceans and seas. And some are realizing the tremendous short- and longer-term benefits of doing so.

A critical related aspect to ensure these conversations and intentions move into policy-making must also be the addressing of women representation in national and local policy making, in the Pacific. Women are seriously underrepresented in Pacific nation policy and decision-making forums, and hence their voice is not heard on these issues. According to the latest data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union this month, the average percentage of women in Pacific national parliaments is currently 6.7 percent, far below the global average of 26.7 percent. It is critical that we put gender considerations at the centre of our combined efforts to realize the full potential of the Blue Economy in the Pacific.

Recently, Samoa, through UNDP, completed a study on women’s unpaid care work, the Samoa Pilot Time Use Study Report, which can provide a basis to help promote more economic and social opportunities for women. UNDP works with our partners to promote the design of gender-responsive policies and service delivery and support building women’s, men’s, and institutions’ capacities, knowledge, and skills to enhance gender equality. We will bring this effort also to address gender disparities in the Blue Economy.

For instance, UNDP has joined hands with the Government of Samoa, through the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and supported by Japan, to scale up the production of limu or edible seaweed. This industry is mainly run by women and youth. Due to its popularity and income-generating potential, limu was explored as a viable economic activity for coastal communities in Upolu and Savaii. The project takes an integrated approach that addresses gender empowerment, income generation, natural resource conservation, and export promotion, in alignment with the Samoa Ocean Strategy.  

Interventions such as this, which gives voice and agency to women, can be upscaled to leverage the Blue Economy for gender equality, in Samoa and elsewhere. This was the vision of Epeli Hau’ofa that must continue to define and enrich the way for current and future generations of Samoan – both men and women, equally.

Kanni Wignaraja is UN Assistant Secretary General and UNDP Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, and Aliona Niculita is UNDP Resident Representative-designate for the Samoa Multi-Country Office.