One could almost be forgiven for thinking that we currently live in the era of the ‘big’ judging from the number of analyses devoted to big players on the world stage, ranging from the rise of giants such as China and India to the “lions on the move”, the African continent; from financial institutions which ought to be ‘too big to fail’ to trans-national corporations whose value chains span several countries. Against this backdrop, last year, the UN dedicated the year to the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) instead and convened the 3rd International Conference on SIDS in Samoa to put them firmly on the map, highlighting the management and development of the oceans as a key area where they could show great leadership. SIDS Youth have a particularly crucial role to play in contributing meaningful new solutions to find new modes of governance for oceans.

Oceans represent one exciting new frontier to secure food, energy, employment and natural resources for 9 billion people. People are already benefitting from the ecosystem services, trade links, and resources provided by the ocean. Consider, for instance: the process of photosynthesis by the phytoplankton present in the sea generates between 50 to 85% of the oxygen we breathe. In economic terms, oceanic natural services are worth $21 trillion a year - with fisheries alone contributing over $102 billion a year - an important source of revenue and protein for people in developing countries. In addition to this, oceans provide exciting new avenues for growth and development: marine and offshore energy could ease countries towards energy sovereignty; living and non-living organisms contained within the ocean and its seabed can be the basis for new pharmaceutical research; not to mention that the more discoveries we make about the ocean, the closer we get to understanding key facts about the origins of planet Earth.

This comes with a caveat.

Notwithstanding the seeming endlessness of the ocean as a treasure trove, our waters are facing crucial threats from human activities - unsustainable fisheries have brought over 80% of fish stocks to the point of depletion while marine pollution has reached an all-time high, with over 6.4 million tons of debris, mostly plastic waste, ending up in the oceans in addition to chemicals and toxic waste from agricultural and industrial run-offs. It is clear that new modes of using and accessing the ocean are needed with urgency.

This is where SIDS youth come in. Being endowed with limited land masses but large areas of ocean over which they have jurisdiction, SIDS are well and truly the guardians of large ocean spaces. Their proximity to, and vulnerability from, the ocean makes SIDS perfectly attuned to the access to, and usage and stewardship of, the ocean.

At present, crucial gaps in governance, information and skills are preventing an innovative use of ocean resources. For instance, it is difficult to monitor unsustainable fishing activities, and it is equally costly to undertake surveys of the mineral and biological wealth in the ocean, or to find ways to reduce plastic waste. One of the biggest challenges to addressing these gaps is that this requires collaborative approaches which reduce data asymmetry, transform consumption and production patterns, and set us firmly on the path to sustainable development.

For this reason, the participation of SIDS youth in the crafting of governance of oceans brings with it the potential of utilising the connective power of social media and online tools to raise awareness about the oceans, generate information and relevant data, and help keep tabs on processes which could potentially have an adverse impact on oceans, for instance mining, or opaque royalty systems. The entrepreneurial drive of youth, with the right encouragement, capital and ecosystem, could be tapped into finding solutions that link consumers with products derived from the ocean, or showcase where the inputs into our production processes end up. By doing so, youth could be helping to boost the interaction, of people from all parts of the world, with the ocean, thus allowing for a greater recognition of the value which oceans provide.

With a membership of 32 SIDS and a predominantly youthful population, the Commonwealth is uniquely positioned to allow youth to connect and develop new forms of leadership for the ocean. In other words, while the health of the ocean stands at a crossroads, youth in Commonwealth SIDS have every reason to consider themselves as ambassadors for the ocean, and to advocate for its cause.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.


Barkha is an advocate for the sustainable development of small island states. She has launched several projects including an initiative to harness social media for sustainable development and another raising awareness of ocean issues. She has a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Scholarship and is one of the first ever Queen's Young Leaders.