It began with curiosity: Why are some countries more developed than others? For Professor Pierre Failler, that question led to a globe-trotting career providing solutions to major development challenges - with a big emphasis on environmental protection. Now, the developing world may start showing developed nations the way forward - for all our sakes.
It’s the ecology, stupid
Picture a man in a suit, standing up to his neck in rising seawater.
Fragments of torn-up mangrove shrub float past him. The scrappy remains of a fishing net have hooked onto his collar in the drift. Overhead, a merciless sun beats down. He has never been so hot.
He’d like to rub the sweat from his brow. He’d love to loosen his expensive tie. He’d kill to untangle the fishing net from around his neck, where it’s beginning to tighten like a noose. He really ought to swim for safety, because the salty water is now lapping at his lips.
But he won’t, because he needs his hands for something else. Something vital. That’s why he stubbornly holds his arms above the rising tide. Clenched in each fist is a wad of banknotes. They’ll be the last thing to go under.
Still, he can’t hold on forever.
Turning the tide
For decades now, it’s become apparent that a certain view of ‘the economy’ – a focus on exploiting all useful resources, to maximise the creation of wealth at a national, regional and individual level – has sometimes been at odds with the need to protect our natural environment.
As policy across developed nations fails to keep pace with the changing climate, it can feel as if mankind’s legacy may resemble the ruins of Pompeii, or the fabled city of Atlantis – glittering achievements buried by the overwhelming force of nature.
But that’s not the full story. As the seas rise, the tide has begun to turn. And now, drowning no longer feels so inevitable.
The University of Portsmouth’s Professor Pierre Failler has spent more than 20 years making change happen. Gradually, he has helped governments to chart a different path.
Pierre is a specialist in development economics. His research focuses on environmental (or ecological) economics. It is highly practical in nature. He says:
"It’s mainly about the interfaces between the use of natural resources and the development of countries. In a concrete sense, how to help countries to be better developed.
"For instance, I’m helping many regional organisations to develop their strategy for the use of oceans and the coast. So it’s economics but it goes to policy formulation.
"Banking is part of it. For instance, there’s a lot of development in terms of green banking and green funds, to support countries to adapt themselves to climate change and develop mitigation measures."
A major area of focus for Pierre is the “blue economy”. This is about using natural ocean resources sustainably.
But the aim is not only to improve the health of the ecosystem, such as the mangrove swamps which grow in coastal regions in tropical and subtropical countries. The concept of the blue economy is also key to improving economic growth, jobs and livelihoods.
When you talk about the blue economy, people just think about making money out of the ocean, out of the mangroves. I help them to realise that the protection of environments can have more monetary value.
Pierre’s work in this field has focused on a wide range of outcomes.
"When you talk about the blue economy, people just think about making money out of the ocean, out of the mangroves. I help them to realise that the protection of environments can have more monetary value."
He offers some examples:
"You can be rewarded by green funds for protecting your mangroves, because they absorb a lot of carbon. So the mangrove itself is more valuable than cutting it down and putting shrimp farms in its place.
"Sharks is the same. You can make more money developing scuba diving among sharks than by having a dead shark and just selling the fin."
Put simply, if a nation doesn’t protect its natural resources, it may make a lot of money from exploiting them. But one day, they’ll run out.
Alternatively, if natural resources are managed well as a long-term investment, a country can build something truly sustainable.
It’s a different way of thinking about the economy. But Pierre says the argument for changing environmental policy is still often won by talk of balance sheets:
"To convince people, you need to show that the country will have a financial advantage by taking this policy. That’s a big challenge."
To convince people, you need to show that the country will have a financial advantage by taking this policy. That’s a big challenge.
Waves of change
Pierre’s research is highly practical. He is often invited by governments or United Nations agencies, to explore specific national or regional challenges.
He leads and coordinates projects that are collaborative and interdisciplinary. He assembles teams of economists, geographers, ecologists and sociologists from universities around the world, including Portsmouth, and sometimes featuring postgraduate students.
When delivering an economic evaluation, the research team typically collaborate with one institute in-country. They do field work, data analysis and write reports together.
The consequences of this research can be far-reaching.
Take a recent project to assess the value of coastal and marine ecosystems in Overseas France, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Mayotte and Réunion.
This involved evaluating the monetary value of the coral reefs and mangroves. There are three strands to evaluate:
First, the direct uses, including tourism and fisheries.
Second, the “non-uses”, which include the cultural and other non-monetary values people place on beaches and mangroves.
"But the biggest one," Pierre explains, "is what we call the indirect uses. This mainly means services provided by the ecosystems where there is no market at the moment.
"For instance, the reef protects the coast, but nobody gives money for it. If you remove the reef, the coast will be washed away very, very quickly. There would be a cost to replace it, so we take that into account.
"The mangroves eliminate a lot of pollution, so they have a water treatment function which has value. Also, they produce biomass. If you remove the mangroves you will not have any more shrimp.
"These indirect uses are the biggest values and there is no market, so nobody realised the economic importance. We show that the value of these services together is more or less the same as the agricultural or transportation sectors in this area."
The findings Pierre’s team presented led politicians to make changes. They are implementing strategies to protect the coast and increase the islands’ attractiveness to tourists.
A number of policies around pollution, both domestic and agricultural, have also been strengthened, because Pierre’s team demonstrated the higher value tourists place on environmental protections, compared to local people.
As the waves of change cross the oceans, we could find ourselves living in a rather different world.
For sustainable development, you need to develop synergies. It seems very simple – just talk to your neighbour – but people think in silos.
Pierre believes that today’s developed countries may soon take their cues on environmental economics from currently developing nations.
"In the near future, they will be in a position to show what can be done."
He cites numerous examples – from Kenya’s pioneering use of mobile apps and drones to fight malaria, to the Seychelles’ innovative deal to erase national debt in return for investing in environmental assets for coastal protection.
He has found that the biggest challenge to making change happen is coordination between different individuals, agencies and government departments.
"For sustainable development, you need to develop synergies. It seems very simple – just talk to your neighbour – but people think in silos.
"When it’s time to define a strategy, they realise, for example, that they don’t know how to make aquaculture development fit with tourism.
"It takes a lot of time, a lot of round tables and meetings to organise. You need to have a framework and it has to come from the highest level, otherwise it doesn’t work."
Pierre helps nations to develop these frameworks – like the blue economy service in Bangladesh.
But when it comes to countries working together, he encounters the same problems on a bigger scale. He hopes his research can encourage greater coordination at all levels.
What Pierre calls "making a switch in the minds of people" takes time. And so do the results of the changes:
"In Mauritania, we made recommendations about the efficiency of fisheries. Many distant water fleets were not appropriate to catch the fish. They implemented many of our recommendations readily, but it takes about 10 years to see results."
When such results may include a fisherman doubling his income, while working in new ways that protect and preserve fish stocks in the seas, they are worth the wait.
And Pierre sees the process of change speeding up, as information travels faster and formerly isolated governments become more aware of what’s going on in other countries.
Even so, he says, "There’s still a lot to do."
Anchored in Portsmouth, voyaging the world
It may take time, but Pierre is determined to keep making a difference.
"It’s important to me because you can make a dramatic change in the way people are living. At the same time, it helps to protect the environment."
He is sure of where his focus must lie:
"I’ve always been interested in why some countries are very well developed and others just are not developed at all. When you travel, it becomes evident that it is about weakness of institutions.
"When you don’t have strong institutions, you don’t have good development, or the development will benefit only a few people, not the whole country.
"So strengthening institutions is the key point for development. This is what I’m trying to do."
The work environment at the University is fantastic because it’s based on trust. You have a lot of freedom in your research, and research is now the engine of the University.
His research takes him all around the world, all year round, but Pierre is clear that Portsmouth is 'the perfect place' to base himself.
"The work environment at the University is fantastic because it’s based on trust. You have a lot of freedom in your research, and research is now the engine of the University.
"We have the capacity to develop very strong ocean research. We live by the sea. We have a good marina. We have very good people."
Thanks to Pierre Failler’s research, the future looks brighter than it has in a long time – not just for the University of Portsmouth, but for developing nations across the globe. And, ultimately, for the planet.
Picture Pierre Failler on a distant beach. He’s just arrived in a country far from Britain, to work on another project. He’s gone straight to the water, for a swim – it’s his cure for jetlag.
He wades in deeper, arms outstretched and you see he’s not drowning, but waving.
Come on in. The water is lovely.