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Small-scale fisheries are becoming a global social and environmental concern. The contribution of marine small-scale fisheries to global food security and coastal livelihoods, coupled with the significant challenges they face, has attracted increasing attention and aid from environmental organizations, philanthropies, and multilateral agencies over recent decades. Our study attends to the understudied role of the World Bank, the largest individual funder shaping present and future sustainability of coastal marine regions, as a key actor shaping global environmental governance paradigms. We asked how funding to the sector has changed over the last 50 years and why, outlining distinct patterns in the flow of small-scale fisheries aid and the underlying intervention models. We contextualize our quantitative analysis of aid patterns over time with qualitative interview data with bank staff, identifying underlying paradigm shifts driven by internal and external factors. More than $2.48 billion was allocated by the World Bank to marine fisheries over the last 50 years, approximately 47% (~$1.17 billion) of which was targeted to marine small-scale fisheries. Three distinct funding periods are identified: rising support to SSF from the 1970s to mid-1980s; a sharp decline in funding in the mid-to-late 1980s and low levels of funding throughout the 1990s; and a steady return to funding SSF in the mid-2000s up to the present. Over time, Bank-funded interventions shifted from pure economic development in the earlier era, to an emphasis on governance and multi-dimensional environmental goals in the recent period. To understand why, we used key-informant interviews to unpack major internal drivers: internal staff changes and presence of key individuals, the decentralization and recentralization of decision-making, and the organization’s shifting emphasis from traditional economic growth to multi-dimensional objectives of poverty reduction, among others. External drivers behind funding and paradigm shifts included pressure from the environmental movement, the rise of sustainable development discourses, key global environmental summits in the 1990s, and rising levels of interest in the fisheries sector by the governments of both donor and recipient countries. Processes of ‘paradigm shifts’ were not swift or singular, rather they were affected by multiple, convergent factors over time. Our findings contribute to the literature on multi-lateral institutions as key actors in environmental governance shaping global development thinking, illustrating the arc of the last half-century of fisheries aid at the Bank while highlighting present dilemmas and future challenges that actors interested in working towards sustainable marine small-scale fisheries face.