This item was first published on March 29th, 2015

We have heard a lot about resilience in Vanuatu since the passage of Cyclone Pam, during the 13th and 14th March. I referenced it in a post I wrote a few days after I returned to the country. It has been mentioned with approbation by politicians, decision-makers, UN aid workers and many more.

It is important to understand that resilience, whether of individuals, communities, organisations or states, is not a given. Resilience needs to be supported and preserved. By its very nature, resilience is something that operates over time and so it is important to think and act carefully in the immediate and short term to minimise the risks of undermining longer term resilience.

To date, little has been said about state resilience. Vanuatu, like other Melanesian countries, is often characterised as being relatively weak in terms of state capacity. It is certainly the case that beyond the capital city Port Vila the state’s presence is not extensive. There are schools, aid posts and sometimes police posts. They are often closed because there is no-one to staff them or there are no resources to allow for service delivery. Critical infrastructure, including roads, bridges, wharves and airstrips is poorly maintained and likely to be out of action especially when weather conditions deteriorate. All of these conditions pertained long before the arrival of Cyclone Pam.

So how resilient has the state of Vanuatu proved to be in the face of this event, the most significant natural disaster to strike the country in its (almost) 35 years of existence? In the 2+ weeks of immediate response, the machinery of government showed great resilience by showing up and taking control of the emergency response. Further to previous investment in the National Disaster Management Office, including through support from the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team, a coordinated and planned approach to assessment and distribution was able to be implemented from day one.

However, as we move to the medium and longer term, gaps in the resilience of state agencies are likely to appear. The public servants who are needed to lead the government’s work in coordination of aid are largely unavailable as they are working within the Emergency Operations Centre on distributing aid. Donors often complain that the central agency responsible for coordinating aid to Vanuatu does little in this regard. The public servants that work within this unit complain that donors do not do enough to comply with what they want to see happen in terms of coordination. The truth of the matter no doubt lies somewhere between these two positions. However, now more than ever, the people of Vanuatu need their government and the country’s donor partners to work together to deliver aid in ways that not only preserve state capacity but capitalise on opportunities to enhance it.

The politics of aid are well known and we have seen them play out in Vanuatu and the wider region or more than one occasion. It is too idealistic to think that all of the mistakes of the past will be avoided in Vanuatu over the coming weeks, months and years. And it is too cynical to say that there is nothing that can be done to prevent the aid circus from overrunning local leadership.

The path for government, policy makers, donors and those who advise them needs to be one based on putting the long term interests of the country and people of Vanuatu first and being committed for the long haul. There are a number of principles that I believe can and should underpin future decisions and developments on all sides. They include:

  • Investing in knowledge aggregation and sharing drawing on expertise, innovative thinking and experience from a wide range of sources.
  • Working with what is already in place, to achieve better multiplier effects and returns on previous and current investments.
  • Taking all steps available to reduce transaction costs in country
  • Managing the risks associated with individuals and organisations manipulating situations to prosecute vested interests rather than achieving objectives of national importance.
 

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