River deep, mountain high

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 26th, 2017

Over the last little while, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people in which the issue of geography has played a key part. In particular, how the physical geography of Pacific island countries affects development.

When we think about the ‘context’ of development in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries, we often talk about politics, cultural structures, economic challenges, gaps in capacity and so on. But often the context of the physical terrain in which people are trying to work is overlooked. Until it becomes apparent that it can no longer be disregarded. Because it is there, in all its glory, getting in the way of what we are trying to do.

When I hear stories of how people had to walk for 20 minutes up a mountain to take books to a school or how their project was delayed because a road was washed out and they couldn’t get building supplies to a site I usually respond by saying ‘Good’.

Not that I wish physical hardship, delay and general frustration on people generally. My reasoning for thinking it is good to hear this type of report goes like this:

We often hear (especially from ‘donors’ of all types) that the reason development is slow or non-existent in rural areas is because of corrupt governments, lazy public servants, a lack of capacity, or a combination of all three. But the geographical realities of Vanuatu and many other countries in the Pacific island region mean that even if we had a perfect government and a public service filled with well-qualified and committed people, it would still be hard. Really hard.

Don’t get me wrong, getting rid of corruption and making government systems more efficient and effective will almost certainly makes things easIER. But it won’t make them easy.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that the geography, physical terrain and all that goes with it has. It affects the extent to which government can deliver services. It is a key factor in whether businesses can start and grow. It has a big impact on how communities access essential services. It affects planning, costs (hugely), staffing, and so much more.

For people who have never lived or spent much time in rural and remote areas, it can come as a shock just how much of an impact things like rivers, mountains, coastlines and volcanoes can have on getting things done. And that is before you add in the effects of weather. General weather brings its own set of circumstances to deal with and then there are the extra impacts specific events like cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides will have.

There are some indications that technological innovation can assist in overcoming some of the challenges. Vanuatu’s ‘Universal Access Policy’ envisages more than 90% of the population having access to broadband internet by the beginning of next year. Access to internet provides new opportunities in terms of how education, health and other services are delivered in hard to reach areas.

I’ve been at the airport in February and seen the boxes of books the Ministry of Education is trying to get to schools all over the country. It is a time-consuming and very expensive exercise. If resources can be delivered virtually using the internet that could be a real breakthrough.

There are also opportunities for government and donors to partner with private sector operators to overcome challenges of remoteness and difficult terrain.

One of the most important areas of partnership could be around knowledge sharing. If I were going to build a school in a remote area of Vanuatu, I would have whoever has built a shop or a resort in the same location as top of the list of people to talk to.

They will have really useful information about how to get materials to where they are needed. They are likely to know what skills are or are not available in the local area. This sort of knowledge, held in the heads of people who have already done this sort of exercise is worth its weight in gold. Or it should be.

The physical nature of our country is what it is. It is a source of many gifts, which we value greatly. It is also a provider of many challenges.


Lessons to learn

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on May 12th, 2017.

In the days leading up to the arrival of Cyclone Donna in Vanuatu, I tweeted that anyone who was expecting to assist the government of Vanuatu with a response effort should do some pre-reading.

The recommended reading was a report that was released in February 2017 by the Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE). It is called ‘Humanitarian Assistance in the Pacific: An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Australia’s Response to Cyclone Pam’.

By its nature, this report is quite limited because it looks only at the humanitarian response by Australia. However, it covers all the aspects of this response: the work done by and through the Australian High Commission, military contributions and responses by NGOs.

I was one of the people consulted by the authors of this report when they visited Vanuatu during 2016. Overall, I feel the report does a good job of identifying how disaster response can and should be improved in the future. Although the focus of the report is response by Australia, many of the points that are identified can and should inform future responses by other partners.

The ODE is an independent unit within of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the agency who is responsible for delivery of Australian’s aid programme. The ODE has a reputation for providing robust assessments, including identification of areas where things have gone wrong or not gone as well as they could have done.

The report is available online and the executive summary contains five recommendations for future activities in this area. Notably, in its ‘management response’ DFAT expresses agreement with all of the recommendations.

Some of the suggested improvements intended to progress the recommendations are ones that I have advocated previously. I have certainly observed steps that have been taken to put some of them into practice. But there is more to be done on all sides of the equation.

Recommendation 1 reads:


• defining what is meant by localisation and unifying implementing partners around a common understanding of localisation

• identifying in advance of a crisis local, national and regional partners, including private sector and civil society actors, that could contribute effectively to a humanitarian response, as well as mechanisms that could be used to support them in the event of a crisis

• exploring possible options for Pacific crisis response teams.

The first aspect of this recommendation neatly summarises an ongoing issue in this area. It is how to achieve effective coordination within and between sectors. Whether DFAT is able to do the required ‘unifying’ or is the best agency to even attempt such a thing is open to question.

Moving on to the second aspect of this recommendation, this is something that needs to be at the heart of improved disaster responses in Vanuatu and elsewhere in our region. The support mechanisms should include facilitating the participation of appropriate actors, including those from within the private sector, in response activities. This will provide access to a wider range of local knowledge than might otherwise be the case.

Since the passage of Cyclone Pam, DFAT has established a pilot project with the Australian Red Cross. This initiative is working to develop systems and to facilitate more and better contribution by the local private sector to humanitarian responses. I look forward to learning more about how this pilot develops and how the knowledge learned can be shared with other Pacific island countries.

The third aspect of this recommendation echoes some of what was contained in a submission I co-authored with Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos.

The submission was made last year through the public policy process under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.

Our submission recommended the establishment of a Pacific Disaster Response and Coordination Unit (PDRCU). One of the anticipated functions of this unit was to maintain a database of professionals and organisations that are located within the region whose skills and expertise can be mobilised on an intra-regional basis. This would include contributors from numerous sectors including public servants, the private sector and civil society (including traditional leaders and the churches).

A mechanism of this type would form the basis of Pacific response teams as referenced in the ODE report. This, in turn, allows for the ‘lessons learned’ about preparing for and responding to disasters to remain in our region and contribute to increased local skills and expertise.

As acknowledged in the ODE report, responding to natural disasters is the responsibility of national governments. National leadership needs to be recognised and accepted by all partners. It must be exercised appropriately and responsibly. There are many lessons to learn.


Building back better: state business relations in Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

Yesterday evening the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (VCCI) convened a meeting, open to its entire membership. The purpose was for the Chamber’s council to hear from members about how their businesses had been affected by Cyclone Pam and what business owners felt was required, whether from government or donor partners, in order for them to rebuild.

Some of the issues that were discussed will be mentioned in future items that I am working on with Matthew Dornan of the Development Policy Centre.

Here, I want to put forward that an event like Cyclone Pam serves to highlight issues that were pre-existing before March 13th and possibly create opportunities for new ways forward, not only in the immediate response period but further into the future.

State-business relationships (SBR) are not well-established in Vanuatu, as is the case elsewhere in the Pacific island region. In terms of state building, the relationships between government and the business community do not necessarily receive a lot of attention but they are a crucial part of building and maintaining a state that is transparent, responsive and able to maximise opportunities to deliver services and promote development of the whole population.

Rather than examine the reasons for why this relationship is under-developed, I will focus on why it is important that it be enhanced and developed further and how the impact of Cyclone Pam creates opportunities for ‘building back better’ in this regard as in others.

Why are SBR important? Members of the business community are often affected directly by changes in government policy and their employees may also be affected indirectly. This means that the business community is an important constituency for government to proactively engage with when contemplating introducing new initiatives or modifying existing ones.

In countries with limited resources, private sector operators may be well placed to assist government with service delivery activities whether by way of co-financing or providing in-kind contributions such as logistical support. A bedrock of strong SBR provides the basis for these types of partnerships to evolve and flourish.

The private sector in Vanuatu is growing with more and more ni-Vanuatu people entering into businesses in many sectors. They have clear objectives that they want to achieve and strong opinions about what they think government can and should do to support them in achieving their goals. Mechanisms and processes that help to develop and strengthen SBR allow for private sector interests to be aggregated and formulated in ways that are of benefit to policy makers. They also provide opportunities for government to keep this key constituency informed about what is or is not happening and allow for expectation management on both sides.

Opportunities to ‘build back better’
We have already seen, and it was reported at last night’s meeting, that members of the private sector have joined with government agencies to work firstly within the humanitarian response phase and, more recently, to support the conduct of the Post Disaster Needs Assessment [pdf]. This joint activity should contribute to improving understanding on both sides and removing mistrust that may exist and lead to relationships that are more collaborative in nature for the future.

Vanuatu is a small country with limited resources and there are opportunities for policy makers in government to access expertise from within the business community to support their work. There are many retired public servants who are now working in the private sector who are well placed to assist with the development of policy in key areas such as fisheries, agriculture, infrastructure and more. The private sector is home to people who have expertise and experience in many areas often bringing with them examples of initiatives and projects that have been used in other countries. This is knowledge and expertise that government should be able to harness to inform policy development and implementation.

There are a number of aspects to how to support the development of better SBR in Vanuatu. The VCCI is a key component in this and has been working to establish more and better relationships with government, including by participating in the consultations on a National Sustainable Development Plan during 2014. But there is more to be done, especially in extending the reach of the organisation beyond Port Vila and Luganville and ensuring that the Chamber’s agenda is not (or is not perceived to be) dominated by the interests of one particular sector or individual business entity/owner. The VCCI requires extra resources in order to deliver on its mandate and play its part in promoting pro-development SBR in the future.

Both government and business need to be able to engage in a ‘safe but challenging’ space where differences of approach are acknowledged and accommodated within a wider purpose of working together to recover and rebuild. Policy makers need to be able to reassure business owners that commercially sensitive information will remain confidential. They can invite the Chamber and/or individual members of the private sector to contribute to the policy-making process in ways that are respectful and mindful of the constraints that business owners operate under when extending those invitations. The business community (via the Chamber and other peak organisations) needs to frame its approaches to policy makers in ways that promote dialogue and mutual endeavour. They need to be cognisant of the constraints under which policy makers operate and seek ways to inform government about what they can offer as well as what they want.

On both sides there are opportunities to grow pro-development relationships that are based on mutual respect and conducted assertively.