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.


Listen carefully or risk killing the golden goose

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on February 24th, 2017

The opportunities that labour mobility schemes like the RSE (New Zealand) and SWP (Australia) present are many and varied.

These schemes have already contributed to significant livelihood improvements for individuals, families and communities in Vanuatu and other Pacific island countries.

After a very slow start, the Australian Seasonal Workers’ Program is building significant momentum. Influential people at the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank are using terms like ‘triple win’ and predicting increased income to the tune of $10 billion by 2040 across the region if these schemes are expanded and developed.

It’s very exciting and it means there is a lot to talk about. But there is a danger that this conversation is becoming one-dimensional. Some voices are not being heard. They are the ones that are asking awkward questions or raising concerns about the overall impacts of these schemes, good bad and indifferent.

Some of these questions were raised during a ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion during last year. It was a really good conversation, and identified a number of issues that continue to apply and need to be dealt with robustly so that the potential that these schemes present can be fully realised.

One of the issues is the rate of female participation in the schemes. It currently stands at 13% and this makes the ‘development’ people in places like the Development Policy Centre and the World Bank very twitchy indeed.

Their argument is one of gender equity: women should have the opportunity to earn money overseas just as men do. During our ‘Coffee and Controversy’ discussion we learned that the Vanuatu government had made a policy decision of not actively recruiting women in the interests of social cohesion.

This is a very important tension that requires careful investigation and discussion with all of the relevant stakeholders. It is a complex issue that cannot be swept away with a ‘because gender’ type slogan.

Another tension that arises is the impact that these schemes has on the domestic labour market and the costs to business that this incurs. When we discussed this on ‘Coffee and Controversy’ it was suggested that businesses needed to develop more flexible employment structures.

This would allow staff to spend periods of time ‘picking apples’ and then return to their jobs in Vanuatu, many of which are skilled labour positions. I followed this up with a couple of employers who were affected by this.

They reported that they had tried to put in place this sort of flexible scheme but hadn’t been able to come up with something that accommodated everyone’s needs. We need to look at this aspect more carefully and learn more about how this type of employment fits into our wider economy.

More recently, we’ve heard from chiefs who are worried that because young people are spending long periods of time each year working overseas, they are not learning enough about their culture.

They are missing custom ceremonies and not acquiring the skills to be able to conduct them in the future. Given that the new national development plan Vanuatu 2030 places culture as the bedrock of our future, there needs to be a space in which these concerns can be aired, interrogated and (hopefully) resolved.

And in amongst this there is a gap in the research. In very broad terms, the research falls into two categories. There is the research done by economists. It is all about how many people are earning how much money and how this will affect things like gross domestic product in sending and receiving countries. There is the research done by anthropologists.

It is more focused on documenting the stories of people and communities and how participation in these schemes affects their way of life. What’s missing is an objective assessment of the total impacts of these schemes, including economic gains, social costs, community impacts and perceptions, inclusiveness (or otherwise) and what this means for future policy making.

There are some very important questions that need to be examined meaningfully sooner rather than later.

But the appetite to take them on seems to be missing. In an exchange with a colleague at the Development Policy Centre, i raised this as an issue. I was met with the response that what was more important was expanding the schemes and getting more people from the bigger Pacific island countries (Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea) involved.

This seems like a very risky strategy to me. Vanuatu is considered to be a star performer in the region (the other is Tonga), and there are multiple conversations going on here about how these schemes operate now and what people hope for the future. So now is exactly the time to interrogate these issues and others to ensure that this golden goose can be fattened for longevity, not killed off in the rush for a quick result.


Pacific Perspectives in 2016

This item was first published on the East Asia Forum on January 6th, 2017

Authored jointly with Matthew Dornan

2016 was a big year for Pacific politics. Vanuatu and Nauru held elections — each in the context of significant concerns about governance. Censorship, deportation of the chief justice and arrests of opposition MPs have led to a serious decline in the credibility of democracy in Nauru in recent years. In Vanuatu, the election this year followed 14 members of parliament having been jailed for corruption in 2015.

Fiji’s international profile reached new highs when it assumed the presidency of the UN General Assembly. But domestically there were concerns raised about detention of opposition figures, a sudden cabinet reshuffle and the impacts of retrospective land legislation.

New Caledonia experienced volatility as it approaches the conclusion of the Noumea Accords process, at which point the population will vote on independence from France.

Economic developments have generally been less exciting, with the exception of PNG where the collapse of commodity prices has contributed to a budget crisis. Pacific island countries recorded modest economic growth averaging almost 3 per cent in 2016 — an improvement on their 2015 performance. Growth rates were volatile in many states, and remittances, aid and income from tourism and fisheries were the most important sources of revenue.

Natural disasters again had significant economic impacts. A number of countries suffered serious droughts, with deaths from famine reported in PNG. In February, Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, causing damage valued at F$2.85 billion (approximately US$1.35 billion) — equivalent to almost 30 per cent of GDP. There were 43 lives were lost and 3360 houses were destroyed. The category four cyclone occurred less than one year after Cyclone Pam (a category five storm) hit Vanuatu, causing damage equivalent to 64 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Pacific island countries continued their prominent advocacy on climate change. The Pacific Small Island Developing States group was a key driver of the 1.5 degree warming target agreed at the COP 21 summit in Paris in late 2015. On the back of this agreement, Pacific island governments pushed in 2016 for the incorporation of ‘loss and damage’ into the international climate change architecture.

They also advocated for better access to adaptation funding — advocacy that led to donor support for accessing the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and which contributed to an innovative strategy that will see Pacific micro-states submit a joint funding proposal to the GCF. Next year, Fiji will co-chair the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn in November, and will be co-president of the United Nations oceans conference in New York in June.

Tuna fisheries also featured prominently in 2016. The eight Pacific island members of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement — who collectively supply half the world’s skipjack tuna — continue to benefit from their establishment of a vessel day scheme, which is a cartel-like arrangement that has led to dramatic increases in revenue for PNA members. In 2016, licensing revenues received by PNA members were around US$400 million, compared to revenues in 2010 of US$64 million.

This success has influenced other agreements. The US-South Pacific Fisheries Treaty collapsed in February when Pacific island countries refused to continue providing US-flagged vessels with access to tuna at discounted prices. Pacific nations and the United States agreed upon a seven-year agreement to replace the existing treaty in December, which better reflects higher prices for accessing tuna fisheries. Pacific island countries also pushed back against proposals made at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission by the European Union and United States, which would have weakened the vessel day scheme.

Regionally, negotiations for the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER Plus) trade agreement between Pacific island countries and Australia and New Zealand proceeded with mixed success. Papua New Guinea announced in August that it would withdraw from the process, and Fiji made a similar statement before deciding to re-join negotiations. Concerns about infant industry protection and most-favoured nation status drove these decisions. This potentially leaves the two biggest island economies outside the treaty.

On a positive note, the expansion of labour mobility opportunities to Pacific islanders in Australia and New Zealand has generated significant goodwill in the region. Remittances were a key source of income for households affected by recent cyclones in both Fiji and Vanuatu.

Political tensions continue to affect regional cooperation in other areas. The dispute is ongoing between Fiji and the Pacific Islands Forum — the region’s pre-eminent political body — with Fiji’s leader maintaining his refusal to attend leaders’ meetings. Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama has said he will attend meetings only when Australia and New Zealand withdraw from the Forum.

Instead, this year’s Forum Leaders’ meeting saw a decision to expand the group by granting full membership status to French Polynesia and New Caledonia — a move that appears to cement France as an established and future Pacific power, and reflects a shift (back) to security as the primary concern of the regional order. It remains to be seen what this will mean for the future of the Pacific Islands Forum, and for (currently lukewarm) Fijian relations with Australia and New Zealand.

Matthew Dornan (Twitter: @mattdornan) is Deputy Director of the Development Policy Centre, and Tess Newton Cain (Twitter: @CainTess) is a Visiting Fellow at the Development Policy Centre, The Australian National University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2016 in review and the year ahead.


Food security responses in Vanuatu should include urban gardens

The response to Cyclone Pam led by the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) includes a commitment to preserving the resilience of the people of Vanuatu. In the immediate aftermath, the prime minister encouraged the population to eat root crops (that can last up to 3 weeks) and fruit that had fallen from trees until such time as food aid could be distributed. The assessments done by government with the support of UN agencies and others have informed a response plan of provision of food aid for 3 months with each batch of food being accompanied by seeds, seedlings and hand tools to allow for gardens to be re-established. The fastest growing crops will be available to harvest from then and the provision of food aid by the government will (it is planned) be discontinued.

The NDMO has advised that at this stage there is no provision of seeds, seedlings or gardening tools to residents of Port Vila and the surrounding peri-urban areas. The rationale behind this is that these items are available from commercial suppliers and that prices are reduced following an exemption from duty and Value Added Tax (VAT) on products of this type imported after March 14th (for a period of one month).

This makes perfect sense as part of an initial response with the need to address food security in areas of the country where garden produce is essentially the only form of nutrition and there are no shops at which to buy seeds or tools.

However, as we look to responses that are medium and longer term in nature, we need to ensure that food security and longer term nutrition of our urban and peri-urban populations is appropriately supported.

Prior to Cyclone Pam’s arrival many people living in and around Port Vila had established gardens to provide food for themselves and their families. Some of these were on blocks of land that they bought specifically for this purpose and others were more informal in nature, including using other people’s land without permission. These gardens have been severely damaged or destroyed. Other people who did not have this option and who are in formal employment received food crops from family members in rural areas in exchange for shop-bought goods (e.g. kerosene, cooking oil, sugar, salt) or assistance with school fees or health costs. This system is a product of the extended family network with the mutually supportive relationships of exchange and obligation that it entails. However, this system is now severely compromised because so much of the country has been affected. For example, urban families that were depending on food supplies to come from family members on Tanna are now without that supply and may not have the family connections in relatively unaffected areas (e.g. Santo and Malekula) to enable them to establish a new one.

The development of urban gardens can provide a safety net for vulnerable urban and peri-urban populations that will have numerous benefits in the medium to longer term. Here, I will focus on the economic benefits and the contribution that this will make to longer-term health benefits of urban and peri-urban populations.

Urban gardens should form part of an overall food security and economic resilience response package.

Economic benefits

The direct economic benefits arise in protecting urban populations from the adverse impacts of added financial burdens that come at a time where many may be at risk of losing their jobs or becoming under-employed. It is true that those living in and around Port Vila may have more employment opportunities than those living in rural areas, including opportunities to pick up casual employment as part of clean-up efforts in the short term and rebuilding activities in the longer term. However, they are also taking on additional financial burdens, including rebuilding or repairing their homes, sending supplies to family members elsewhere and providing for friends and family members they have taken in further to destruction of houses. These additional calls on resources come on top of those that were already present. The success of sales of ‘garden only’ blocks prior to Cyclone Pam (located at Teouma, to the east of Port Vila) was largely driven by those with relatively well-paying jobs seeking to minimise the costs associated with providing for large households, largely comprising people who do not earn an income.

The indirect benefits of establishing urban gardens include (in the longer term) an ability to sell surplus produce. Not only will this bring the overall costs of food down in and around Port Vila but it will also  allow for increased consumption that will support other aspects of the economy.

Health and nutrition benefits

There are already concerns about the relatively poor nutrition of urban populations arising out of a greater reliance on imported, processed foods such as white rice and tinned fish, which often has a high oil content. Prior to Cyclone Pam, people participating in the formal economy often did not have time to cook traditional dishes such as laplap and simboro but were able to purchase this type of food from the central markets (currently closed) or at food stalls located at kava bars. These food stalls are now largely empty. The implementation of an Urban Gardens project will help mitigate the risk of the quality of our urban population’s diet being further undermined.

How might an Urban Gardens project work?

The following points can form the basis of a project of this type:

  • Allocate parcels of public land within the urban and peri-urban areas (e.g. parts of sports fields) for use as community gardens under the management of local authority mechanisms.
  • Encourage private sector organisations to identify areas on their premises that can be used as gardens by their employees with the management of the garden to be handled by the staff in conjunction with the business to address issues such as out of hours access, security, etc.
  • Establish a mechanism whereby urban garden groups (whether community based or centred around private sector employment) can access support especially by providing seeds and seedlings.

Resilience and state building – challenges and opportunities in Vanuatu

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.

My island home: the first week after Cyclone Pam

Usually the phrase ‘coming home’ signifies a return to all that is familiar and predictable. On Monday I came home to something that is far from familiar and to a situation characterised by frenzied activity, heightened awareness and rapid-fire exchanges of information and decision-making.

Nothing looks the same. Where once there was green, now there is brown. The wholesale destruction of vegetation has revealed buildings that were previously surrounded by bush. Landmarks that were present this time last week have gone. This does nothing to assist my already very flaky sense of topography. Nothing sounds the same. Usually when I write in my lagoon-side office, I hear birdsong, occasional barking from dogs and maybe the voices of people going past on canoes or kayaks. Now I work with the sound of chainsaws and bush knives in the background interspersed with the sound of military and civilian aircraft criss-crossing the skies.

Vanuatu has experienced cyclones before and will undoubtedly experience them again. Cyclone Pam is significant in terms of her impact both in breadth and depth. Initial assessments are still being conducted but preliminary information is that all of the occupied islands of the country have been affected, with the possible exception of Malakula. Reports from aerial assessments undertaken during the past couple of days are indicating extensive damage, especially in the southern part of the country, affecting buildings, airstrips and gardens. This last is of particular concern in terms of longer-term food security as over 70% of the population relies on subsistence farming. For now people will eat what can be salvaged from the storm. Some will have livestock that they can kill. I just read that in Middle Bush, Tanna, where all are safe (largely thanks to having endured the cyclone in daylight hours), people are making use of solar powered driers to convert manioc into flour before it rots. That will be a much valued resource in the weeks and months to come.

Those of you who have visited Vanuatu (and certainly if you have visited me) will know that drinking kava at the end of the working day is an important activity for a sizeable segment of the community. We get to sit outside, chat quietly, do some networking and drink the most foul tasting substance you would ever voluntarily put in your mouth – it is a mild soporific that produces effects such as numbed lips and general relaxation. I had expected that kava bars would be either non-operational or out of stock (most of the kava sold in Port Vila comes from other islands such as Pentecost, Ambrym or Ambae). Never have I been so pleased to be proved wrong. I spent Monday evening with some friends at one of my favourite kava bars. The two wooden huts where kava and food are sold are intact but the rest of the place is trashed. This kava bar was burned to the ground in October 2012 and only reopened late last year. The owners (who I have known for 18 years) told me – “last time we waited two years to start selling the kava again but this time we waited two days”. They were doing a roaring trade, lots of it being sold as ‘plastics’ (recycled drink bottles filled with kava for take-away). But there was enough for those of us who were there to enjoy a couple of shells in the peace and quiet.

I’ve been asked “How can Vanuatu recover?”, and the answer I have given is: we are recovering. This is a resilient country populated by resourceful people and we are working together to get things back on track. There are many challenges ahead: logistical, political, economic and social. There is need for much assistance and we know it is on its way. When it gets here, it will find us already working hard in our island home.