Lessons to learn

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:

DFAT SHOULD CONTINUE TO PROGRESS WORK TO SUPPORT NATIONALLY-LED RESPONSES AND LOCALISATION BY

• 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.

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