The leading role of local communities: The Pacific Islands, Covid-19, and Natural Disasters

Photo credit: Humanitarian Advisory Group, 2020, p.14

COVID-19 brought unprecedented challenges to the majority of countries. For some island nations, one of the challenges faced was addressing natural disasters in the context of a global pandemic. In these disaster-prone territories, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic such as travel restrictions and quarantine measures forced them to use local capacities and supply chains for their safety. Through its software, Homa Reto is taking action to facilitate similar locally-based approaches which are reducing vulnerabilities and building resilience. Natural disasters hitting Pacific Islands nations while they were under a state of emergency encouraged national and particularly local organizations to step up. As a result, this allowed for a case of community-based disaster relief, which contrasted with previous pre-pandemic disaster responses. 

One example of this is the territory of Vanuatu. The island is classified as the most vulnerable nation in the world, considering its location among active tectonic plates. It is therefore exposed to earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and landslides. On top of that, it faces high probabilities of extreme weather, exposing it to tropical cyclones and subsequent flooding. In April 2020, one month after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic, Vanuatu was hit by the tropical cyclone Harold, a category 5 cyclone. It affected around 160,000 people, caused three deaths, and destroyed housing and livelihoods. This negatively impacted its economy, which was already under a strain by the lack of tourism income. As a consequence, unemployment soared, which particularly affected women as they are less likely than men to find formal employment. 

In the past, similar disasters have brought capital inflows from the international community to support relief and recovery efforts. However, due to the pandemic, regular evacuation procedures were delayed during cyclone Harold as transportation was limited to smaller groups and only half of the usual evacuation center capacities were available. In this context, Vanuatu’s authorities were initially overwhelmed with the response and recovery efforts. The amount of international aid received was considerably reduced as traditional donor countries such as Australia were preoccupied with their own pandemic response plan. This ultimately allowed local actors to step up and rely on traditional structures and adaptation mechanisms that had previously been overlooked. In the future, Homa Reto aims to facilitate such humanitarian actions by providing an open network of NGOs, local development actors, and experts able to inform about local needs and capacities.

Locally-led adaptation capacities were established to cope with the immediate consequences of the disaster. Homa Reto intends to make the expertise of the local community visible to humanitarian actors by providing a map of community actors that can help improve the organization of local helpers and save lives. In Vanuatu, these social networks were often organized by women, who quickly became key actors in the response to Cyclone Harold. They were able to mobilize their social networks as well as their skills as innovators and entrepreneurs to ensure the well-being of their surroundings. This enabled a more inclusive recovery process. 

During previous cyclones, the aid provided by international organizations came at the cost of few publicly available reports and the absence of national supervision or coordination. Some creative outcomes of this disaster were close cooperation between the government and the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO). These collaborations were coordinated by local chiefs who hold traditional authority in the community. It resulted in greater transparency, trust, and control over the disaster response process and funds were able to be directly allocated to local organizations. Hence, cyclone Harold provided the opportunity to develop local networks for emergency relief that will still be able to be relied on in disasters to come. This will avoid the traditional scheme of destruction and externally funded reconstruction. The Homa Reto software organizes local humanitarian leadership through innovative information technologies.

Author: Suzon Mazataud

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