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What's our role in the Pacific?


Judy Slatyer, CEO of Australian Red Cross, explores the changing nature of humanitarian aid in the Pacific.

Thursday May 19, 2016

Fiiji Red Cross volunteers
Fiji Red Cross has led the response to Cyclone Winston. Photo: Damien Light/ZOOM Fiji

Fiji was hit by the wildly erratic Cyclone Winston on 20 February, the worst storm the country had ever seen. Nine days later I started my role as CEO of Australian Red Cross, right in the midst of the cyclone relief operation.

We worked with Filipe Nainoca and his talented team at Fiji Red Cross to respond to the needs of thousands of people affected by the storm. We raced to deploy specialist delegates and relief supplies. And we all pitched in to take calls from Australians wanting to donate to help the people of Fiji.  

I learnt a tremendous amount in those days as, I noticed, did everyone at Australian Red Cross. We were awed by the dedication of the Fiji Red Cross volunteers and staff, who worked virtually around the clock to conduct assessments, pack and distribute relief supplies, and offer comfort and care. We were daunted by the immense challenge of getting aid to remote islands with no air strips and hostile seas. And - like everyone in the operation - we were sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the disaster, the number of stakeholders involved, and the weight of expectation.  

The World Humanitarian Summit asks us to strike a better balance between local, national and international action in disasters and crises. Nowhere is this more important than the Pacific: a region highly vulnerable to natural disasters, with small widely-dispersed populations and subsistence lifestyles gradually transitioning to trade-based economies. A region now seeing the worst effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to prolonged drought.  

Yet Pacific Red Cross Societies are meeting these challenges head on, with growing numbers of volunteer, stronger regional collaboration and skilled, determined staff. So what does that mean for partners like Australian Red Cross?

It means we need to invest more in these National Societies as first responders to crises. Well before disasters strike, we should support them to be viable, sustainable, well resourced and accountable, in line with their own strategic plans.  

This year, we continue our long-term collaboration with Pacific National Societies and the Australian Government. We will keep bringing Pacific leaders together to share cross-regional experiences and learn from each other. We will work with our International Federation to strengthen financial sustainability and accountability in the region. And we will advocate for stronger disaster laws that empower Pacific governments to coordinate and streamline the flow of humanitarian aid into their countries.  

We will also support some uniquely Pacific innovations; ways to improve and strengthen humanitarian action. A trial of forecast-based financing: a model that releases funding for immediate preventative action as soon as a reliable forecast of a disaster arrives. Negotiating pre-disaster agreements with Pacific businesses to cover every aspect of a disaster response, from food and relief supplies to warehouses to store them and boats to transport them, and even local construction crews to rebuild homes. Exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to survey remote islands in the wake of a disaster.  

Most significantly, we will fund research to inform a more fit-for-purpose humanitarian system in the Pacific. This will explore structural and operational changes, financing mechanisms and role of local leadership, all with the aim of localising aid in the region. Time and again we see that local humanitarian agencies are best placed to respond to crises and support their communities.  

That's the new role of partner National Societies like Australian Red Cross in the Pacific: to facilitate, to resource, to support local innovation, to assist when we're asked, and step back otherwise.  

Read more

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Red Cross Red Crescent perspectives on the World Humanitarian Summit

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