When the storm hit Vanuatu last year, the lack of international support gave local aid workers a chance to be heard
If someone had told me this time last year that Vanuatu was about to weather one of the worst cyclones of our recent history with our borders closed, I may not have believed you.
After Cyclone Pam in 2015, hundreds of aid workers rushed in from overseas, eager to deliver lifesaving aid to communities who had lost everything.
But with a global pandemic declared on 11 March 2020 and Vanuatu’s borders closed on 20 March, Cyclone Harold looked set to be very different.
I must admit that in the early days of April 2020, as the weather updates showed a tropical cyclone of increasing ferocity approaching, I thought to myself “how are we going to manage on our own?”
But thanks to the training, commitment and local knowledge of ni-Vanuatu emergency workers and volunteers, we avoided what could have been a far more deadly outcome from Cyclone Harold.
As the Category 5 cyclone approached, village disaster volunteers sprang into action, helping people prepare their homes and stock up on food and water. Emergency workers set up evacuation shelters which undoubtedly saved the lives of those whose homes were flattened or flooded.
As soon as it was possible to travel again, local aid workers set out from the capital with supplies, and to this day we continue to support people to rebuild their homes and lives.
As climate-fuelled disasters become more common and more severe, locally-led responses like this are the future.
That’s not to say international funding and some international personnel aren’t needed during a crisis. Humanitarian responses should be as local as possible, and as international as necessary.
The countries that have done the most to cause climate change have a moral obligation to financially support the countries most impacted by it. And had borders not been closed during Cyclone Harold, having some extra personnel in the country would definitely have helped my colleagues and I avoid burnout.
But international responses, by their very nature, are slower and more expensive. Training local people to prepare for and respond to disasters saves times, money, and most importantly – lives.
It also taps into local knowledge. Due to the geography of our islands, ni-Vanuatu are no strangers to natural disasters. We have generations of knowledge of how to prepare and how to bounce back.
Understanding local Kastom (custom) and building respectful relationships is also crucial when delivering aid.
No aid agency could or should just turn up at a village in Vanuatu without consulting community leaders. Ni-Vanuatu aid workers have ways of speaking to elders and chiefs that build trust and two-way dialogue.
In the wake of Cyclone Harold, our partnerships with chiefs and church leaders were a key strength. We were open to their suggestions, and they ours, and these partnerships allowed us to get lifesaving aid to vulnerable communities
Importantly, locally-led disaster responses put the power back in the hands of the affected communities.
While we welcome a helping hand from other countries, too often in the past our local expertise has been overshadowed by outside helpers who end up running the show. Good intent doesn’t always lead to good outcomes.
With fewer international aid workers on the ground due to border closures, Cyclone Harold was a chance for local aid workers to step up. In a less international environment, many had the confidence to voice their ideas and opinions for the first time, and be heard.
Our experience has lessons for disasters and humanitarian crises all around the world. Firstly, local people are the best first responders, and training and equipping them to prepare for disasters saves lives.
Secondly, the international aid system needs to make more space for local leaders who are representative of the communities they serve. Without this, local expertise will go untapped and harmful power imbalances will continue.
The past year has thrown up many challenges for Vanuatu, and there will be many more in years to come – from vaccinating a population spread out over 65 islands, to rebuilding our economy, and preparing for climate threats.
But this past year has shown us that, when equipped with the right resources, locals can and should lead the way.
We are best equipped to understand the communities we serve and support them to make long-lasting change. Long after the disaster has passed, we are still here.
Intro image: Tropical Cyclone Harold wrought havoc on Vanuatu in the South Pacific in April last year. Photograph: Luke Ebbs, Save the Children Handout/EPA