On Tanna, an island in Vanuatu, volcanic ash from Mount Yasur has been falling for months, smothering crops and contaminating water supplies. This follows a drought that was already affecting the island’s population. This quiet disaster affecting 28,000 Tannese people went mostly unnoticed in the shadow of COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold. Tanna was spared the direct effects of the cyclone and virus, but has no doubt suffered from the diversion of humanitarian resources.

Loading emergency supplies. Source: www.nab.vu

Some help is getting through. In late April, Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) shipped rice, food and water to 5650 households. This is no small achievement at a time when the NDMO is responding to TC Harold. Even as the government’s disaster responses have been slowed due to its unluckily timed election, this is a sign of Vanuatu’s disaster response experience.

Even so, the government’s response is rather late – the first responders were the Tannese people themselves, as local consultant Linda Kenni describes:

For Vanuatu while the government is giving out its relief supply, people in the communities are mobilising and bringing raw food crops to the people in the affected areas …

“Many outsiders will comment that we may not be in a better position to respond by ourselves but at least we have our structure in place, the traditional cultures where we go out and give help to those in need without waiting on the government… It is good to see that it is still very strongly upheld in some islands of Vanuatu. …These are what people have been practising because it is part of their culture.

Linda Kenni described how the local staff of international NGOs supported this community action. But she also observed a limitation of local assistance: “Even if the communities are assisting with food crops, the affected communities are now experiencing diseases like scabies because of dirty water. It is during these situations that the people may start experiencing difficulties in responding to these type of diseases.”

This story of local action with some government assistance and international support is a familiar story throughout the region. Pacific islanders have a lot of experience with natural disasters and with working together to recover.

The world has nonetheless changed. Disasters are often larger and more complex and there are simply a lot more people around. Traditional social structures may not always work as they do on Tanna. So government and international assistance is vital as a complement to local action.

Pacific islanders appreciate this interdependence, as they articulated in recent research from the Whitlam Institute and Peacifica. They recognise that their problems are primarily their own to solve, but that like anyone else they can’t do it alone. This story of Pacific agency and resilience is not the one that is told in Australian forums.

We see this in discussions of Solomon Islands where COVID-19 has led to significant disruptions. Honiara has been closed down and thousands of people ‘sent home’ to their villages. The country’s borders are closed. Despite having no confirmed cases, the virus has taken its toll. Covid-19 and TC Harold combined leading to 27 people being drowned in the tragic sinking of the MV Taemarehu.

These events and the country’s post-conflict legacy invite concern for its future peace and prosperity. As in many countries, misinformation and mistrust is widespread. And yet, on 1 May Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare addressed the nation, describing in detail the government’s response to the crisis, taking pains to thank Australia, China and New Zealand for their support. This was followed by the launch of an economic stimulus plan.

There is no doubt plenty to criticise in the government’s COVID response. Debate is in full flow in the papers and on the country’s popular Facebook forums, and a more nuanced policy discussion is also underway. As in Vanuatu, Solomon Islanders are confronting their own challenges, with some help.

This important story is not the one being told here in Australia, where we are having a policy discussion about what to do once the Pacific states let us back in. Lots of good ideas are being put forward, but with some exceptions (often but not only those written by Pacific islanders) these discussions don’t look closely at what is happening on the ground now. Nor do they ask who is stepping up in our absence. They look for what is absent, rather than what is there.

This is a critical issue. The developing world is experiencing a level of autonomy greater than any in the post-colonial era. From the village to parliament, Pacific islanders are responding to the current crisis on their own terms and there is no doubt a tremendous amount going on that we can’t see from here. So when we are invited back, we need to act with care. The chance to do things with Pacific islanders (not for or to them) has never been better.

The time to start this is now. Our research for The Whitlam Institute on Pacific Perspectives on the World offers some clues as to how to go about this. In the research we were told clearly that for Pacific islanders the quality of relationships matter, as do values, norms & ways of doing things. For Australia, the stakes are high: in a crowded international landscape Pacific islanders have the opportunity to be discerning in who they choose to work with.

We can start by acknowledging that we stand to learn from the Pacific islanders’ experience, as much as they do from ours. We could start by asking them some basic questions: how are you going, and what have you been doing? Can we help? This immediately sets the frame for a different kind of relationship.

Pacific islanders already have agency and power and right now it is growing – let’s ensure that this continues.


James Cox, Executive Director, Peacifica