One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Tailoring the International Response to the National Need Following Vanuatu’s Cyclone Pam

Originally published


Executive Summary

In March 2015 Vanuatu was struck by one of the worst disasters ever experienced in the Pacific.
Winds gusting up to 320 km per hour destroyed homes, infrastructure, crops and livestock and left more than half the population in need of emergency assistance.

Supported by national and international actors, the Government of Vanuatu has invested substantial effort and resources in recent years in strengthening the national disaster management system. This includes a National Disaster Response Plan, a National Disaster Management Organisation with Standard Operating Procedures, a National Cyclone Support Plan, national-level humanitarian clusters, and the Vanuatu Humanitarian Team for coordinating the activities of non-government actors. These systems and structures had proved satisfactory in meeting the needs of previous, smaller-scale disasters.

But Cyclone Pam was of an altogether different scale. The Government issued its first ever generalised appeal for international assistance, and this prompted an international response that far exceeded anything previously experienced in Vanuatu. Scores of international NGOs flooded into the country, many with minimal knowledge of national actors and institutions; agencies already in Vanuatu flew in surge capacity; and international humanitarian tools and services were brought in, many of them relatively new to Vanuatu.

In countries vulnerable to large-scale disasters, a sudden influx of international aid – and all of the complexities that come with such an influx – should be anticipated in national planning processes. But very often this critical aspect of disaster response is overlooked until a largescale disaster hits. Such was the case in Vanuatu, and as a result, the national structures that seemed adequate prior to the cyclone were enormously stretched. While ultimately ‘everyone [was] working together to ensure that everyone got assistance in the right way and as soon as possible,’ the lack of adequate planning at the national level for a large-scale international response, and the lack of understanding by many international responders of national systems and structures, resulted in inefficiencies and at times tensions between national and international responders.

Through the lens of the Cyclone Pam response, and with a view to informing the Pacific Regional Consultation for the World Humanitarian Summit, this paper suggests four key areas for action to reduce vulnerability, manage risk and more effectively respond to disasters throughout the Pacific.

First, communities must be further supported to reduce their vulnerability and mitigate the impact of disasters. The communities visited while researching this paper said that although they had made some small preparations for the cyclone, they had never prepared for what would come. On the other hand, communities that had been supported to prepare for disasters were able to substantially mitigate the impact of the cyclone, highlighting the value of substantial, long-term investment in community-based disaster risk reduction.

Second, the critical role of national non-government actors in humanitarian response must be recognised and supported, and national governments must be supported to develop robust systems and procedures for disaster response. The response to Cyclone Pam highlighted the significant role of national non-government responders in the immediate aftermath, and the opportunity for international humanitarian actors to step up engagement with these actors so as to promote broader adherence to international humanitarian standards.

More critically, the response highlighted the importance of national coordination structures being equipped to scale up and partner with international support structures in the event of a large-scale international response. Vanuatu provides a strong example of a humanitarian coordination structure designed by national actors for the national context; but it also highlights the fact that no matter how much has been invested in national disaster management systems, there will be extreme occasions when these are overwhelmed and international support is required. These ‘extreme occasions’ will soon be the new normal, and thus it’s these types of events that we should be preparing for now.

Third, the international community must show much greater readiness to move away from ‘one-size-fits-all’ systems and procedures, and understand its core role as providing surge capacity, technical advice and expertise to national actors to enable them to lead and coordinate disaster response in their own countries. The Cyclone Pam response suggests that despite all of the rhetoric in recent years about the need to ‘localise the humanitarian response’, when we are presented with an opportunity to do this, we struggle to step back and not have things done our way. This paper suggests that we need to take a massive leap forward in our efforts to fit in with and support national actors, and find a way to move away from standard response plans and checklists and terms of reference, to an approach that’s genuinely tailored to national contexts.

And finally, much stronger action is required to tackle climate change so as to curb the increase in Cyclone Pam scale events and help Pacific Island countries adapt to increased disaster risk. Pacific Island countries are vulnerable to a range of natural hazards including floods, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, and vulnerability to hydro-meteorological hazards will be exacerbated by climate change. As disasters hit Pacific Island countries with greater intensity, the capacities of communities, civil society, governments and humanitarian actors will be tested with greater frequency, and to a greater degree. The need to ensure that international actors provide communities, civil society and national governments with the support they need to reduce vulnerability, manage risk and effectively respond to disasters is becoming more and more imperative.