Australia and New Zealand bring Pacific focus to World Humanitarian Summit

This week’s blog is by First Secretary Alanna Mackay on the recent World Humanitarian Summit, and what that means for the Pacific –

One of the things I’m most proud of in my role at the Australian High Commission is helping Australia and New Zealand collaborate on humanitarian responses in our region. To be frank, it is also one of the easiest parts of my job, as our bilateral humanitarian cooperation is already so strong!

Australia and New Zealand’s bilateral cooperation helps us provide humanitarian assistance in the Pacific where – and when – it is needed. We saw this most recently after Tropical Cyclone Winston, when both countries mobilised defence, diplomatic and aid assets to help the people and the government of Fiji recover. We know that this assistance has to be properly coordinated – unfortunately, even with the best intentions, humanitarian assistance can be useless or even counterproductive when it’s not.

This question of how best to coordinate international humanitarian efforts was the focus of the World Humanitarian Summit, held from 23-24 May in Istanbul. The first such Summit of its kind, the aim was to improve the way governments, civil society and the private sector can work together to respond to humanitarian crises.

The Summit wasn’t without controversy. Some key stakeholders, like Médecins Sans Frontières, decided to stay away.  But the world is at a crisis point. We face greater humanitarian needs than at any other time in modern history. Amplified by climate change, natural disasters are affecting over 215 million people every year, and forced displacement is at its highest since the Second World War. Against these challenges, the international community has to work out a better way of delivering humanitarian assistance to the people who need it most.

Australia made a number of commitments to the Summit, including: endorsing the Summit’s Core Commitments; endorsing the Charter for Disability Inclusion in Humanitarian Action; committing, with other countries in the Pacific, to developing Pacific protocols to better align regional and international offers of assistance with national government responses following a disaster; continuing to support the Pacific Humanitarian Innovation Challenge; ensuring that Australia’s humanitarian programming both meets the needs of women and girls and meaningfully involves them in program design, delivery and monitoring; and in-principle support to the UN’s Connecting Business Initiative, which will support business continuity during emergencies.

At the Summit, Australia and New Zealand co-hosted an event that put the spotlight on the need to strengthen regional disaster and risk management cooperation in the Pacific. My friend Laulu (Mac) Leauanae, the CEO of the Auckland-based Pacific Cooperation Foundation, travelled to Istanbul to act as Master of Ceremonies for this event. I caught up with him this week to find out how he’d found the experience.

What were your overall impressions of the World Humanitarian Summit?

It was amazing, both in terms of the calibre of people there and the issues discussed. The issues to do with responding to conflict and natural disasters were very complex, and went to the heart of our responsibilities as global citizens. Governments, non-government organisations, civil society and the private sector all came together to talk about humanitarian best practice. It was my second UN Summit, after the Small Island Developing States conference in Apia in 2014, but this was much bigger on every level.

How did it feel to represent New Zealand at the Summit?

It was very humbling. What was your role in the team? I was the Master of Ceremonies for two related events that were co-hosted by New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hon Murray McCully and Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells – a get-together for the delegates from the Pacific countries at the Summit, and an event on collaboration in the Pacific on resilience and natural disaster response. The second event, being focused on our region, ensured the voice of the Pacific was represented in the Summit. At our regional event we also welcomed Ambassador Ursin Urcin, who represented our hosts for the Summit, the Government of the Republic of Turkey.

What were the concerns you heard from people in our region?

The need for better coordination among donors – New Zealand and Australia’s work in Fiji after Tropical Cyclone Winston was acknowledged, but there’s always more that can be done. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga talked about not losing indigenous knowledge and traditional technologies to get the best results.  For instance, there’s indigenous knowledge about how best to position houses to get maximum protection from cyclonic winds. But there were also good news stories about how communities in the Pacific are building on past practice to respond to disasters.

What was the best moment for you at the Summit?

Hearing Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, speak at the Summit. He asked critical questions of his audience that really challenged the UN’s own governance structure, which he pointed out was laid down in the 1940s, when the world was a very different place. And the most moving experience for me was attending the Syrian relief network side event – it was heartbreaking to hear the stories of what the people in Syria have experienced.

The challenges we face in responding to natural disasters in the Pacific can be immense.  But people like Mac are making a difference, and making the Pacific’s voice heard on the world stage. As a region, we can work together – and learn from each other – to improve our resilience to disasters and develop best-practice approaches to humanitarian assistance.

Alanna Mackay is First Secretary at the Australian High Commission, New Zealand

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