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Approaches to Disaster Risk Governance in Vanuatu for TC Pam

There appear to be three approaches or models to disaster risk governance in Vanuatu that were at work at various times when examined in the context of TC Pam. The discussion of these approaches needs to be seen in the context of the prevalent assumption of low government capacity.

The first model, ‘Submerged governance’, describes a model where the actors are overwhelmed by influx of aid and people and therefore are unable to ascertain the effectiveness of the pre-existing plans and mechanisms, with the results that the response is somewhat piecemeal, uncoordinated and slow. The unprecedented nature of TC Pam and its related media and humanitarian attention partly contributed for this model in the beginning of the aftermath. The second model, ‘Partial strategic coordination’, is also government-focused but with a focus on the government handling what it can manage and coordinating the other activities to some extent. The model is focused on encouraging the recovery process without necessarily trying to assert full control of all actors and activities.

The model, ‘Government control’, was favoured by those in the government in which all aid and recovery efforts are managed and controlled by the Vanuatu government. This model came into play at a later stage in the relief efforts and tried to coordinate all the hundreds of activities and different organisations who had an interest in the relief efforts. The counter argument, often noted by non-governmental organisations, is that the government does not necessarily have the capacity, or the experience, to manage the aftermath of a mega disaster. The non-governmental organisations see themselves fulfilling a role that the government struggles to do as evident in the example of food relief and the differing perceptions between actors as to when to distribute food, how and to whom. Yet, arguing that government capacity is low can become a self-fulfilling assumption as other actors step into take control over activities leading to capacity substitution rather than capacity building per se. One approach here would be to work in formal partnership.

We would argue that all three models were at work in a sequence in the aftermath of TC Pam. Yet, it would be too simplistic to claim that these are the only models at work—they are indicative only. As noted earlier, governance is a fluid process, and much of it remains hidden as it is contingent on power relationships and negotiations of values and priorities between multitude of actors and scales. While a lot was done to prepare for major events by government and NGOs, we cannot properly assess how effective this was due to the overwhelming flow of aid, which prevented deployment of local disaster plans. We do know that the system struggled to cope and one year later, where reconstruction is dependent on the government, much remains to be done. On the other hand, those communities that had established disaster committees with the help of NGOs were able to better prepare for TC Pam and respond in the aftermath; these community based structures and their subsequent operationalization could be seen in a way to fulfill disaster plan strategies.

The response and its coordination and related decision-making is now more of an internal activity for the Vanuatu government as it needs to decide which recovery efforts should be prioritized and in which sectors. Yet, much of the recovery aid has come with clear expectations and guidelines as to how the money can be accessed and what it should be spent on. This in turn is somewhat problematic for the Government-control model where it would be expected that the government would have the sole decision-making power in regards to the priority sectors, activities, and locations. In the context of the mega disaster, the slowness of constructing nation-wide recovery plans, allocating funding, and beginning the implementation therefore are not just dependent on the national government, but rather on a mixed set of actors all trying to exercise differing models of disaster risk governance.

Again, the civil society and the communities themselves have done practical projects as part of their recovery efforts at the local scale to enable livelihoods and homes to be restored. Most communities were able to re-build their homes for example in the aftermath to some extent while NGOs contributed with livestock projects, such as chicken farms, and handing out equipment and tarpaulins to quicken the recovery process. Yet the communities have been also dependent on government assistance: for the island of Tanna, for example, TC Pam represented the first cyclone event in its history when people could not recover simply just by their own means but needed external government assistance in the recovery efforts.

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