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A humanitarian, a development worker and a cyclone named Winston

“Something is coming, this is a sign” was the chorus from my colleagues and taxi drivers in the face of the relentless heat.

As we watched a tropical disturbance move erratically around the South Pacific we had no idea that we were about to contend with Winston, the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall in the South Pacific – an event that would define my 2016, and that of my colleagues, friends, and the entire population here in Fiji.

A year on I have been reflecting on that response and its many lessons, too many to list here.

While we were focused on TC Winston, preparations for the Global Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul were underway. Wide ranging topics, decisions and commitments were on the table, macro discussions that often feel removed from our day to day work.

Fiji Red Cross branches and volunteers activated ready for response. We went into lockdown ahead of the storm. Response systems across the Pacific and in Australia were triggered. And the WHS conversation at a global level continued.

Early on the morning of the 21st February I watched as Fiji Red Cross emergency response teams commenced their work, not quite sure of what awaited them.

As the scale of Winston and its destruction became clearer, Fiji Red Cross was already on the ground, and I was in the office. To support the response, Australian Red Cross swung into action and the stream of communication stepped into high gear between myself in Suva, and my colleague Jess, TC Winston Response Manager, in Melbourne.

While TC Winston was the first humanitarian response I had been a part of in my development career, Jess had worked in several humanitarian operations. She was new to Australian Red Cross, but clearly experienced, with a focus on humanitarian principles and meeting the needs of affected people.

Fiji Red Cross led the response to the cyclone. My role was to identify how best Australian Red Cross could be a good partner, support them, and communicate that back to Melbourne. Jess’ role was to coordinate that support.

In early conversations, it quickly became apparent that Jess and I brought different skills, experience and focus to the response. She understood the humanitarian landscape, the complexities of response, what was possible, probable and the likely impact of some decisions. I, on the other hand, had the context, knew the players, understood the Fiji Red Cross development strategy, direction, intentions, scope and scale of ongoing programs and had longer-term interests in mind.

Australian Red Cross was trying to work in a new way: moving from a model where the humanitarian response team operated in isolation during a crisis, while the development teams sat to the side waiting (im)patiently for the experts to do their thing.

This time, in an effort to leverage contextual knowledge, strengthen the response and coordinate relief to recovery funding, development staff were a key part in leading the response. This was a move that recognised the value of shared knowledge and expertise, and that a shift was needed in the way we work. On a micro level we were attempting to bridge the humanitarian-development divide, a discussion about to be had in Istanbul.

Jess and I needed to have a willingness to listen, ask, push, question, challenge, respectfully disagree and chart a middle ground. To both of us it made complete sense, seemingly common sense, to pool our knowledge and expertise to achieve a better result for our partners, and for those affected. We were supported by a leadership team that encouraged us to do just that.

Between us we built a body of knowledge to the point where we were upskilling each other, in the end anticipating each other’s responses. Through our regular communication we trusted that the other was working towards the same thing and would make the right decision, and had the sense to own where our expertise lay and the courage to understand where it ended.

It was about me acknowledging that Jess brought humanitarian experience, and Jess appreciating that I brought the strategic oversight and knowledge of Fiji Red Cross’s longer-term vision, and had relationships with key stakeholders on the ground.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston at peak intensity near Fiji.

We understood from the beginning that we needed to bridge the divide between humanitarian and development, to factor in the long-term nature of this response. We wanted to have an ongoing conversation throughout the spectrum from relief and recovery, and back to development.

While we were still in the throes of response and thinking ahead to recovery, world leaders sat at the table in Istanbul discussing the very thing we had sought to undertake – transcending the humanitarian-development divide.

Our experience proved that it doesn’t have to remain rhetoric. At the operational level we have the power to enact it. It can happen, and we made a concerted effort to do just that.

It happens by embracing a level of openness and willingness to communicate with someone who brings a different expertise. It is about listening, and together finding a way to work, even when it’s not your familiar way.

We cannot work towards resilience and risk reduction without development, and we cannot respond to emergencies without humanitarians. Bridging the humanitarian-development divide is a controversial topic for some. Not for me, it’s pretty straightforward. Why would you do anything different?