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Podcast “I Think You’re On Mute”: Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way – Supporting locally led action in the Pacific

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 In November 2023, the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum meeting was held and the host, the Cook Islands, chose the theme: Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way, underscoring the importance of local context and how tackling challenges needs to be locally led. 

The Pacific region is home to a strong and extensive resilience network, rooted in traditional knowledge, so what we can learn from the region that’s leading the way when it comes to doing humanitarian response differently? 

In this episode of I Think You’re On Mute, the Pacific is in focus. Your host Beth Eggleston explores how anticipatory action differs from disaster preparedness, and how we can better support locally led action across the region while leveraging traditional knowledge, with anticipatory action and localisation specialists, Catherine Jones and Akmal Ali. 

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Podcast host and guests 

Beth Eggleston 

Beth is the Director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) and co-founded the organisation in 2012. She has worked in the humanitarian sector specialising in civil-military coordination and humanitarian reform for the last two decades and has field experience in Afghanistan, Liberia, Tonga, Costa Rica, Laos PDR, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.  

Catherine Jones 

Catherine is currently the Anticipatory Action Lead for Asia-Pacific for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. She has more than 10 years’ experience in climate change, food security and livelihood sectors, both in a humanitarian and development capacity.  

 Akmal Ali 

Akmal is the Coordinator of Facility Aiding Locally-Led Engagement (FALE) Pacific at the Pacific Islands Association of Non-governmental Organisations (PIANGO). Through his work, Akmal spearheads inclusive crisis responses and amplifies the voices of local communities in the Pacific, contributing significantly to humanitarian efforts in the region. 

Podcast research and links 


Podcast transcript  

Beth Eggleston: Before we begin, I’d like to Acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and their ancestors of the unceded lands and waters on which we live, work and depend. We recognise all First Nations Peoples around the world and celebrate their enduring connections to Country, and pay our respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging. 


In November, the 52nd Pacific Islands Forum latest meeting was held and the host, the Cook Islands, chose the theme: Our voices, our choices, our Pacific way. This is significant as it sets the scene of just how important context is and how tackling challenges needs to be locally led. Leaders endorse the implementation plan for the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, where climate change and disasters are recognised as a key thematic area. In line with the Strategy, there will be a push to strengthen systems, build capability, enhance financial mechanisms and reinforce partnerships and policy. In this area, Australia will make further investments to support the climate adaptation and resilience of Pacific partners and will contribute to both the Green Climate Fund and the new Pacific Resilience Facility. The US also plans to provide over $8 billion in new funding and programs for the Pacific Islands. So now the commitments have been made and the photoshoots of leaders wrapped up. What should we be learning from what is currently happening in the Pacific?  


This is, I Think You’re On Mute, a podcast exploring who’s talking and who’s listening in a humanitarian emergency and how we can improve humanitarian response for the better. I’m your host, Beth Eggleston. 


There are many buzzwords that cycle in and out of the humanitarian lexicon. You’ve heard of some of the classics like resilience, and of course, there’s everyone’s favourite, the nexus. But what do you know about anticipatory action? What can we learn from initiatives in the Pacific about linking early warning information and foreseeable impacts to pre-emptive action? As a part of our Humanitarian Horizons Research Program, HAG recently collaborated with the Pacific Islands Association of Non-governmental Organisations, or PIANGO and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, looking at models of anticipatory action in the Pacific. The resulting practice paper, On The Front Foot, unpacks the current state of play. There are many ideas around the definition of anticipatory action. The Risk Informed Early Action Partnership defines anticipatory action as: acting ahead of predicted hazardous events to prevent or reduce acute humanitarian impacts before they fully unfold. Anticipatory action distinguishes itself from general disaster preparedness, prevention and resilience building as it is based on a forecast or early warning. To learn more about what we discovered through this research, I’m so pleased to be joined by Catherine Jones, FAO’s Anticipatory Action Lead for the Asia-Pacific region who worked with this on this paper. Hi, Catherine. Could you please introduce yourself to our listeners? 


Catherine Jones: Hi, Beth. Thanks for having me today. Kia ora, everyone, my name is Catherine Jones, I lead the Anticipatory Action Portfolio, also known as AA, for the Asia Pacific Office for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Now I’ve been working on anticipatory action for the past 7 to 8 years, primarily working across the Asia Pacific region, but also was working with our global team and headquarters and our subregional Pacific office on emergency response and disaster risk management. So yeah, really excited to see these two worlds collide with this particular research and yet have a bit of a chat about it today. 


Beth Eggleston: Thank you so much, Catherine. So anticipatory action…So many people are talking about this at the moment and I’d really love to understand, how is anticipatory action different from disaster preparedness? Can you help us understand that a bit more that a bit more? 


Catherine Jones: Totally and I think there’s a lot of people that have this question at the tip of their tongues, I completely agree. How I like to frame it is that anticipatory action and disaster preparedness are siblings. They are part of the same family, with the same parents, they just have different personalities. And this personality broken down into time as well as kind of the risk prioritisation that’s coming through. So when we’re looking at disaster preparedness, this is a part of the disaster management toolbox. It’s very well articulated for us to support resilience in disaster response measures, and it’s a continuous process that’s not necessarily time bound. It may ramp up, for instance, when we have the onset of a dry or a wet season, but this is something that’s done on a rotational basis. So, and it’s also looking at something that could happen. Now, the difference with anticipatory action is the time frame. What we are doing here is linking early warning systems to action. So, for instance, you may have a slow onset hazard such as a drought when you may have a three-month warning time for you to act with a high probability, so you know that it will happen. Also, this is applied to rapid onset hazard, such as typhoons or floods. And for floods for instance, you may have that 15 day, which is a little bit luxurious when it comes to that rapid onset scenario, or when it comes to typhoons or cyclones, sometimes it’s 72 hours, so a very short pocket of time to do action. But the difference between the two is: disaster preparedness is really important to have on a continuous rolling basis so we are well prepared in the resilience realm to act, to also prepare for anticipatory action, prepare for response and ensure that those mechanisms are in place for quick action along the disaster risk management continuum. What anticipatory action is doing is coming in and ensuring that we know when this could happen and it will come to fruition, these types of different natural hazards with a spill of confidence for us to act and scale up that pocket of time. And that allows us to effectively, hopefully, save lives and livelihoods as we move forward. 


Beth Eggleston: That’s so helpful to understand what we’re talking about and the parameters of what you mean when we say anticipatory action. Thank you for that. Something else I’m really keen to get your insights on is how traditional knowledge can be mobilised to improve early warning systems and inform funding mechanisms to support response? 


Catherine Jones: Thanks so much, Beth. I think this is a really interesting question and I think a lot of people are trying to decode this at the moment, that relationship between traditional knowledge and anticipatory action. And with this, I’d like to break down the three pillars of anticipatory action that we know quite well, is the first pillar of early warning and the triggering mechanism that you are speaking to; the second is the planning, the selection, the design of anticipatory action themselves; and then finally, it’s that flexible financing. Now I think there’s real value to add traditional knowledge through each of these different layers. The first being, and I think the most natural choice that we all move to, is looking at how traditional knowledge and wisdom within the Pacific and beyond can predict hazards. What could be used in the past to be able to foresee what may happen and particularly at that community level. Like, for instance, I was in Timor-Leste a few months ago working with some communities there who highlighted that an early flowering of a certain plant would meant the on… delay, sorry, of the rainy season. So that was a really interesting indicator for them to use, which then allows them to plan appropriately the agricultural practices. Now, what’s going to be really critical here is how do we ensure that climate change, which is impacting the way that these patterns move, can still be harnessed through traditional knowledge as well with the science to ensure that we don’t lose these practices, but ensure that the science and the traditional knowledge are meeting each other halfway to either ground truth or validate what we’ve see. So, for instance, if that early flowering happens on an unusual period of the year for us to be able to monitor that with usual weather patterns and historical analysis to see how these wider impacts and linking it to this wider early warning system strengthening is moving forward. Secondly, as well, and I think this is often forgotten in the process due to the kind of natural I would say choice as I was saying with my first point with the communication mechanisms for early warning, for early warning. So, ensuring that we play into community communication strategies and how they naturally filter information through their systems to make sure everyone is aware of what’s happening. So how do we ensure that early warning systems go through those channels and empower those channels, I think is really important as we move forward. As we’re talking about the selection of anticipatory actions, a lot of the communities in the Pacific are quite resilient to a number of shocks. For instance, in the Solomon Islands, I know a lot of communities when they know a certain bird is flying a certain way, they know that the winds are coming in strong, there’s potential for heavy rain or cyclone movement, they then move their key assets and evacuate themselves into the cave systems in Malaita to be able to protect themselves. So this already functions that exists that we need to build upon and strengthen rather than work outside of that ecosystem. So it’s more connecting that to information to allow them to prepare and act earlier, to be able to ensure that they can maybe scale up that particular effort in that pocket of time between the warning and impact. And then finally, when it comes to funding, I think this is an area that’s sometimes overlooked when it comes to traditional knowledge, but really fundamental to come into this. Traditional wisdom that exists within these communities, they know who is at risk, they know who’s vulnerable, they know where this is. We need to harness that information and feed that into how we fund anticipatory action. There’s usually two ways we fund anticipatory action, there’s the build money. So having the early warning system in place, the designing of those actions, as I was mentioning, and then connecting that to the finance. And then the fuel money, so when the alarm goes off, then we act. But ensuring that we have culturally appropriate and traditional wisdom woven into that process to ensure that we both build and fuel anticipatory action appropriately for the needs, by the needs, of the community is of utmost importance. So that’s how I think we can move forward with this approach and looking forward to further research I think from partners on this. 


Beth Eggleston: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing those examples. It just really shows how much we have to learn. Thank you. Catherine, I’d love to know what other regions around the world can learn from the approach to early action in the Pacific. 


Catherine Jones: No worries, I think we’ve seen a boom of anticipatory action happen throughout the globe and Asia Pacific has definitely been at the epicentre of that and it’s been so cool to see the Pacific join in this movement and grow with it as well, with various pilots popping up across various countries. But if I had some lessons learned that I could take from what we’ve learned in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, beyond that, I’d break it up into three key areas. The first one being coordinate throughout. Coordination is so key from those three pillars that I was mentioning before, when it comes to the early warning, make sure that we don’t go astray and develop all these different trigger models that potentially could confuse a government or create different kind of risk levels where people act at different times. We want to ensure a strong narrative here, and that’s one of the key challenges we’ve seen in some of the countries that we’ve been working in is kind of the sporadic nature of coming up with different trigger models that then maybe don’t speak to each other. Now, I’m not saying don’t, that you have to develop one trigger and that it. I’m just saying perhaps have a narrative that speaks to each other, particularly in small island states. This is such an important area of work to ensure that we need continuously supporting the government in particular to build on these gains and what we’re doing rather than I think doing pilots that do little bits here and there not feeding into a narrative or story to push us to a more sustainable approach. That is also saying for the actions themselves, looking at ways where we can support communities and households better. I think sometimes when we think of different hazards and how they impact households, it’s not like a farm or a fishing boat just has that problem and having to protect their livelihood, they might also have WASH issues, protection issues, health issues. How can we think about holistic packages to communities to ensure that they are well rounded and protected from these shocks moving forward. And then finally, with the financing, ensure those who are financing anticipatory action, encouraging everyone to speak together and coming into a bit more of a cohort to ensure we know what each other is doing and feeding into that wider vision and narrative at the country level, which I think is a really powerful way to move forward there. My second piece of advice would move to what I just touched upon quickly. Sustainability. Thinking about where do we want to be in the next 10 to 15 years and ensuring that we have governments, particularly in the Pacific, at the heart of what we do. So for instance, one key element that I always think about is if we’re selecting an anticipatory action or early action to implement based on a drought warning or a cyclone warning, how will the government absorb them in the future? Will they have the budget to take that on? Is it something that they can plan into the disaster risk management profiles? What are they also already doing for preparedness and response that could be slightly tweaked into anticipatory action? So really thinking about sustainability through our process and how we’re launching this into the region as well. And then secondly, really working with governments to understand what do you want out of this? What evidence do you want to see from this and how is this going to influence your policies and practices around disaster risk management? Do you see this as a add on value tool towards your existing mechanisms? And then finally, my last point would be don’t isolate anticipatory action. I know it’s a very new and exciting approach in the Pacific, but one key element here is to ensure it plays a role within the wider disaster risk management system. So as we’re heading towards that first point we were talking about earlier Beth on disaster preparedness and AA, We’ve got to ensure these all talk to each other and work with each other again so we see AA working within the ecosystems of governments and not seen as something to add or become a burden on top or compete with the different mechanisms that are already there. So really ensuring that AA is part of the spectrum of disaster risk management, adding value into that and speaking to the different parts of resilience, preparedness, AA, climate change adaptation, so we ensure that it’s embedded not only for now, but in the long term, in the future. 


Beth Eggleston: I couldn’t agree more, Catherine I think your points around being collaborative, coordinated and not having silos is something that’s coming through really strongly in a lot of our research, so that’s absolutely gold to hear that’s also the way in which you’re working, so that’s fabulous. Thank you so much for your time, Catherine. We so appreciate chatting to you, it was just wonderful being at a collaborate with you and FAO on this piece of research and we look forward to hopefully collaborating again in the future. Thank you. 


Catherine Jones: Looking forward to it Beth and thank you so much for having me today and looking forward to connecting again in the future and talking about anticipatory action more. Thank you.  


[SOUNDBITE] We believe that the current system providing humanitarian aid is no longer working as it should. So we have created a network with a better way of working together and new financial tools that enable a faster, needs driven response by organisations on the frontline of crises. We have already delivered assistance to millions of people who may otherwise have been forgotten. But we recognise there is more to be done. 


Beth Eggleston: You’ve just heard from the Star Network, a group of more than 80 non-governmental organisations across five continents, ranging from large international organisations to local and national NGOs. The mission of the network is to create a new era of humanitarian action that will save even more lives. Last year, I was lucky enough to be in Fiji and to have some conversations with PIANGO about a really exciting initiative linked to the Star Network. It turns out that the Pacific is leading the way when it comes to doing response differently. The Facility Aiding Locally-led Engagement, or FALE Pacifica, an initiative led by PIANGO and the Star Network, facilitates a locally led humanitarian system in the Pacific that empowers local communities to lead decision making during crisis response. Since its foundation in 2019, the initiative has established six national hubs that oversee localised humanitarian programming and response. They operate under their own localised governing system, with support from member NGOs and civil society organisations or CSOs. FALE Pacifica seeks to elevate the voices and roles of local and national CSOs, which are too often underrepresented in humanitarian coordination systems. This results in the exclusion of affected community voices from decision making processes that are directly related to their needs, reducing their access to funding and hindering locally led humanitarian networks. The initiative has three priorities, supporting a well-informed CSO humanitarian structure; building the leadership capacity of local actors; and supporting locally led anticipatory action initiatives through the FALE Financing Facility. This aims to integrate traditional knowledge into humanitarian coordination. I’m so pleased to be joined now by the powerhouse behind FALE Pacifica, Akmal Ali of PIANGO. He can tell us more. Hello, Akmal Bula. How are things in Fiji? 


Akmal Ali: Thank you very much, Beth. Thank you very much for having me this morning with you and to those listening, Bula vinaka from Suva, Fiji, my name is Akmal as introduced by Beth. I am the coordinator for the Facility Aiding Locally-led Engagement, FALE Pacifica, based in Suva. However, currently helping coordinate a regional hub and six national hubs. 


Beth Eggleston: Akmal, I so enjoyed meeting you and learning more about your work when we sat together in Suva last year and I would love for you to be able to share with our audience about how the concept of FALE Pacifica came about, because you’ve been really integral to that. 


Akmal Ali: Well, thank you for a wonderful question and thank you for asking about something about which I’m quite passionate about. So the story begins in 2015, when Vanuatu was hit by Cyclone Deb, and we know then while in the name of humanitarian assistance, a lot of things happened that were not supposed to happen. For example, six containers of expired medication were sent to Vanuatu just because somebody did not have a place to dispose them and they thought the Pacific was a good dumping ground. There are containers and containers of used underwear sent to Vanuatu. Nobody knew what to do and at the end of the day it became a burden. And then when all that was happening, PIANGO was seriously looking at localisation and whether we believe it or not, but PIANGO in its members, we’re working on localisation 30 years ahead of when people started talking about localisation. Because in 1991 PIANGO as a member of Fiji Council of Social Services (FCOSS) established the first locally led coordination centre in Fiji and this resulted, the advocacy and the work of this coordination centre resulted, in the Fijian Government in 1998 coming with a legislation recognising FCOSS as the coordinating body. So in 2016, when Cyclone Winston hit Fiji, the NDC of FCOSS was of course in a hub and needing state and as PIANGO’s technical assistance I went into Fiji and started bringing in all the stakeholders together and within the first week we were able to bring in 66 organisations on the table and get everybody moving. We complemented the work of the government and the success of that led to PIANGO then designing the concept of humanitarian hubs in the Pacific. Now, while we were doing that and then, you know, the World Humanitarian Summit happened and then now a partner was introduced to us, Start Network, also started talking about localisation and they said we needed to shift power and in order to be able to do that, we need to give power to the local organisations or local national organisations. So in 2019, they did a call, PIANGO answered, 44 organisations from the Pacific answered the call. And guess what? We were awarded the call and it was just like a marriage made in heaven and first began the process of an innovative and transformative idea in the Pacific of creating FALE standing for Facilitating Aiding Locally-led Engagement where it serves a collective, it is basically a force of collective of local, national, international changemakers united in the pursuit of rapid, efficient, inclusive and locally led humanitarian coordination. And I think I’m really proud to say that so far we have formed six national hubs. And as of the 26th of October, we have been able to have a bottom-up approach from the Pacific Regional FALE. 


Beth Eggleston: It’s so great to hear about the successes that you’ve had and I know you’ve been supporting other regions around the world on creating their own hubs for this type of response. Can you give me some examples of what kind of challenges, of roadblocks they’ve been facing and how your experience in the Pacific has been able to share solutions? 


Akmal Ali: Thank you, thank you for this wonderful question. So as of Start Network of hubs, initially they chose five hubs. We call ourselves the founding hubs. These were the Pacific, which was the Pacific, by the way, is the only regional hub. And then we have the India hub, Pakistan hub, DRC and Guatemala. But then again, in 2022, they called another expression and now we have Somalia, South Sudan, Pakistan, sorry, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Kenya and sorry and Philippines. And what we found out was so one of my roles in Start Network is now I am a mentor to the new upcoming hubs. So as a mentor, and the funny thing is, in 2020, when we met in Istanbul, all the other founding hubs sent a mentor and we all worked with the hubs and in the end the hubs had to choose who their mentor was going to be. And I don’t know how, but they all chose me to be their hub and I, I don’t know. So that was a surprising thing. 


Beth Eggleston: I’m not surprised at all, Akmal. I’m not surprised.  


Akmal Ali: I didn’t have challenges to answer your question. The whole idea of just bringing all stakeholders on the table is in itself a challenge still around the world. I mean, you would be surprised that countries that on day by day, you know, tackle humanitarian crisis and situations, stakeholders in these countries are not ready to talk to each other. Whether it’s academic, whether it’s a faith-based organisations, whether it’s governments, whether it’s civil society, whether it’s a community-based organisations, whether it’s international organisations, nobody or even if they are, then they’re working in silos. So the challenge that I’m trying to get my fellow hubs to overcome is to overcome personality and to be focused on one thing alone, one thing, and that one thing is, is humanitarian workers. Our focus is nobody else but people.  If we are only focused we are focused on people, not on resources, not on personalities, not on taking things personally rather than looking at things objectively, rather than looking at it as one-person driven initiative to collective initiative, rather than, adapting, you know, more of a majority count to a consensus building thinking, we will not be able to achieve this. And the example that we have been able to bring from the Pacific, that we’ve been able to show the world in fact, that we were able to create a regional hub and six national hubs just with the spirit of collaboration and when bringing in stakeholders with a simple mindset of complementarity, where everybody has a space, and nobody is going to be left behind, where local actors determine and lead on the local agenda, and the rest of us come in and provide with full force our support with the spirit of complementarity.  


Beth Eggleston: That’s great to hear all about that knowledge transfer and learning, Akmal. And I’d really love to know what’s next, what’s coming up for FALE Pacifica in 2024? 


Akmal Ali: Oh, wonderful question again. So, FALE Pacifica as of today has formed six national hubs. Our six national hubs are based in Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa and Kiribati. And now as of October of this year, when we’ve had the inaugural FALE Pacifica General Meeting, the Assembly has approved the creation of four more hubs. So by April of 2024, I’m tasked to work and create hubs in Timor-Leste, in Papua New Guinea, Niue and Tuvalu. And by the end of 2024, I aim to work and establish at least six new hubs that will be our third cohorts of hub and by 2025 I would like to create national hubs in all of the 24 Pacific Island Countries and Territories, which is part of PIANGO’s network. So I’m quite ambitious, I don’t know whether it’s going to happen, I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, but I have a belief…That the FALE is all about being people centred, it’s about creating an alternate structure which is not there to compete with the government, but to provide a complementarity support to the government and fill in the gaps. It is to build the capacity of the locals. It is to create a financing facility where we are able to take tackle disasters and crises way beforehand as anticipatory measures or to be prepared or to respond or to recover or to be able to help local communities when there is no state of emergency, but a platform that provides simply hope. 


Beth Eggleston: This is so impressive, Akmal, because it’s been your role as the dreamer who is actually made this a reality and it’s so impressive and I think all of us have been learning from this really impressive example of real collaboration and like you say, overcoming those individual priorities. So thank you so much for sharing your experience with us. We look forward to following what happens and the development of new hubs with FALE Pacifica into the New Year. 


Akmal Ali: Thank you very much. Vinaka vaka levu, thank you for having me. 


Beth Eggleston: We have a great deal to learn from the Pacific. And while commitments have been made, they must be followed with action – locally led action. When we approach humanitarian coordination and response in the Pacific, let us remember: Our Voices, Our Choices, Our Pacific Way. In the next episode we’ll be talking about delivering differently, and exciting developments at a just kicking off to reshape humanitarian response. I’m Beth Eggleston and this is, I Think You’re On Mute. 


This podcast is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed are the presenters’ alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government. 


This podcast was produced and recorded by Room3, a production company that works with not for profits and social enterprises and supported by Green Letter Communications.