Address to World Humanitarian Summit

  • Speech, E&OE

I am delighted to welcome my colleagues and friends Prime Minister Sopoaga, Foreign Minister Murray McCully, Premier Talagi, Helen Clark, Stephen O'Brien and Elhadj As Sy. Friends all.

I am really pleased to have this opportunity to co-host this Summit with my friend and counterpart, New Zealand Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, and to be here for these important consultations with our Pacific friends, as part of the World Humanitarian Summit.

The scale of the humanitarian challenge facing the world is immense. It has been estimated that nearly one million people are fleeing their homes every month because of conflicts or natural disasters.

The international community has a responsibility to provide the humanitarian assistance – but it must be effective and efficient and meet the needs of the people caught up in these crises.

Australia takes our responsibility seriously with a particular strong focus in supporting countries in our region, our neighbourhood, the Pacific and help them prepare and respond to crises.

While the global discussion is often dominated by the conflict-ridden and mega-crises of the Middle East and Africa, the Pacific is not immune to natural disasters.

Indeed, four of the top ten countries listed on the 2014 United Nations World Risk Index – which ranks countries' risk of being subject to natural disasters – are Pacific island nations.

Our friend and Pacific neighbour Vanuatu is ranked first – with the greatest risk of natural disaster worldwide – Tonga is third, Solomon Islands sixth, PNG tenth.

In addition, of the top 20 countries with the highest annual average disaster losses by GDP, eight are from our region.

It is barely three months since Tropical Cyclone Pam tore through the Pacific devastating the islands of Vanuatu, hitting Tuvalu, impacting upon Kiribati and the Solomon Islands.

I was in Port Vila in the days following Cyclone Pam and it was confronting – houses without roofs, power lines scattered over roads and fields and debris everywhere.

An estimated 188,000 people across 22 islands were affected, resorts and farms and businesses were decimated and the hospital and many schools were severely damaged. Tragically, 16 people lost their lives.

The World Bank's post-disaster needs assessment put the country's total damage and losses from Cyclone Pam at more than $600 million – that's 64 per cent of its GDP.

As Vanuatu's close friend and largest aid donor, Australia was there and ready to assist.

We immediately released pre-positioned supplies. Australian humanitarian relief teams – search and rescue workers, doctors and nurses and logistic experts – were in the country in less than 36 hours. We deployed a number of transport planes filled with personnel – over 500 in all and supplies – water and sanitation, health and hygiene, food and shelter.

My visit to Port Vila so shortly after the cyclone was so that I could see how the recovery efforts were progressing and to meet with the Government, and the people who had been affected, and to ensure needs were being met as far as possible. And I think that, sadly, Vanuatu can be another case study for us to consider at this meeting.

In the immediate aftermath, communications and airline access was under significant pressure.

Many ni-Vanuatu were reeling from the shock but they told me they were overjoyed to see the Australian transport planes – the C17s, the C130s flying in overhead – the Australians were here.

Together with New Zealand, Australians worked shoulder to shoulder with ni-Vanuatu. Importantly, we worked closely with the Vanuatu Government, particularly the National Disaster Management Office, to ensure our assistance was well coordinated and targeted for this is so often the challenge.

An SMS early warning system we had funded proved to be an effective mechanism for disseminating information.

Australia's cyclone-related assistance to Vanuatu now totals more than $50 million.

I'm pleased to confirm our ongoing interest remains steadfast with our Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove currently visiting Vanuatu.

In the Pacific, there are few issues more important than how we can better prepare and respond to natural disasters.

We will all want to see practical outcomes for the Pacific from the World Humanitarian Summit.

Investment in disaster risk reduction and preparedness pays dividends for it saves lives and protects economies.

We should build on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which reconfirms state responsibility for reducing and managing disaster risk.

Later this year, Pacific leaders will consider a 'Strategy for Climate and Disaster Resilient Development in the Pacific'.

This Summit will build on the large body of work that Australia and our partners in the region have accumulated on disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response planning.

The Pacific can contribute to the global humanitarian assistance agenda in many ways.

Pacific Island countries know well how important it is to support local authorities in the aftermath of a disaster, including managing the multiple offers of assistance.

Pacific Island countries share the experience in building resilience and managing the impacts of climate change on economic development in partnership with Australia and New Zealand.

Global experience from disasters evidences that a community that draws from perhaps its greatest asset – its women – has the best chance of a swift recovery. Australia believes that women must have a stronger voice and a greater role in humanitarian responses and action.

A priority for Australia is engaging the capacities of the private sector in Pacific island countries – already a key player in humanitarian action.

The private sector provides critical telecommunications, food and logistics but it's also affected in its own right – in the aftermath of a disaster, shops are closed, jobs are lost and revenue is forfeited.

We know that if markets can recover quickly, and people have money to spend in those markets, the road to overall recovery is faster. We must find more effective ways to empower people to rebuild their lives and to re-charge the local private sector after a disaster.

Harnessing the capacities, and expertise, innovation and resources of the private sector will bridge the gap between what countries need following a disaster and what donors are able to provide.

We should consider long term partnerships with the private sector to improve preparedness when opportunities exist.

We in the Pacific also want to hear from business about how we can assist in preparing and responding to disasters.

Given the scale of humanitarian challenges globally, we must find new ways to meet the needs of those affected.

Australia believes that we can transform humanitarian assistance and will help lead efforts to do so through innovation. The world should embrace new technologies, as Murray indicated, to find innovative ways to resolve seemingly intractable problems.

This is part of the reason why I have established, what I call the innovationXchange within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – this is a hub that supports innovation across Australia's aid program – with some of the best and brightest and creative thinkers from our public service seconded to it as well as international input.

Our innovationXchange is working to identify, trial and scale-up, brand new and creative and successful approaches to the way we deliver development and humanitarian assistance.

And so as part of this innovation drive for new ideas and improving the way we do things, I am announcing today $2 million for a Humanitarian Innovation Challenge – which will support our humanitarian response in the Pacific.

The aim of this Humanitarian Innovation Challenge will be to tackle some of the problems that you identify and you prioritise here at this meeting. And so I hope you use this opportunity to rethink how we prepare for and respond to crises here in the Pacific.

So this meeting here in Auckland should hopefully give us all the time and the space to delve into the challenges we face, and see what fresh thinking can emerge. So we'll be seeking ideas from the public and private sectors, government, NGOs, individuals, communities and with funding to trial the ideas and then we can scale them up if we think they will be successful.

And so I hope that by the time we reach the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 we will be able to share with the world our innovative ways of addressing these challenges.

Given that the Pacific is an environment prone to natural disasters, rapid and effective humanitarian responses are utterly essential.

This World Humanitarian Summit Pacific Regional Consultation is an opportunity to bring together government representatives, the private sector, NGOs and communities to focus on the challenges facing our region and identifying the strengths that we need to meet them.

The recommendations produced here will influence the outcomes in Istanbul next year.

Next week I will be hosting a Pacific Island Forum foreign ministers meeting in Sydney and disaster risk management will be high on the agenda. So the ideas presented today will also feed into our Foreign minister's meeting.

Australia is here, in Auckland, to share our thoughts and experiences but more importantly, we're here to listen and to learn from the collective wisdom gathered in this room today.

Thank you.

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