World Humanitarian Day Keynote Address

  • Speech, check against delivery

Anthony, thank you for that very kind introduction.

Diplomats, friends, guests, and students who are here today. I am particularly delighted to be here as we gather at the State Library of Victoria with the Lowy Institute to mark World Humanitarian Day. And also to pay tribute to those who inspired this day by their sacrifice.

The Australian Government has dedicated significant funds and resources to humanitarian assistance, disaster risk reduction and disaster relief efforts worldwide.

Let me start by giving a recent example of what I believe will reflect Australia's approach in our region.

Australia has a special relationship with our friends in the Pacific. We are often the lead international partner when natural disasters hit, which are then followed by requests for support from the governments of the affected nations.

In February this year the strongest tropical cyclone to develop in the South Pacific in recorded history hit Fiji causing widespread destruction.

Forty four deaths, but affecting over 500,000 people, or 62 precent of their total population. 30,000 homes, 495 schools, 88 medical and health clinics were destroyed or badly damaged.

Australia response was immediate. I rang Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola - what can we do?

Our High Commission in Suva immediately sprang into action.

We provided an initial $15 million in life-saving supplies in the immediate aftermath to help the worst affected communities. We subsequently contributed a further $20 million to help Fiji with recovery and reconstruction.

The Australian Defence Force made a major contribution. Our C17 and C130 transport planes made 40 missions or sorties, across the Pacific delivering 520 tonnes of supplies and equipment. As well, HMAS Canberra transported 60 tonnes of emergency relief supplies, trucks, vehicles and three helicopters.

Around 1000 Australian Defence Force personnel, including engineers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, were deployed. A medical team, specialist disaster response experts and civilian volunteers were also deployed.

We provided relief in some form to over 200,000 people.

When Cyclone Winston made landfall on Viti Levu, Fijian nurse Asenaca Rika was running a small nursing station in the province of Ra, supporting a population of about 2,000 people.

Ra was one of the worst-hit areas.

During the cyclone, Nurse Rika and her family huddled together in their bathroom through the night as the medical station was ripped off its foundation and destroyed. Nurse Rika converted her home into a makeshift clinic to see patients in desperate need of medical care, until Australia's $35 million humanitarian assistance package supported the establishment of a nursing clinic from which she could work, in partnership with the Fiji Government.

On 28 February eight days after cyclone Winston made landfall, Australian nurse Nadine Tipping, who I understand is here today, was deployed to Fiji as part of our response.

Nadine was initially based at Rakiraki Hospital, where she supported the first Australian health teams responding to the disaster. In March, Nadine relocated to Korovou where she helped the local hospital with in-patient care, collected vital injury and disease surveillance data and worked as part of a mobile assessment team going out into devastated communities, providing primary health care.

So, these are just a few of the more personal examples, the stories, behind Australia's humanitarian response to Cyclone Winston, including many different partners and tasks.

I hopped aboard one of our C-17 missions to Fiji and saw first-hand the impact of our humanitarian response particularly in the outlying islands. The government and people of Fiji were deeply appreciative and it's great to see Lieutenant Colonel James Dugdell here today, who led Operation Fiji Assist on Koro Island. I also see others in uniform here and thank you all for the tireless and courageous contribution you made.

HMAS Canberra is back in Suva now, as is Australia's Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

We have made as a priority task getting Fijian children back to schools, where it is possible, and creating temporary learning spaces with educational materials for about 57,000 children and we are now working on rebuilding more than 30 schools.

Today, Minster Fierravanti-Wells will be announcing that Australia will support the rebuilding of an additional 12 schools in Ra province and a number of schools on Koro Island.

We are also supporting the rebuilding of markets across Fiji to help families restore their livelihoods, which we know is particularly important for the women who make up 75 per cent of market vendors in Fiji.

Last Friday, I was back in Suva for the Pacific Islands Forum Foreign Ministers' meeting where I heard more about the recovery work that is taking place in Fiji and the progress that is being made.

As an aside, I should note that the meeting was timed utterly coincidentally for the playing at the Rio Olympics of the final of day of the Rugby 7s match between Fiji and the United Kingdom. The entire nation of Fiji seemed to come to a standstill and we were utterly mesmerised by the Fijian athletes, who literally rang rings around their opponents to win Fiji's first and only Olympic medal – and it was Gold!

What an amazing morale boost that was to a nation, post-disaster.

We recognise that it will take many years before all the damage from Cyclone Winston has been repaired. Notwithstanding the timely and comprehensive nature of our response, and that of the New Zealand and Fijian government to Cyclone Winston, there are still lessons to be learned.

In our Indo-Pacific region, which includes the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, we have a greater need for humanitarian support than ever. Australia is a rapid responder to crises in the Indo-Pacific, as in Fiji and after Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, often providing assistance within 48 hours of a request.

We pre-position supplies in the region, we deploy highly-skilled medical and search and rescue teams at short notice and – from my own department – a crisis response team. We deploy Australian Civilian Corps to support countries before and after a crisis, people such as Gail Owen, who I believe is here today, who helped assess what was required to rebuild Fiji's schools.

We believe early response equals early recovery – an approach proven in Fiji after Cyclone Winston. The response of the Fijian Government was crucial, coordinating the efforts of domestic agencies with international partners such as Australia and New Zealand.

The rapid efforts of Fijians, the Fijian Government and Australia led to children getting back to school within weeks and a start to rebuilding of community infrastructure.

From the regional to the global. The challenge of responding to global crises is on a scale perhaps greater than it has ever been.

During 2005 to 2015 natural disasters claimed nearly 840,000 lives and affected 1.8 billion people, including 25 million left without homes.

Larger populations, conflicts and failures of governance and government are all factors that also create humanitarian challenges.

One of the features of modern conflicts – as we have seen most dramatically in the Middle East – is the huge number of people that are displaced.

Currently, it is estimated that more than 65 million people globally – three times our national population – have been forced to flee their homes – it's an almost incomprehensible challenge.

While Australia has a particular focus on our region, we also make a significant contribution to the global humanitarian effort.

Notwithstanding severe budgetary constraints, Australia provides $340 million a year to humanitarian work, with an increasing amount to our emergency fund of $130 million - figures that do not include the extraordinary contribution made by our defence forces, which add significantly to the value of our contribution.

Our recent responses to humanitarian crises in Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia and West Africa demonstrate our global commitment. We are recognised as a principled donor, providing flexible funding to United Nations partners like the World Food Programme and the UN High Commission for Refugees.

We work with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Australian Red Cross to strengthen respect for and adherence to international law, including international humanitarian law. This is central to ensuring those most in need receive humanitarian assistance, the protection of civilians during conflict and the safety of humanitarian workers.

We also have long-standing partnerships with Australian NGOs, many of whom are represented here today.

It is clear the global humanitarian system is under immense strain.

That is why United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for the World Humanitarian Summit, which took place in Istanbul in May. It underscores the importance of the Secretary-General and President Obama's summits on refugees and migration that will take place in September, just prior to the United Nations General Assembly Leader's Week.

From Australia's perspective, the World Humanitarian Summit produced important outcomes – both for governments and other active shareholders and stakeholders.

Australia focused on ensuring Pacific interests were given consideration during the summit, so the international system can be more ready and responsive in support of Pacific states before, during and after crises.

We also focused on making sure the global humanitarian system was more responsive to the needs of women, girls and people living with disabilities – who are often disproportionately impacted by disaster.

Given these challenges, we must broaden the base of funding for humanitarian work, to better harness philanthropy and the private sector.

The reforms proposed at the Summit are a good start. We need the right international structures and coordination to meet the many different humanitarian crises we face now, and those of the future. This is a work in progress – the upcoming Refugee Summits will take another important step.

There are some really difficult policy challenges to tackle here.

For example, most refugees prefer to stay close to home because they want to return when it is safe to do so. It is therefore important to utilise the limited resources available to support refugees in neighbouring countries as far as practicable.

Last year Australia committed to an additional immigration intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees at a cost of $700 million. We also committed to providing $44 million to relief agencies. That will support 240,000 refugees for many months in camps in the Middle East and by Lebanon and Jordon who are bearing the brunt along with Turkey. That will facilitate the return home to Syria of those who wish to do so.

The United Nations today is seeking to negotiate a ceasefire in Syria to enable much needed humanitarian supplies and support to reach Aleppo. The civil war in Syria is on a scale of the likes of what we have not seen in contemporary history.

The sheer scale of the global humanitarian crisis means we must make decisions about how our resources can have the biggest impact. That is why in the May budget I announced a further $220 million package over three years to ensure our humanitarian partners could better support refugees and internally displaced communities as a result of the Syria conflict.

As Anthony notes, Australians are, by nature, a generous and empathetic people.

I acknowledge the efforts of two schools represented here today – Melbourne High School and Our Holy Redeemer Primary who, over the past few years, have raised tens of thousands of dollars for humanitarian crises.

When Australians see neighbours struck down by disaster, they want to make a difference where they can – and they expect their Government to also play a responsible role.

So today, in addition to recognising the work of the extraordinary people who step into the most challenging circumstances to help others, I am launching Australia's new Humanitarian Strategy.

I will touch on a few of the priorities set out in the strategy to give you a sense of how we see our role, and where we see opportunities to deliver humanitarian assistance in better more innovative ways to improve and enhance our efforts.

Disaster management in the Pacific will continue to be a key focus with risk reduction, preparedness and resilience key principles of our approach. For example, investments in Fiji's early warning systems meant the death and injury toll from Tropical Cyclone Winston was in fact below that experienced in past events, despite the size and intensity of the cyclone.

Leaders across the Pacific are rightly focused on the risks of natural disasters, particularly in the context of increasing climate variability. Resilience is also a major agenda item for the Pacific Islands Forum, which is why climate program funding will be such a significant element in our aid program in the years ahead.

Australia will spend, in fact will invest, $1 billion over five years on climate change finance and we will focus on the Pacific. While programs will pursue a range of purposes, disaster risk reduction and management will be front and centre.

Today I'm also announcing new scholarships for Pacific disaster managers to study at the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership at Deakin University in Melbourne – a contribution Australia, together with the IKEA Foundation, is making to help the region handle increased climate variability. Applications for five full scholarships close on the second of October, so I encourage Pacific disaster managers to apply.

Australia is currently renewing our largest multilateral multi-year partnerships – and working to ensure these key humanitarian agencies are adapting and fit for purpose in what is a changing humanitarian landscape.

Another priority of our humanitarian strategy is to support countries in our region leading their own disaster responses. We want to see an increase in support for local NGOs on the ground, and to first responders – the type of humanitarian workers and organisations we are honouring today – because targeted assistance is more accountable and more efficient and it strengthens resilience.

Australia's humanitarian strategy will also focus on programs that particularly support women and people with disabilities. Australia has shown real global leadership in this area. It is estimated that women are also 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster.

I've heard from many women directly in Fiji, Vanuatu about the challenges they face during and after natural disasters. For example, study after study shows that violence against women goes up in crisis environments. It happens in conflicts and disasters all over the world, in our region, and Australia is not immune. Women are often the first to mobilise resources and the community to support recovery and reconstruction efforts after a disaster. However, their voices are too often sidelined, not heard or silenced.

Australia has been a leader in providing sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls affected by emergencies. This has reduced the number of women who have died in childbirth or as a result of gender based violence during disasters, and we've been active in supporting women in disaster management leadership positions.

The last area I want to touch on today is very important and a key part of our strategy – and that is our focus on the private sector and innovation to maximise the effectiveness of our work.

I've spoken many times about the critical role the private sector plays in economic growth in developing countries and as an engine for change and innovation in development assistance, programs that certainly include humanitarian responses.

In the developing world, new approaches are transforming some economies that have struggled for decades with entrenched development challenges. Innovation, applying new technology, new thinking, new approaches, new ideas, is a major source of potential growth for Australia and other economies, with innovation a major driver of poverty reduction and as a key agent for social change.

As part of our foreign aid program I've established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the innovationXchange, a hub. We took people from the public sector, the private sector, from the World Bank and Google, from innovative organisations around the world, all coming together to help pioneer new approaches to delivering development assistance and aid.

We are taking risks, calculated risks in embracing new ways of doing things, piloting and testing creative ideas. This has involved the successful launch of a $2 million Pacific Humanitarian Challenge – designed to find new solutions and test new technologies that will improve the way Australia – and the world – responds to disasters in the Pacific.

I am pleased to report that the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge is already bearing fruit. We identified five winning creative ideas that I announced in May that will lead to real changes in how assistance is provided. These include the Albury-based Firetail – represented here today by Jack Hurley and Sam Cohen – a low-cost, easy-to-use drone that helps rapidly assess damage and humanitarian needs in remote areas following a disaster. With the Australian Government's support, the Firetail prototype will be improved and tailored to suit the needs of local communities in the Pacific.

Today I'm also announcing another challenge to drive fresh thinking and new ideas in this space - a $1 million Humanitarian Supplies Challenge. We are seeking innovative emergency relief solutions in three categories: access to clean drinking water, generating off-grid energy and providing safe, temporary shelter.

These are three of the most vital and urgent challenges that arise in the immediate aftermath of humanitarian disasters.

Australia's humanitarian supplies can typically be deployed within 48 hours of a natural disaster – that is crucial for human life and survival. However, we are keen to generate and support ideas for better ways to enable us to get affected communities what they need even faster if that's at all possible.

I think this is a great initiative that I hope captures your imagination and inspires you in new ways to help people in the greatest of need.

Ladies and gentlemen, the humanitarian challenge confronting the world is on a larger scale than ever before. While the figures might be daunting, it is a challenge to which we must rise and that will depend on the skills, compassion and courage epitomised by many in this room.

Humanitarian workers are crucial to our response to crises and disaster and often the unsung heroes of our response to crises and disasters. It is a difficult, complex and challenging time to be in humanitarian work. However, it is also a time of great change, potential and opportunity.

Rapid technological change and a widespread uptake of innovation can provide the new tools and new approaches that we will need in coming years. We must become more effective, better able to align international assistance with local and national efforts and faster in our responses.

Lives depend upon it.

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