Issue 79 - Article 14

Local leadership, Covid-19 and the Pacific

May 25, 2021
Josie Flint, Josaia Jirauni Osborne, Chris Roche and Fiona Tarpey
Port Vila International Airport during the Tropical Cyclone Harold response: government staff process received humanitarian supplies for fumigation.
13 min read


Although the evidence base around the localisation agenda is uneven, there is increasing recognition that a great deal can be learned from local leadership across the Pacific in the context of Covid-19. In disaster response over recent decades, self-reliance and traditional knowledge have had to compete with the substantial presence of international agencies and donors. Managing the consequences of this influx of aid actors has become a key challenge of emergency response in the Pacific, but emerging analysis of humanitarian and development programming in the context of Covid-19 suggests that this has the potential to change. Notwithstanding the great damage brought by the pandemic and containment measures, in the Pacific this shift in context has created the conditions to significantly strengthen local ownership of humanitarian response and development.

With many Pacific Islands closing their borders, as well as internal restrictions on mobility, the spread of the virus has been closely contained. As of 29 March 2021, according to the Pacific Community’s Covid-19 updates, a handful of countries had kept their cumulative total of cases below 20, while Fiji and New Caledonia had had 67 and 120 cases respectively, and Papua New Guinea had reported more than 4,100 cases (likely to climb). Interestingly, case numbers are far greater in the US- and French-administered territories of Guam and French Polynesia. Despite this relative success, the social and economic impacts of the pandemic have been significant.

In this context, emergency and development responses in the Pacific have made use of new configurations of expertise and input, while also carrying the legacies of neocolonial relationships and ways of working. Based on preliminary research by a partnership of organisations in Australia and Pacific Island nations, including the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO), which draws on a region-wide survey, key interviews and documents, this article outlines the emerging findings on how Covid-19 has affected locally led humanitarian action in the region 1. This article draws primarily on research captured in: Australian Red Cross, Humanitarian Advisory Group and Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University (2020) A window of opportunity: learning from Covid-19 to progress locally led response and development ( . It concludes with some questions for future reflection and research.

Disrupting the status quo

Notwithstanding the multifaceted impacts of Covid-19, perhaps the single most influential change in the humanitarian and development sectors in the Pacific has been the departure of large numbers of international aid workers. Restrictions on entry to Pacific countries and movement within them have limited access to surge support; while the possibility of ‘travel bubbles’ among Covid-19-safe countries has been raised, at time of writing no agreements have been made. Establishment of regional working groups, coordination, and monitoring and evaluation have also seen shifts in the status quo in practice, and these are further explored below.

Localisation regional working group

The creation of the Technical Working Group on Localisation (TWG) under the Pacific Resilience Partnership (PRP), an initiative that predated the pandemic but which has done much of its work since the onset of Covid-19, reflects the region’s commitment to local leadership as essential to improving the outcomes of humanitarian and development activities. Beyond emergency response, initiatives to promote local leadership in humanitarian action are tied to an overall Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific (FRDP). A ‘Mapping Localisation’ survey by the TWG captured a strong perception that the reduction in international presence would strengthen local leadership in the humanitarian and development sectors 2. PRP Localisation TWG’s ‘Mapping localisation in the Pacific survey’, August 2020 (paper forthcoming). . The survey, which sought to identify the impacts of Covid-19 across these sectors in the Pacific, will be used to inform the TWG on what support local actors need to better respond to their constituents.

Emphasis on decentralising coordination

The pandemic has brought greater recognition of subnational forums and actors and their links to more visible and internationally connected networks. In Fiji, for example, where PIANGO is based, there has been more decentralised coordination in the wake of Covid-19, particularly with the support and leadership of the NGO umbrella platform, the Fiji Council of Social Services (FCOSS). This includes increased collaboration between actors at the subnational level, such as local officials, NGOs, faith-based organisations and other community groups, as well as greater collaboration between the national government and subnational officials.

Locally relevant approaches to monitoring and evaluation

These shifts in the status quo have also converged with longer-standing efforts to disrupt hierarchies in the aid system. This is particularly noticeable in work to develop more locally relevant approaches to monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). While the pandemic has restricted some forms of data collection, it has also opened up space to try out methods neglected by top-down or standardised approaches to MEL. Engaging through ‘tok stori’ practices of narrative storytelling in the Solomon Islands, for example, can help to access insights in a relational way. This is not so much about ‘new’ practices being developed as about taking advantage of shifts in hierarchies to return to previously marginalised local expertise, knowledge and techniques. By combining these strategic efforts with more tactical changes during the pandemic, there is potential for transformative change.

Expanding spaces to help shift power

The physical absence of foreign aid workers has created space and opportunities for local leaders to use their creativity and innovation. It has encouraged changes in established ways of working, enabling shifts in institutional cultures. Across the sector, communication is reported to have become more informal and therefore more accessible, related to and with implications for the increased proportion and participation of national staff. The main technologies of communication have expanded to include social media (such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and personal Skype accounts), which are perceived as more horizontal forums that favour interpersonal collaboration. Meetings have been held in local languages such as Bislama in Vanuatu, and meeting approaches have been more informal. Local aid workers reported that they felt less pressure to keep other parts of their lives (like faith and family) separate from their professional roles – which national and local aid workers find to be more culturally literate ways of working.

This is not to say that the impacts of international power lift immediately. Interviews conducted by researchers at La Trobe University highlighted concerns among national and local aid workers that, in stepping into more prominent roles, they would be judged according to standards and expectations that they had not been part of shaping. Some expressed fears that they will not be supported by international colleagues if they do not appear to be meeting those standards of success. One interviewee described these continuing legacies of externally driven aid approaches as ‘Colonisation of the mind’. International systems and organisations have pressured local organisations to conform to ways of working that undermine local knowledge and experience for so long that it will take time to change. Some interviewees also reported an increased jockeying for power among local staff, particularly those in senior roles 3. La Trobe University research on Covid-19 impacts on organisational adaptation and ways of working, April–November 2020 (paper forthcoming). .

Overall, however, Pacific Islander aid workers have reported shifts in everyday working practices. They feel more freedom to express their ideas and explore solutions and feel encouraged to propose more creative, culturally appropriate methods, while also experiencing greater collaboration with Pacific Islander colleagues within and between organisations.

Responding differently

These changing dynamics were apparent in the response to Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold in April 2020. Analysis of the first 50 days of response in Vanuatu by the Vanuatu Association for Non-Government Organisations (VANGO) and HAG indicates that local communities, leaders and civil society played a far stronger role after TC Harold than in previous responses and this contributed to more appropriate and relevant assistance 4. HAG and VANGO (2020) No turning back: local leadership in Vanuatu’s response to Tropical Cyclone Harold (; in Bislama at: . Strong ownership of the response by community structures such as the Community Disaster and Climate Change Committees and the Malvatumauri (National Council of Chiefs) supported increased participation in logistics, sourcing of local experts and provision of more appropriate locally sourced food rations.

While there was consensus among contributors to the research that the response was less timely, this primarily reflected the pandemic context overlaid with the cyclone’s impacts. As one interviewee for that paper summarised: ‘Covid-19 has restricted a lot of international experts to step in and help, forcing us to do things within the country capacity. As much of a struggle as it is, this is a step forward for our country’.

As the response to TC Harold highlighted, the pandemic has disrupted international supply chains, both in terms of the production schedules of suppliers beyond the Pacific region and their ability to safely deliver goods to countries with increased border control requirements. This has had implications for humanitarian response in the region, which has typically relied on these international chains 5. ARC (2020) Local response in a global pandemic: a case study of the Red Cross response to Tropical Cyclone Harold during Covid-19 in Vanuatu and Fiji ( . To help address these challenges, the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19 was established in April 2020 to expedite responses to humanitarian and health crises across the region 6. See Pacific Islands Forum (2020) ‘Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on Covid-19 continues delivery of medical supplies’, 30 June ( .

In the public health response to Covid-19, there is emerging evidence of increased opportunities for women. In Fiji and Vanuatu, according to research by the Australian Red Cross, an emphasis on health programming, community engagement, and risk reduction – areas where women have greater experience and recognition – favoured more women’s participation and leadership than is typically seen in responses to sudden-onset disasters 7. ARC (2020). . In Fiji, for instance, women’s voices were also amplified by the turn towards online platforms that offered more inclusive spaces for engagement.

Relationships done remotely

It is clear that the significant move towards remote support was met with strong backing by local and national actors. However, a closer look at this picture shows some important differences in perceptions of these experiences – differences that highlight the need for a better understanding of how best to conduct partnerships remotely. 

In the TWG survey across the Pacific region, 70% of respondents believed there had been an increase of remote support in the context of Covid-19. However, the proportion of international and regional actors that held this view was higher than the proportion of national and local organisations. This suggests that those supplying remote support believe their contribution is more extensive or active than those on the receiving end; it may also reflect different understandings of what this support entails. The increase in remote working also drew attention to digital divides, such as different levels of access to or familiarity with certain platforms or varying levels of stability in digital infrastructure, and the potential for these to impact the effectiveness of remote support 8. ARC (2020). .

Importantly, research consistently highlighted that the strength of pre-existing relationships was an important factor in the effectiveness of remote support. In the TWG survey, undertaken in July 2020, 61% of local and national organisations reported new partnerships with other organisations. Yet relationships based on trust and mutual understanding take time to develop.

Familiar funding flows

Despite the notable changes brought about by the pandemic context, funding continues to flow primarily through international agencies. This situation is deeply entrenched. Globally, the amount of humanitarian funding that went directly to local and national organisations in 2019 was approximately 2.1% of the total, despite the 2016 Grand Bargain target of 25%. These challenges are borne out in a joint study on the difficulties that local groups, particularly women-led organisations, faced in accessing timely and sufficient funding during the pandemic.

In the Pacific, based on our research, funnelling funds through international bodies before they reach local and national organisations continues to be international donors’ dominant approach. However, 66% of national and local actors in the Pacific reported increased funding in the wake of Covid-19 9. Localisation TWG (forthcoming). . Lower implementation costs – due to much reduced international travel and surge costs – may be one influencing factor: 60–80% of Red Cross funding for TC Harold went to the affected National Societies 10. ARC (2020). . Whether the increase in resources has kept pace with the greater needs reported by national and local organisations, and the higher proportion of needs to which they are the primary or sole responders, is not yet clear. Local actors’ lack of visibility in humanitarian financial reporting has long inhibited the potential to track sub-grants below the headline allocations.

As the research above highlights, there are signs that cultural and technical shifts are having an impact on how funds are used once they reach the Pacific-based organisations. More work will be needed to understand these shifts and support their potential to contribute to improved outcomes for Pacific communities. 


Experiences in the Pacific in the wake of Covid-19 have shown that local leadership of humanitarian action and development – during implementation of the response as well as when setting the agenda for aid in the region – has strengthened in many ways. And yet several participants in our research expressed the concern that, when the pandemic ebbs and international presence rises, the opportunity to learn from and extend this local ownership might be lost in the return to ‘normal’. Instead, it is critical that, as a sector, we reflect upon why and how locally led practices have emerged during the pandemic and how best to maintain their place at the centre.

The pandemic has brought a sharper reckoning with habitual ways of working that – whether explicitly or not – deprioritise locally grounded, culturally specific and contextually contingent forms of expertise and practice in favour of supposedly generalisable or standardised knowledge, expectations and behaviours. While transnational collaboration, assistance and support are integral to aid efforts, the terms on which these take place have been more directly challenged as a result of more open debates about inequalities in combination with the rapid change to presence and practice.

Josie Flint is an Executive with the Humanitarian Advisory Group. Josaia Jirauni Osborne is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs. Chris Roche is the Director of the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University. Fiona Tarpey is Head of Advocacy in the International Programs Department at the Australian Red Cross.

This article is based on joint research conducted by the Pacific Resilience Partnership’s Technical Working Group on Localisation, the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs, the Australian Red Cross, the  Humanitarian Advisory Group and the Institute for Human Security and Social Change at La Trobe University.


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