By Ashlee Betteridge, Communications and Visibility Manager, Australian Humanitarian Partnership Support Unit

Two men are holding cups with seedlings planted in them

Live & Learn Solomon Islands, with the support of the Kastom Garden Association, provided training and material support to urban and peri-urban communities in Honiara to set up demonstration nurseries to support backyard organic gardening through the Australian Humanitarian Partnership COVID-19 response in Solomon Islands. Ernest Ta’asi /Oxfam in the Pacific

It sounds like a big old cliché at this stage, but COVID-19 has changed the way we live and work. International humanitarian action has been no exception. The last few years have required rapid adaption and innovation from those responding to crises, with the complexity of conflict, climate change, displacement and poverty only compounded by the pandemic. Those on the ground in communities have always been the most important first responders, and COVID-19 has only emphasized their critical role.

The theme for World Humanitarian Day 2022 is ‘It Takes a Village’, recognizing that whenever and wherever people are in crisis, there are others who will help them: often among affected people themselves, but also within the global community.

In the Indo-Pacific, where the bulk of Australian Humanitarian Partnership activations have taken place since the pandemic began, the importance of ‘the village’ rings especially true.

The Australian Humanitarian Partnership, or AHP, is a partnership between the Australian Government and six leading Australian NGOs to save lives, alleviate suffering and enhance human dignity in the face of conflict, disasters and other crises. The program also has a focus on resilience through the Disaster READY program, which supports locally-led disaster preparedness through NGO partners in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste.

Alinea International operates the AHP Support Unit, which provides a range of operations, MEL, and communications services to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and partner NGOs to facilitate the program.

The AHP has always been highly localized, leveraging the deep relationships of NGOs and civil society in-country, backstopped by international expertise and Australian Government support. But the pandemic took this to the next level.

Numerous Pacific island countries closed their borders to international arrivals in 2020, concerned about the ability of their health systems to cope with COVID-19 outbreaks. Some have only recently reopened. While this action protected many lives, it came with significant economic costs, particularly in countries with high dependence on international tourism. Livelihoods were impacted, the prices of imported goods increased, and lockdowns and movement restrictions when cases were detected created additional pressures.

With international humanitarians kept out, even when countries faced other disasters on top of the pandemic such as Tropical Cyclone Yasa, Tropical Cyclone Ana and catastrophic flooding in Timor-Leste, local partners led the response. Village and community were at the heart of building resilience, and recovery.

Food security was a significant concern across the region, as it continues to be globally. In each country, AHP partners looked for local solutions and in many cases, the most important intervention was in the backyard.

With uncertainty about how long the COVID-19 pandemic and border closures would go on for, small-scale vegetable growing not only put food on the table, but excess produce could be sold for cash, supporting livelihoods.

This proved particularly important during Fiji’s outbreak of the Delta strain in 2021.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, business had been thriving for the small woodcarving community of Ketesa, located outside Suva. But their main customers were hotels and retail stores catering to international tourists.

With the support of AHP partner Church Agencies Network Disaster Operations (CAN DO), an umbrella organization for churches and faith-based development actors, the Ketesa community was supported with agricultural kits, seedlings, agriculture training, financial literacy training and cash assistance through the AHP COVID-19 response.

The 90 residents of Ketesa gained permission from the Fiji Government to utilize an idle piece of land to plant vegetables, and this community farm has been a resounding success.

“It has always been a collaboration for us. We work as a community in this project where women and children tend to the vegetable farm, ensuring crops are watered daily, while men from our community dedicate two days a week to work on the farm,” said Setareki Kotoisuvavou of Ketesa Methodist Church.

“When the second [COVID] outbreak hit Fiji [in 2021], we didn’t feel much, as we already had our farm to fall back on.”

In Solomon Islands, community-run demonstration nurseries in both urban and remote communities have provided climate-smart seedlings, training and information on new agricultural techniques.

“This has been very beneficial to us,” said Mary, a mother of five and the sole provider for her family in Guadalcanal, of a Save the Children-implemented project in her village. “In the past we did not have such nursery houses and we are very happy with it being established, because we have learned a lot from it.”

Similar, but highly localized, interventions were rolled out in AHP responses across the region. In Papua New Guinea, Oxfam supplied communities with high-protein corn seeds to improve nutrition as well as supplies for bulb onion farming, a significant cash crop. In Samoa, a partnership between CARE Australia, Women in Business Development and the national disability advocacy organization Nuanua O Le Alofa supported accessible home gardens and food self-sufficiency.

Responses were by no means focused on food alone. As vaccines became available, church leaders, NGO workers and civil society supported national vaccine rollout campaigns, combatting misinformation in urban and remote communities one group at a time. Psychosocial support services assisted those struggling with the mental health impacts. Community-level and national committees addressed child protection, and the rise in gender-based violence. Culturally relevant, inclusive messaging ensured people understood the pandemic and were equipped with information instead of fear.

As we reflect on the shape of humanitarianism in 2022, there are many lessons we have learned from the response to the pandemic. It does take a village to respond to a crisis, and there is much that the international community can and should do, particularly in the face of climate change and conflict. But local responders and communities will always be the first on the ground, with the deepest contextual understanding. They are the linchpin for resilience and preparedness as we navigate an ever-changing world.