Interview: “Even small disasters can overwhelm small-island economies”

13 May, 2014
April 2014: UN Resident Coordinator in the Pacific Osnat Lubrani during a field visit of the Executive Board to a village in Fiji. Credit: UNFPA
April 2014: UN Resident Coordinator in the Pacific Osnat Lubrani during a field visit of the Executive Board to a village in Fiji. Credit: UNFPA

Ms. Osnat Lubrani is the United Nations Resident Coordinator of the UN multi-country office in Fiji. The office covers 10 Pacific Island countries: Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Ms. Lubrani is also the Co-chair of the Pacific Humanitarian Team, a regional disaster response partnership comprising UN agencies, regional and bilateral organizations, the Red Cross, national and international NGOs, faith-based and community organizations, and donors.

Before arriving in Suva in October 2013, Ms. Lubrani was the UN Development Coordinator and the UN Development Programme’s Resident Representative in Kosovo.

Q. What have been your impressions of the Pacific Islands since your arrival in late 2013?

A. It has been a dramatic change coming from the UN office in Kosovo—a landlocked country in a post-conflict setting—to a regional office covering 10 small-island states in an area four times the size of the United States. Each island country is so fragile and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and the frequency of natural disasters means response and recovery needs to be incorporated into everyday development work. That, for me, has been the most striking impression of the Pacific.

Q. What do you see as key priorities in the Pacific?

A. The pressing issue is the region’s vulnerability to disasters and the impacts of climate change. Even small disasters can overwhelm small-island economies, and we are already seeing communities being displaced due to rising sea levels.

The Pacific is also dealing with a number of development challenges, such as low rates of female representation in positions of leadership and government, coupled with high rates of gender-based violence. There are also unemployment and poverty issues, urbanization and population growth. The challenge is finding ways to help these economies grow in a sustainable way when many have such limited resources at their disposal.

Q. How are UN agencies working to address these priorities?

A. In the Pacific, all of the UN agencies are working in a multi-country context, so a multidisciplinary approach is needed in everything we do. We need to think about how we can work more holistically and how we can prioritize our work when it is so interrelated. For example, what the UN is doing on climate change also needs to be linked to our disaster prevention and preparedness work. The work we are doing on livelihoods needs to be linked to governance and economic development.

Q. What is your hope for the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) being held in Samoa?

My hope is that something meaningful can come out of this year’s SIDS conference. Conferences can leave a striking mark and serve as a platform from which countries can mobilize, commit to change and take action.

For me, the World Humanitarian Summit will also be an interesting time, because that is when a lot of the questions on what needs to change in terms of the humanitarian architecture will be addressed. The question in my mind is how to recast the humanitarian response phase as being part of a continuum, so we are continuously prepared to respond and prevent, and develop capacity.

Q. In your capacity as Co-chair of the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT), how do you think it can better support Pacific Island countries in disasters?

The PHT is a promising model of how additional support can be accessed by Pacific Island Governments from within the region in emergencies. One of the very special things about the PHT is its inclusion and coordination, so there is minimal confusion on roles and responsibilities. By assessing where the needs are and bringing people in at the right time, and with the right buy-in from local counterparts … [this] is a significant attribute of the PHT. This is particularly important in a region where countries are so small that humanitarian responders can so easily overburden and overwhelm Governments in disasters.

My experience in dealing with responses to Cyclone Ian in Tonga and, more recently, flash floods in the Solomon Islands, was an important example of how we need to better engage. Not only does the PHT need to engage at the technical level within national disaster management offices and key ministries, but also at the top levels of Government to make clear how PHT support can be activated.

Q. What do you want to achieve during your time in the region?

I want to get the balance right when we talk about a regional UN approach, but at the same time bring a custom, tailored and dedicated understanding to each of the countries we work in. Pacific countries are not the same. They do not have the same cultures. They do not have the same problems.

Because the UN is working regionally, we don’t want to have a blanket approach, because that is not how we are going to get results and advance what these countries need and want. With limited resources, we must continue to work regionally, but we need to always take with us that specificity. In each country, we need to know what we have done and where we are going, what is the medium- to long-term outlook, and how the UN is going to assist each island country.

OCHA in the Pacific>>

Keyword search