Localising a Humanitarian Response in a Fragile Context: The PNG Church Partners’ Response to the Highlands Earthquake - Papua New Guinea

On February 26 2018, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Highlands region of Papua New Guinea (PNG), the largest earthquake recorded in the region since 1922.  

A series of strong aftershocks, including a magnitude 6.7 earthquake, continued to be felt for some weeks afterwards.

Around 544,000 people in five provinces were affected and more than 270,000 people were in immediate need of assistance. Aside from the physical damage, access to fresh water and safe sanitation were immediate needs for affected areas.  

The PNG Church partners mobilised immediately and, along with an inter-agency needs assessment team, were amongst the first to be flown into the affected area. 

PNG Church Partners lead on design, implementation and decision-making

Above: The PNG Church partners undertook a joint needs assessment in March 2018.

Above: The PNG Church partners undertook a joint needs assessment in March 2018.

The PNG Church Partners Joint Earthquake Response was locally-led and consensus-driven, placing the PNG Church Partners at the centre of operational decisions around the response. They mobilised their networks and were among the first to fly in to undertake needs assessments. Rapid response funds were transferred immediately to support the response, and, for the first time, the response was a co-funded, multi-lateral ecumenical response. DFAT and MFAT also provided funding.

A Strategic Partnership: Respect for existing PNG church leadership structures and mechanisms

Above: Trauma and conflict resolution training participants in Mendi, Southern Highlands Province. As a result of participatory reflection, the group recognised they could to better to ensure women were reached, and recommended a family approach for gender inclusion.

Above: Trauma and conflict resolution training participants in Mendi, Southern Highlands Province. As a result of participatory reflection, the group recognised they could to better to ensure women were reached, and recommended a family approach for gender inclusion.

The seven mainline churches have been working together in partnership for more than 13 years as part of the Australian Church Partnership Program. They have established governance, management and operational structures as well as experience in responding to the El Nino drought. Prior to the earthquake, the CAN DO members had been working with the PNG church partner network under the Australian Humanitarian Partnership Disaster READY Program. Disaster READY provided the opportunity to establish a central coordination mechanism (the Disaster Hub). As part of the earthquake response, a national team was pulled together to form the Earthquake Response Unit. Despite delays in recruitment for the Earthquake Response Unit, this investment has been critical to strengthening and enabling the PNG Church partners to coordinate and drive the response. 

Strengthening Capacity: CAN DO members provided support and were only recruited where necessary

The PNG church partnersfocused on localcollaboration and sharingof localresourcesand expertise. They leveraged their collective resources for WASH activities,logistics, program support, financial management, administration, and gender equality and social inclusion. Australian-based CAN DO members were involved only where local expertise was not available.  In some cases,further internationalexpertise was sourcedat therequest ofpartners.  For example, a logistics specialist was recruited from New Zealand to support distribution planning.

Local Representation: PNG church partners self-represent in the humanitarian system

The PNG church partners represented themselves in the humanitarian system throughout the response, including WASH, shelter and protection clusters and in communication with the Australian High Commission. The earthquake response enabled the churches to increase visibility of their humanitarian response capabilities other humanitarian stakeholders, the Government of PNG, DFAT and MFAT. The appointment of a Port Moresby-based focal point alleviated the need for church representatives to travel to Port Moresby for meeting. 

Above: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of PNG signed an MoU signing with Karanas Primary School in Lalibu station, Southern Highlands. The school received water tanks and a toilet was built for female students. The church partners worked to ensure disability and child inclusion were considered in the design and installation of water tanks and toilets.

Above: The Evangelical Lutheran Church of PNG signed an MoU signing with Karanas Primary School in Lalibu station, Southern Highlands. The school received water tanks and a toilet was built for female students. The church partners worked to ensure disability and child inclusion were considered in the design and installation of water tanks and toilets.

Reaching the vulnerable: PNG Church partners build on broad reach into fragile communities to reach the most vulnerable

Above: Water Management Committee volunteers receiving the water tanks, latrines and materials at the Seven Day Adventist Headquarters in Tari, Hela Province. The churches organised the distribution of the tanks in order to support more rapid deliveries, and to also reduce the risk of tribal conflict.

Above: Water Management Committee volunteers receiving the water tanks, latrines and materials at the Seven Day Adventist Headquarters in Tari, Hela Province. The churches organised the distribution of the tanks in order to support more rapid deliveries, and to also reduce the risk of tribal conflict.

The PNG church partners had well-established activities in some of the most fragile and remote communities impacted by the earthquake. This meant they had access to some of the most vulnerable requiring assistance. Building on this strength, the churches gave priority to the most urgent cases and made no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions. The churches embraced an ecumenical approach. An example, in the early days the Hela Council of Churches in Tari setup a hotline for village leaders in more remote communiities to communicate emerging humanitarian needs over the phone, rather than be risk being exposed to tribal conflict. Adding to this, the partners have been working with community leaders, women’s groups, people with disability and youth to ensure their voices have been heard in the response. This is demonstrated by some of the work  undertaken with the Water Management Committees and community leaders to ensure gender and disability considerations in the design and installation of the water tanks and latrines. The promotion of dignity through meaningful participation and local solutions, was achieved through ensuring the most vulnerable were part of the decision-making process. 

Building on learnings: PNG Church Partners build on learnings to strength the response

The PNG Church partners have been facilitating regular meetings and joint field visits to build on learnings and strengthen best practice in the earthquake response. For example, a real-time participatory evaluation enabled those affected to suggest ways to improve the inclusion of women in order to provide psychosocial support and conflict resolution to affected households. Essentially, the idea proved locally-appropriate and in keeping with community structures to organise effective self-help and resilience-building among the affected people. As mentioned, reflection and learning meetings also enabled the sharing of approaches and designs. In particular, this enabled a broader role out of disability and gender inclusive designs and approaches for WASH in the consortia.  

Looking Ahead

The response has not been without its challenges, human resources, delays in recruitment, poor tele-communications, tribal fighting, security, weather and remoteness have plagued the response from the start. Despite this, the PNG Church partners have persevered with dignity and the respect of both national and international humanitarian actors. Of course, a deeper reflection on how CAN DO members and local church partners can do better is still required, as is an evidenced-based understanding of the full impact of the response on those most affected. However, at this point in time, it is fair to say the response demonstrated some markers that indicate progress towards localisation in an incredibly complex and fragile operating environment. At the very least, these national actors are putting in place a framework that will mean they are better prepared for future responses.