18 Mar 2024
Podcast Ep 6: For Vuli Gauna, we are connected by the ocean

Hailing from ‘a tiny drop in the ocean’ in eastern Fiji, Vuli Gauna survived a cyclone when he was just two years old. Observing the growing intensity of storms as he grew up, he was inspired to volunteer and eventually work for a wide range of Red Cross societies across the Pacific, as well as the IFRC. 

Now, with nearly 30 years’ experience in disaster preparedness, response and recovery, Vuli is a highly respected humanitarian leader. He is also a very experienced trainer and is well-known throughout the Pacific for his work developing and facilitating training, while also sharing his wealth of knowledge on RedR Australia’s Essentials of Humanitarian Practice course. 

In this episode, Vuli discusses traditional ways of living with disasters—and how that’s changing due to climate change. He also explores the importance of sovereignty during disaster responses, why relationships are central to effective disaster responses, and the deep connection Pacific Islanders have to their oceans and each other. 

Host: Sally Cunningham     

Guest: Vuli Gauna 

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 

You can find out more about RedR Australia’s training courses here 

You can join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 


SALLY: This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and we acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land, waterways and skies. And we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. Hello, and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. With nearly 30 years' experience in the humanitarian sector, our guest today Vuli Gauna is a highly respected expert in disaster preparedness, response and recovery across the Pacific. He has worked for the Fiji, British, Vanuatu and New Zealand Red Cross as well as the IFRC. Vuli leads teams of people during crises, taking on coordination and leadership roles. Vuli is also a very experienced trainer. He is well known throughout the Red Cross and Pacific NDMO network for his work developing and facilitating training and in the standardisation of response tools such as post-disaster assessment, risk reduction, and disaster contingency planning. At RedR Australia, he also shares his wealth of knowledge and experience on our Essentials of Humanitarian Practice training course. Vuli most recently wrapped up in an emergency management capacity-building role at SPC in the Marshall Islands, where he was stationed for several years. Vuli is a highly skilled professional, with a depth of knowledge and insight. And when we sat down to chat over Zoom, first we went back to the very beginning. 

VULI: I grew up in in one of the Eastern islands of Fiji, that is prone to hurricanes and cyclones. I survived a cyclone when I was two years old. And growing up in the islands, I think it is what drove me to have a desire to help people, mostly in the context of disasters. Early warnings back then, you know, there was very limited radio coverage. The level of early warning that we could get at the time was largely based on what the ancestors told us—how the winds are going to behave the day before the cyclone: when the birds start flying off; you should know when the albatross and the seagulls coming towards land. So it was largely how we back then were able to predict whether the cyclone was coming. 

SALLY: I imagine that a lot of people in the Pacific islands still watch for those signs as validation for what's to come as well, despite all the technology.  

VULI: Absolutely, absolutely. There are parts of the Pacific that does not have access to technology that we take for granted nowadays: the early warning systems that are available now on social media and other platforms. When it comes to the most remote islands in the Pacific, some of them use high frequency radio still. Some rely on very basic communications to get warnings. It's not surprising, because of the remote geography. So it's an accepted fact for people that work in the sector, that we're going to do our best to try and ensure that there is preparedness for response, and communities are able to get early warning information and also be resilient enough to look after themselves when there's an unfortunate incident of a disaster. 

SALLY: That makes a lot of sense as well, and traditional early warning signs. I hope that they carry on as well, because it's an important part of teaching and learning about what to do. So just to extend on that, how did you start your career? 

VULI: I guess I found myself in the sector because I was looking for skills. So as a volunteer, I joined the Red Cross in 1996. And because of the nature of work of Red Cross societies in the Pacific, in the frequency of natural disasters, they tend to be very active. So I guess it drove me to have much...I guess a lot of interest in seeing the action and being part of it. And as a volunteer, you tend to draw up a path on where you want to end up, with that being delivering food rations all the time, or you want to be driving the track. Or you want to be the person that's actually coordinating everything. So I chose coordination. But with that came a lot of...the need to be qualified for it. And not just by periods of running around driving trucks but also doing some relevant short courses. And then the opportunity to train with RedR came up; I received a sponsorship to attend and 2002 with the year I got my Essentials of Humanitarian Practice training and personal security, which is now the HEAT. But what was interesting was the training back then was for skilled engineers. So, after the training, everyone had a briefing just like we have at EHP now: we have a register, we might be able to send you somewhere. So the trainers and everybody else in the room were like thinking, 'Okay, so what happens to the Red Cross guy?' Yeah, because, you know, obviously, I'm not an engineer. They were like, well, the training will help you do your work back in your organization. You may not be eligible for the register yet, but they hoped—I hoped—that that I found it extremely relevant, which I did. And then, ironically, less than a year after the training I coordinated my first response as the coordinator of the operation, and I found the training to be extremely helpful, particularly for working with volunteers in high-stress situations. The training, it really helped me a lot for a number of years, I regarded that training as one of the launching pad for my career. Yeah, I think I ended up in that role, because I admire people in that space. It's not easy work, to be not only coordinating, but to be coordinated. So you know, I do feel for the people that are doing the coordinating, because in many cases being coordinated is difficult, particularly in high-pressure situations. So the coordinator has to be really, really: one, trained, and two, have skillsets to be able to manage resources and work with people in most challenging circumstances. 

SALLY: I think you're touching on something that we often refer to as 'soft skills'. So being diplomatic and dealing with lots of different pressure points and personalities. It's really important because in a disaster, the pace of the work is evident all around. Now, beyond your training and your experience, we're thrilled that you're a trainer with RedR Australia. 

VULI: Yes, I became a trainer with RedR because of COVID. And RedR Australia was looking to launch its first Pacific EHP training in Fiji and then the lockdown prevented any trainers from any other countries to enter Fiji at the time or leave Australia. People did discover that I was actually EHP trained, and I do some training as well. The first training in Fiji in 2020, we mobilized a team there to run it. And then I also have trained after that in Tonga EHP in April last year, and recently in Vanuatu. So it's all been Pacific Islands EHP training. 

SALLY: Awesome. And so I imagine you've seen the course change over time? 

VULI: I think it has significantly changed from the original EHP, for good reasons. The original EHP was pitched in a way where a group of 25 people enter the room, and then for the next six days, they undergo this very intensive training. And the expectation was when they leave the complex, they will be disaster responders. That was the original EHP. The new EHP is takes the professional skill sets out of context. Absolutely. You know, it doesn't matter whether you're an engineer, you're a WASH person, you are an expert in your sector. Good for you. What we will train you in the EHP is about how you sharpen your existing expertise, using interpersonal skills, soft skills, working with teams in high-pressure situations to make you a better contributor to the response. So it's an added value to your expertise, there is no guarantee we're going to be able to take you to a disaster site the day after the training and make you respond. We're offering an opportunity to be a better WASH engineer or a MEAL person in the context of disasters. And the Pacific EHP—it's not a different course. It's the same EHP. The course attracts a lot of government professionals and regional experts for them to appreciate the skill sets that they have. So they bring them all together and oh, they discover this person works in the... So it's an added a layer. In other words, it's not only preparing individuals to provide much more efficient support during operations, it's also building a network of responders who potentially can become deployees in their own region. And people meeting and building their networks before they're put in high-pressure situation. The training provides an opportunity for them to also look from the lens of being able to work together and know each other. And you know, everybody was the expert in something. The question was for them coming in, because we spoke to them after, you know, and during the course, and you know—what was your expectation? And they say, 'Oh, you know, I thought it was just another training on day one, and then you guys quickly changed my mindset, particularly about how I should perceive working with others.; It does surprise a lot of people, particularly the ones that are most experienced in the sector. 

SALLY: Thanks you, I'm going to ask you something that's an extension of that, to move a little bit away from training and more back to your experience. So I know that you've worked on many disaster responses when there's been a combination of national responders and international surge support. What is it like to receive surge support from other countries, both from the Pacific, and people further afield? 

VULI: So in many cases, when there is a disaster that has warranted international attention, then all of a sudden, there's a sudden influx of surge support. The biggest challenge is the absorptive capacity of the local counterparts. I guess that is something that the EHP emphasizes: that level of complexity, when you place national responders in a situation where they have to interface with international elements of international response, the people, the planes, the complicated tasks, that need to be guaranteed in such a short time period, to facilitate teams coming in and working with you and going out. You can't train enough for those kinds of circumstances. There's not enough training or college degree or anything that prepares a team of people with limited operating capacity, which is their normal operating environment in the country, to absorb international support, in a short period of time. In addition to the training and the tools that are provided, it's the appreciation of working with each other that is, probably in my view, most important. You know, from both parties. The local responders have got to appreciate and understand, you know, the amount of resources it took to mobilize people to come into your country, let alone get the resources into a community in the fastest, most-possible time. And sometimes when you have to just say yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, to allow these resources to come in, you know, without understanding the mechanism that's driving this assistance. In many cases, people can travel two or three days from Europe, for example, to get here, because they are a specialist in a particular field there is needed in that particular response. Simple things like, you know, meeting them, understanding the context and getting them to contribute as quick as possible, in the most effective way without creating any more hindrance into their work. And on the flip side of that, it's the people that that are coming into host countries environment, should appreciate that there is sovereignty in any disaster context. And it's paramount. And it doesn't matter how much or how expensive your resources, the host country and the local agencies, those community volunteers, they own the response. It's theirs, and also the knowledge that is needed for the transmission of relief to be provided in the most effective way lies with them. So it's appreciation of both assistance. And those things can be achieved mainly from experience by training exercises, exchange visits, you know. The host nations are given an opportunity to understand your assistance. And I'm not saying it's not being done, it's been done for years in the Pacific. Many exercises and simulations have been done where international actors were brought in. The challenge lies in the retention of this knowledge within institutions—it's an ongoing thing. We can only do so much in terms of spending more time building networks. We should invest more time in getting to know each others' systems, either through training exercises, or meetings. The other thing is that the Pacific I Islands are very rich in traditions and cultures, and many of these should be maintained. And you know, whenever a response is designed, it should uphold these traditions and values that these communities and the ancestors have lived with for so long. But also, sometimes, some of our traditions and values are also barriers to access—or equal access—in humanitarian aid. For example, things like gender. In my experience, it's difficult to be raised up in a tradition, or a cultural context, that limits the access of women or children, to things like dignity. And if I was from the country, it will be a very difficult task for me. This is one of the advantages of bringing international teams because they can work with your local counterparts and support and advocate for them. So those things that are traditionally regarded as taboo subjects, particularly during disaster response scenarios. As a coordinator for disaster responses, you'd want to be making sure that you know, the planning for assessments, including everything about gender and all that things have been taken into account. It's easy to think of it. But in practical, your traditions, you're working with your one talks and people that you have around, you can create an environment that will prevent you from integrating these things into the because it's such a high-speed working environment. And having colleagues that come from international settings have experience in working in most difficult contexts in the country, that they can offer this kind of support. They come with a lot of wealth of knowledge. And in many cases, things like inclusion can be broken down very quickly if you have these people, these teams of experts work with you at the onset of the disaster response planning. There are actually examples—a lot of examples in the Pacific of barriers that have been broken down when you have support from those international experts coming to work with you. But you have to get them in on time. Yeah, so that their skill sets are provided to your teams. Just when the disaster response is being designed. If you bring them at the end, when you're delivering the kits out, it's not gonna help. 

SALLY: Yeah, thank you for that. The idea of 'we are now sharing a lot of knowledge for their most effective response', which is just...it's nice to be able to say that instead of 'it's one sided, we should be more open', and we're all learning and adapting every single time a disaster happens. Timeliness and response. Absolutely. It makes a lot of sense. Thank you. Climate change, I think we understand that climate change is having quite a big impact on the Pacific region, and Pacific Islanders. What kinds of impacts have you seen? And what is the attitude of Pacific Islanders regarding climate change? How does it feel in communities? 

VULI: Well, in the Pacific, it is a common term. I think every person in the Pacific is familiar with the term and how much the Pacific stands to lose if certain issues are not collectively addressed. But when it comes to disasters and response, yes, it has a lot of effect on disaster planning, and not just about preparing for the, you know, the increasing intensity of disasters, as you know, there scientists are calling, they say that the intensities of cyclones are going to be much bigger than what they were in the 70s or 80s. It's also the manner in which communities are preparing themselves. So, countries are preparing themselves. So for example, many organizations now are using prepositioning of relief items. It is logical, you can achieve swift response. But when it comes to communities and climates, it becomes very challenging, particularly for the Pacific. You know, here in Australia, you can just literally build a warehouse. You know, stock it up with items and it can stay there for at least three to five years. But in contrast the Pacific, it doesn't matter how much resources you pour into prepositioning. If you don't understand the impact of climate on the facilities, that store these goods, it can be...all countries in the Pacific, they are different. All their challenges are different, simple things like that. The impact of the climate is not only on the intensity of the storms, it's also the level of preparedness. So making sure that you're developing climate-smart solutions is not only just by, you know, green energy and all that, it's also investing in solutions that the community is used to, probably going back to traditional coping mechanisms rather than introducing. So I think as an international responder, you should be aware that when you are working with your local counterparts, that they will tend to bring up issues about sustainability, about climate-related resilience. In the context of the response, I guess, for people that are thinking about working in the Pacific, particularly in disaster response settings, that is something to expect is that when you design programs, if you leave out the climate change stuff, it's only going to be detrimental to the organisation. But you must spend time and invest in being aware and listening to your local counterparts. After the disaster, the privilege that international respondents enjoy is they can design something and then they get out. The consequences, the locals will live with it, whether they like it or not. So yeah, so a lot of listening, and a lot of additional navigation when it comes to climate change. It's just it's an unavoidable circumstance to work in. When you walk into a National Disaster Management Office or a national organization in the Pacific, you have got to understand that those two will always be working together. You know, so it's an important assumption. 

SALLY: So given your experience as a responder, what are the most important elements of being an effective disaster responder? And what do you think we could be doing better? 

VULI: So I guess it's the responder, the 'you' or the 'I'. The person is the most important resource. You can't consider yourself as a person who has the ability to help others in a time of need, in a very difficult period, in high-pressure situations, if you're not taking care of yourself. That, for me, is the most important thing. You know, taking care of the person, making sure that you are well accustomed to everything there is about response: from the community, to the international. Constantly learning, constantly engaging with networks and keeping yourself up to date with changes in the approaches and things like that. Because, you know, in many cases, most responses are largely driven by the donors. It takes someone who is financing the response, and traditionally donors used to be viewed, and I guess, you know, everybody said this, just someone that signs a check, gives it to you, accepts a financial statement in the report and some photographs after that. Now donors are much more involved in the planning and preparation of response and in the tools that are being used, you know, for accountability purposes. And those things, you know, as I responders you need to be up to date with the changes in approaches and strategies. 

SALLY: Now, when we first spoke to you, you told us a lovely story about Pacific Island people's connection to the ocean, not just the land, but connecting ocean and land together as a place. Can you explain a little bit about what that means? 

VULI: I certainly agree with you. You know, because Australia's the land. 

SALLY: Yeah, it's all about the land.  

VULI: It's all about the land. You know, it goes for miles and miles and miles and miles. And it's just land. But in the Pacific, the sea, you know, the ownership of resources, you know, how communities are linked to each other by the sea. It's very important. It's important because it forms part of the identity of many of these Pacific Island countries. The Republic of Marshall Islands, it's, you know, there are certain differences. It's a very, very big, vast ocean space to navigate. And it's the same with Tonga, it's the same with Vanuatu, it's the same with Kiribati. In almost every other Pacific Island country. And these things need to be taken into account because the people in the Pacific identify themselves by where they are from. If you're in a tiny drop in the ocean somewhere, like where I'm from, basically it forms part of your identity. And countries are not measured in terms of their economy. It's the ocean that they represent. Also, those challenges that come with being part of such a big ocean, in terms of early-warning systems, the logistics that needs to be undertaken. Majority of the costs that will be part of your plan, if not three quarter of your budget will just be about logistics of getting resources here. And it could be like a simple, an island needs some drinking water, and you need to take some Arrow units over to the island. And the Arrow unit is just one simple unit. And it doesn't cost much. It's the exercise of taking it to the islands that costs a lot of things. So, you know, by definition, I think coordinating and also advocating for effective response, it means that people that get involved in response must understand the context. Sometimes very expensive. In many cases, options that are expensive, might be the one that that is needed compared to the cheaper option, particularly for life-saving instances. 

SALLY: That's right. And knowing the option that is needed is the value that you can really bring and make a difference to really invest in that life-saving work. So thank you for the decisions and the advocacy. I've really learned a lot and feel a greater connection to the Pacific context. Thank you so much, Vuli.  

VULI: Thank you. Thank you. It's great to be part of the podcast. I'm really pleased to be part of it. 

SALLY: You've been listening to Humanitarian Conversations, a podcast by RedR Australia. You can learn more about our work at redr.org.au and we invite you to join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This episode was produced and engineered by Jill Farrar. I'm Sally Cunningham. Thanks for listening.