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  • Writer's pictureNational Federation Party - Fiji

Real help for rehabilitation

by Honourable Lenora Qereqeretabua

Opinion piece published in the Fiji Times on:

Saturday 13th February 2021

Those of us who have been to the North to hand out relief items and inspect the aftermath of severe Tropical Cyclone Yasa in December 2020, and TC Ana at the end of last month, have some idea of the damage and loss suffered by the people there.

Most of the available reports suggest that damage worth tens of millions of dollars was inflicted on a huge swathe of the North.

What we saw

Four lives were tragically lost to TC Yasa. I met the widow of the farmer who lost his life in Lovelove, outside Labasa. She is now at her brother-in-law’s home, from where her destroyed farmhouse is clearly visible; a tragic daily reminder of her late husband and the horrific way he died.

In the worst affected areas of Lekutu, Bua, Dreketi and Seaqaqa, many people lost their entire homes resulting in destruction of household items accumulated over a long period of time.

Crop damage has been extensive. Many families depended on these not only for daily subsistence but also income. It will take at least six months for many to get back on their feet. In a post-disaster situation these farmers have no money. They must urgently look after their families and re-build their homes and the buildings in their communities. They are not able simply to go into town to buy more seeds and materials in which to raise them. So they need quick help to get back on their feet with seedlings, land preparation and basic tools so they can quickly rehabilitate the farms.

In Lekutu and Nasarawaqa areas we met parents who told us that their food crops had been so extensively damaged, it was difficult for them feed themselves and their families or to provide lunch for their children to take to school. It is evident that in several schools, help must be provided directly to schools in the form of food. Parents are willing to help in food preparation and cooking if they have the materials available.

We met teachers in primary and secondary schools in Nabouwalu, Bua, Lekutu and Seaqaqa, we were told that some still did not have basic stationery and bags. Many have been provided by NGOs, business houses and individual donors.

We met a lady who had relocated to Lekutu in July 2020 after losing her job in Suva due to Covid-19. Not five months after the relocation, she and her husband were salvaging what remained of their once loved farm-house from the surrounding fields. This and the deaths of nearly 50 head of goats and sheep has knocked her and her husband back emotionally and financially.

The entire sugar industry in Vanua Levu has been badly affected. When the sugar industry is impacted, this extends to everything else. Cane payments are a sure way for Vanua Levu agriculture to be turned into money. This goes straight back into the economy through canecutters’ wages, land lease payments, purchases in shops and all the multiplied spending that comes from this. It is with cane money that people pay for rice, vegetables, yaqona and other crops that are produced by the farmers of Vanua Levu.

Safety and security

We must not forget how a recent security breach in an evacuation centre led to the rape of a 10-year-old girl. Whenever natural disasters occur, women and young children are forced from their homes and become vulnerable to predators. Rebuilding their homes and returning them to safe spaces is critically important therefore - even if these are only tents or temporary shelters where they can feel safe and have some dignity.

So far the only impact of Government action is providing the minimum of food rations and clearing roads. We are told that Army engineers are doing some good work in helping to restore damaged schools but these measures are only temporary.

We know the Government is short of money. After years of spending on freebies and poor financial management, that of course is their fault – but this is not the time to talk about it. We need to find the funds to put the North back on its feet.

The Northern Division is already one of the least-developed regions of our country. Fewer people there are directly employed and earn wages. Business and Government activity is lower than it is in the Central and Western Divisions. Tourism activity is much lower – and of course right now tourism has been severely affected by Covid-19. So the economic ability of the North to recover through the direct payment of wages and salaries into its economy is low.

In the short term, people need food supplies to meet their basic needs.

Long Term

But the Government needs to act now for the longer term. For crops to be harvested in a few months’ time, they must be planted now. For schoolchildren to complete their lessons and pass their exams, help must be given now. For farmers who must be able to plan ahead for the next crop and the next cane payment, they must receive help now.

Critical to all of this is information. If people know what is happening and what will be made available they can move forward with confidence. If they know ahead of time how government is going to help them, they can plan ahead and set aside time to use the support that government will give them.

If people know when they will get help with building materials and resources, the community can organise themselves to provide labour and to plan their work. If farmers know that they will be helped with seedlings and tools, they can prepare their land.

If teachers know when help will come to their schools, they can prepare their lessons and plan for how to make up for lost teaching time.

And last of all the lesson that all of us know from our professional lives, from being in business on our own – the discipline of planning ahead means that we are forced to think about the best use of our own resources.

Right support

Too often unplanned disaster relief has meant too little too late, support being provided at the wrong times and in the wrong order.

People are forced to change their own plans for self-help because what has been promised by the government has not arrived. Often they have wasted their own money on food or building materials or transport, only to find that the same support is coming to them.

What we are asking for is for the Government to give to Parliament – and to those affected by TC Yasa – a proper plan for how help will be given.

A proper plan would set out the information that the Government had learned from the disaster, including who has been affected and how. It would tell us how the government has consulted with the affected communities and the others who are available to help. It would tell us in detail what will be provided to each affected community. Importantly it would tell us, with reliable information, when that help would be delivered.

When people know the help that is coming, they can plan ahead. They can make the most of the resources that will be given to them. They can organise other aspect of their lives around the help that is to come. This is also true for others who are in a position to help with distribution of help, to provide community labour and other resources.

We are asking the Government to bring its plans to Parliament as well as the people. We are asking the Government to do this so that we as the representatives of the people are informed, to ensure that we as representatives of the people can subject this plan to scrutiny and to make sure that the Government does a good job. That is what good governance demands.

For many years we in the NFP have said to the Government “where matters affecting the people are concerned, we offer our help.

We are prepared to work with you.” For all those years our efforts have been scorned.

Fiji is now in a desperate situation. We are in the worst economic crisis in our history as a nation. The latest natural disasters, TCs Ana and Yasa, have only made our situation worse. But it is the poorest and most vulnerable in our society who always bear the brunt.

Real help

We are not asking for hundreds of millions of dollars. We are asking for a prudent and appropriate amount. We can add value to this money if we give people early information about how we will spend it, to allow them to plan for what they will do with the aid that it can bring, together with the help of others from both inside and outside Fiji who are willing to help.

And last of all the lesson that all of us know from our professional lives, from being in business on our own – the discipline of planning ahead means that we are forced to think about the best use of our own resources.

A proper plan would tell us how the Government was working with NGOs, community groups, aid organisation and local businesses to make the best use of all community resources. Even here problems have surfaced.

Complimentary work is important, more so in response to disasters. In terms of response, the focus of NGOs are prioritized to community need.

When NGOs are funded, they, the NGOs are not in any position to compete or take the mandate of government.

The NGO’s work in Thematic areas include but are not limited to Safety and Protection, Food Security and Livelihood, WASH. The NGOs are accountable to their donors.

It is vital therefore for Government to work with NGOs on a level of mutual trust.

It would be more conducive to fostering an environment of mutual trust if Government refrained from using the authority card when dealing with NGOs because they, the NGOs, are all working in Fiji for the benefit of all Fijians.

I am deeply appreciative of all of Civil-Society; non-governmental organisations, business-houses, not-for-profits, faith-based organisations, and each and everyone here and overseas for the love shown for families, villages and other communities impacted by recent disasters.


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