Emeline Siale Ilolahia

Special mention: Localisation

Emeline Siale Ilolahia, Pacific Islands Association of NGOs

You have received a Special Mention in the category of localisation. Can you tell us more about your work in this area?

I started my working career as a public servant in civil aviation. I did that for 13 years before I joined civil society back in 2006 and it has been learning journey every single day since. I am Tongan, and both of my parents were primary school teachers. We moved from community to community as a result, and that is probably why I have this passion for civil society and community work. The challenges face by communities resonates with me. When you grow up in community settings and you are in a position to advocate on behalf of those communities, you have confidence to speak on their behalf because you feel that you are one of them. 

One of the main challenges is the cultural barrier that limits the participation of women and youth. There are assumptions and expectations that certain leadership roles can only be taken up by men and I challenge that every chance I get. One of the approaches that I've used is applying the concept of ‘temporary special measures’. When we set up community committees to manage a project, I will make sure that the terms of reference spells out roles to include women and youth. For example, creating co-chairs knowing that the majority will vote for a man as Chair, so the Co-Chairs will be women, and those representing youth and people with disabilities. I will then put all of my effort into supporting them, to demonstrate to the committee that women can lead by being efficient in communication, updating the committee on progress, and including everyone in the decision making process. In my experience, it only takes two to three terms before it's a normal practice for the community to vote for women in leading roles. Sustainable change in communities can only be defined and driven by the communities themselves, and that means challenging the status quo. You just have to create the enabling environment for influential leaders, especially women, to thrive.

Where you see your work going to next?

I am now working at the regional level. I will continue to advocate for empowering and investing in the resilience of our communities. We often find that the capacity of our communities to dream is a luxury because our dreams can be limited by what we know and what we see.  My engagement with Start Network and the setup of the Pacific Hub is a means of working with communities to explore innovative ways of enhancing their resilience to disasters and finding solutions for themselves that are fit for purpose in their own context.  It can be done in many different ways – community exchanges and site visits; supporting leadership teams; empowering them to dream and be courageous to try new ideas even if they are not sure of what the outcome may be; and most importantly to define their purpose so that finding the resources to support their innovative response can be more targeted and meaningful.

I do not believe that funding should drive our work in localisation – it is important, but not the most important. Our resilience and strengthen in our Pacific communities is on our communal value-based relationships and mutual trust.  In my experience, working with development partners, they need us as much as we need their money.  On that understanding, we should be able to select partners that we should work with that share our common purpose.

What can we learn from local communities?

Do not underestimate the intelligence of our communities. The impact of climate change in our Pacific communities is inevitable and there is a lot of debate on the assumptions that communities do not understand climate change. They may not fully understand the science, but their dances, songs, and poems are all about their lives and the impact of climate change. They live it. Those experiences need to be captured to inform policies – linking policies to people. The power of community and citizen-generated evidence should inform our work.

What changes to the humanitarian sector are needed in the next 10 years? What are the main obstacles to achieving this?

The changes necessary in the humanitarian sector require leadership and collective action. Humanitarian aid should no longer be the responsibility of humanitarian actors alone; it should be everyone's responsibility. We need to shift the focus of humanitarian aid from being disaster management to the broader development of society as a whole. The local humanitarian architecture should be transformational to enable a culture of shared power and shared risks through mutual accountability and transparent systems.

2020 has presented multiple challenges globally. What are the key lessons for the humanitarian sector this year?

If we look specifically at COVID-19, the inability of our health systems to respond was not just created by the pandemic, it was there before. Our response is to wash our hands and social distance, yet our communities (especially informal settlements) lack access to water and overcrowded homes cannot comply with the basic health requirements to stay safe. Over the years, our government had invested in economic growth of businesses, and undermined health and social protections mechanisms for the marginalised groups of our society. The key lessons for the humanitarian aid sector is to advocate for change and bring communities who live with the hardship of COVID-19 to be part of the decision making process. 

Why do you think that in an era when we have more access and communications, crises have increased in numbers and gravity?

Development has its cost, it is not free. Advances in communication and access means that we are prioritising consumption over the health of our environment. There needs to be a balance in the ecosystem and climate change is a classic example. Our lifestyle has been dictated by convenience over sustainability. This is why I feel that the humanitarian agenda should be addressed as a development agenda.

Why is important to transform the sector and if there is one thing that you would encourage your fellow humanitarians to do, what would it be?

We need to develop a new narrative to shift our focus from humanitarian response to resilience, invest more in preparedness and adaptation, and not wait until disaster strikes before we respond.