Resilience in Action – Vanuatu Shows the World how to be Ready for Anything

One of the key traits of a Resilient Investor is putting focused attention into being prepared. This time-honored theme is one that I explored on March 11th on the C-Realm podcast in an episode called “Ready for Anything.” In turbulent times it’s impossible to know exactly what situations we might have to face, let alone how to be ready for them. But there is great value in considering a wide range of plausible scenarios, and preparing for those that seem more likely. Last week, that lesson was brought home by the resilient people of Vanuatu, as their preparation for extreme weather paid off with priceless returns.

Eyewitness reports of Cyclone Pam were truly scary: it was one of the strongest tropical storms ever to hit land, with gusts over 200 mph. But remarkably, there were only eleven deaths from the storm. This really made me curious! Was it was just luck? Or, had this island nation pulled off a remarkable feat? Turns out it’s the latter, and from the stories trickling out it’s clear that we could learn much about resilience from their example.

The first thing to note is that Vanuatu has been actively preparing for stronger storms. For several years, the World Bank and international aid agencies have been working with the government of Vanuatu on a program aimed at “increasing resilience to climate change and natural hazards.” Dozens of cyclones with hurricane-force winds have hit the islands in past decades, and their leadership is very aware that climate change may increase the intensity of such storms. Along with other island nations, Vanuatu has been pressing the global community to take stronger action to address the causes of global warming and to step up when disasters hit vulnerable countries.

But most of their attention has been focused on what they can do themselves. So when this ominous storm approached, word got out quickly and people sprang into action. Reuters reported that islanders buried coconuts, fruit, and water so they could have supplies after the storm. Others fortified roofs and protected water systems.  People knew where to take shelter.

The international community can point with some justification to its successful implementation of disaster mitigation plans. But clearly it is the people of Vanuatu who deserve the real credit. I was most moved by the account of the director of Oxfam Vanuatu,  who weathered the calamitous night and emerged from his home, only to find bleary-eyed neighbors with machetes and bare hands starting to clear a path through the tangle of tree limbs, metal, and shredded greenery.

Their absolute resilience was clear as crystal on what was otherwise a dark day. Muted smiles when any form of smile would be near impossible for most. Tears too, but hugs – tight embraces of personhood.

In The Resilient Investor, we evoked the martial artist as an image that inspired us, “able to go softly to the ground when caught by a blow, to roll and return to balance…staying flexible and in motion to minimize shock and to keep seeking a better position.”  In Vanuatu, the response was powerful and immediate.  Help the wounded, get enough debris cleared, assess their supplies, restore power and communications. But that was only the beginning. Schoolchildren laid books out in the sun to dry and asked the world to send more books.  Instructions about gleaning whatever root crops could be salvaged for food were disseminated, and fast-growing crop seeds distributed to replant gardens.

There is also the opportunity to learn from disasters like this and make improvements—an aspect of resilience we call “bouncing back better.” Some homes and villages had already been relocated away from vulnerable coastlines; now, more attention will be paid to where to rebuild, and where not to. Lightweight native building materials such as thatched roofs are perfect to let the breeze in during the hot tropical summers, and they cause much less damage than heavy western construction materials during a cyclone. But every village needs strong storm shelters too.

I’d sure like to think that my friends and neighbors would be like the people of Vanuatu if disaster strikes, not waiting around for the authorities to bring aid but activating plans that we’ve already thought about. I know we can count on our community to respond with spontaneous compassion and hard work if needed, but as far as I know, no one has thought about what may be needed to the point of burying coconuts! It certainly is a reminder that not all of one’s investment focus should be on financial assets—money can’t buy the kind of relationships and wisdom that will serve us in times of crisis

Yet this is also a reminder that, whatever we do to prepare for disturbance, we may still be dependent on the global community to pull us through. For as valiant as the efforts have been in Vanuatu, the sad fact is that their ability to feed themselves has been decimated, and they will need food aid to survive as they replant and rebuild. Fortunately, it sounds like that help is forthcoming, with neighboring Australia and New Zealand taking the lead. The bigger challenges, however, lie ahead. As The Guardian states, “island nations are the bellwethers that show what our future will be if we fail to tackle climate change.”  If we truly wish to enhance our resilience, we cannot rely solely on local efforts, but must also work to improve our global response to the challenges ahead.

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