Thank you Margaret for your kind introduction. Can I also start by adding my acknowledgement of country.

It is a real pleasure to be asked to be here to open the 2016 Australian Non-Government Organisation Cooperation Program Partner Agency Collaboration Group Learning Forum.

That is a mouthful! No wonder you use acronyms.

Can I also acknowledge Jamie Isbister, First Assistant Secretary, Humanitarian, NGO's and Partnerships Group and his other DFAT colleagues who are here today and with whom I am sure you have a very very good working relationship and who you regularly interact with.

What lies behind such an intricate name, though, is important to the Australian community.

This group is a critical part of the Australian landscape – a group of highly respected civil society organisations, working hard to reduce poverty and improve quality of life in countries all around our region.

World Vision, Oxfam Australia, CARE Australia, Save the Children and many other organisations– each of which are household names.

Each offers something truly unique in terms of improving lives in the Indo-Pacific area.

As I said last month at the Australian Council for International Development National Conference, organisations like yours are an extremely important part of Australia's development assistance program.

Apart from the actual work you do, work that governments often simply cannot do, your organisations enjoy broad, well-deserved public support.

Overall, Australia's development assistance program is not often as appreciated as the individual missions you hold.

As I said at the ACFID conference, while we have a $4 billion Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) program, it is not always easy for the public to see where all of our investments go, or how they build stability and security and reduce poverty in our region.

I made the point that this weakness in understanding, we – both the Government and the NGO sector – have to work hard to promote our work, both at home and abroad.

No matter how important our work is, we have not always done well in taking the Australian public along with us.

We need to make clear what we are doing, why we are doing it, and, more importantly, what is the benefit to Australia.

So thank you for the opportunity to open your conference today.

Your agenda today is a big one: resilience, innovation, learning and inclusion.

I have looked at your program and can see that there will be some very interesting discussions as you share your experiences and your ideas.

Today I would like to focus on just the first element of your agenda: and that is resilience.

When Australians think of our development assistance program, they do not always think first of natural disasters.

But the fact is, we live in a region of the world that is both prone to and extremely vulnerable to natural disasters – 7 out of the 10 most disaster prone countries in the world are in the Asian-Pacific region.

Since 2005, more than 700,000 people worldwide have been killed in natural disasters.

Around 23 million – about the same as the entire population of Australia – has been rendered homeless.

The impact of natural disasters across the Indo-Pacific is greater than in any part of the world, partly because many Indo-Pacific countries are particularly vulnerable.

Consider this: 85% of global deaths (for all causes) between 1980 and 2009 happened in the Indo-Pacific, even though its countries only make up 61% of the global population.

Across the Indo-Pacific, the full range of disasters – floods, cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts – strike with monotonous regularity.

Who would have thought, only a few weeks after the awful Christchurch quake, New Zealand would have to go through it all again so soon?

The Pacific Ocean region, in particular, represents unique challenges in tackling natural disasters.

The portion of the Earth's globe the Pacific Ocean covers is vast and many of the countries that dot its surface are small and without significant economic resources.

Their capacity to deal with natural disaster is limited.

For all these reasons – and because we are a generous, giving people who always want to lend a hand to neighbours doing it tough – Australia is a major humanitarian actor in times of natural disasters in the Indo-Pacific area.

The last thing we want, especially, is to see Pacific Islands failing, being overwhelmed by natural disasters – that would only give us a less stable, less prosperous region.

Over the past 12 months, Australia responded to five significant crises in the Indo-Pacific providing upwards of $43 million in assistance to communities.

This does not include the extraordinary efforts made by the Australian Defence Forces, which significantly adds to the value of our response contribution.

Notwithstanding severe budgetary constraints, Australia will continue to provide $340 million a year to humanitarian preparedness, with an increased Emergency Fund of $130 million (up from $120 million last year) to enable timely and effective responses to disasters and other humanitarian crises.

That is actually quite a fair portion of our ODA program – around 8.5% of the $4 billion total – and those figures do not include disaster preparedness and resilience activities funded by our bilateral development programs.

That support is particularly important.

Consider Fiji, after Cyclone Winston, which struck in February this year.

Within 48 hours of the Cyclone making landfall, Australia's immediate assistance had reached more than 200,000 Fijians.

The ADF deployed 1,000 personnel to help get this humanitarian assistance to where it was most needed.

In August, I was very proud to attend a function in Suva, which the Royal Fiji Military Forces hosted for the crew of HMAS Canberra.

Just to say Thank you.

Make no mistake: Australia's humanitarian work saved lives, and meant a huge amount to ordinary Fijians in the wake of the cyclone.

And as I have visited Fiji on a number of occasions, so many people have just stopped me and thanked me.

Please pass on my thanks to the Australian public.

You can say the same about our assistance to the Philippines after it was devastated in 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan.

Again, the Pilipino Australian community have been very very grateful.

I go to a number of their events and they thanked me because we helped families and friends back in the Philippines.

Or about the Japanese, who were touched by support from Australia after the tsunami struck in March 2011.

Within that vital two-day window of a disaster, Australia can deliver emergency relief supplies – often pre-deployed across the region – and relief workers who make a critical difference in early recovery and survival.

Last month I visited Darwin where I met with members of the Australian Medical Assistance Team – AUSMAT – a group which includes top medical specialists from around the country.

I have always held doctors and medical professionals in high esteem, but these individuals are something else – highly-skilled, compassionate workers able and willing to make themselves available for sudden deployment at the drop of a hat.

With portable black and red bag which just walks out the door with them in a very very short period of time, and it was marvellous to just see how they operate and the state of absolute readiness they have.

Australia's approach to natural disasters, though, is not all about responding after the event.

Like in every other part of our ODA program, we want our development assistance to be cleverly-targeted, effective at what it sets out to do and efficient in the means it uses to get there.

Australians are a generous people, but they want to know that we are making sure every dollar we spend counts and is spent appropriately.

In this context, the context of natural disasters, that means they want to make sure that every dollar we spend makes a difference to someone's life.

And as I said at the beginning of my talk; adds to that vital objective that Australia has, which is the stability and security of our region, which after the defence of Australia is our highest priority.

With that in mind, apart from our generous assistance after natural disasters strike, we also work hard at resilience.

Resilience is not a word you hear much, in common language.

But in the humanitarian context, what it means is work you do to help a country reduce the impact, the loss and the damage of future disasters.

It can include measures to help ensure:

  • communities are stronger and more able to bounce back after a disaster;
  • It can be markets and essential services can return quickly following disasters;
  • And it can mean infrastructure is located appropriately and built to a standard to withstand disasters; and
  • livelihoods, agricultural industries, and waters supplies are able to withstand and recover from low onset disasters like drought, and rapid onset disasters like cyclones.

It also includes helping countries and communities to be better prepared for disaster events.

This is not work the Australian Government does on its own – but very much in partnership with the organisations represented here today.

Together, we take the approach of wanting to "build back better" in all of our work.

Last year the principle of resilience and risk reduction was integrated throughout the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Along with the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, the 2030 Agenda gives us a global blueprint for a future that is much more able to absorb and adapt to a diverse range of shocks, including both natural disasters and climate-affected disasters.

An important aspect of resilience work is to take account of the different effects that disasters have on different groups of people – women, men, girls and boys, different ethnic and religious minorities and on groups in societies that may be particularly vulnerable such as the elderly and the disabled.

For example, a disproportionate number of people with disabilities are injured or die during natural disasters.

Sadly, their needs are often ignored and neglected in official planning processes.

They are often totally reliant on the kindness of family, friends and neighbours for their survival.

So part of our work in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal and other countries, is working with people with disabilities to make sure their needs and perspectives can be taken into account.

In all of our resilience work, collaboration and innovation are particularly important.

For eight years, Geoscience Australia has been working with DFAT and Indonesia to develop a new earthquake hazard map.

Indonesia is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, having had more than 2,000 Magnitude Five or greater earthquakes since 1960.

The new national earthquake hazard map will be a great tool in helping inform disaster management planning and for switching to urban infrastructure that is more quake-proof.

Great work, done as a major collaborative effort between Indonesia and Australia.

Likewise, our innovation agenda.

As you know, the innovationXchange was established inside DFAT to find new ways to solve intractable development challenges.

Last year my predecessor spoke to you about the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, run in collaboration between the innovationXchange in DFAT and the Humanitarian Division.

The winners of this challenge were announced in May this year.

Five innovations were selected to support through a trial implementation phase and they include:

  • Firetail low cost unmanned drones – which allows the impact of a disaster on communities in remote and isolated areas to be understood much more quickly;
  • Infrastructure-independent mobile communications – a technology developed by Flinders University which enables communities to communicate with each other when often cellular networks are down or where they do not exist; and
  • An Open Aerial map is building a trial dashboard to collect all imagery collected by drones during disasters and collate this in real time

These ideas are being trialled in different parts of the Pacific and the results will inform any further investment in taking these ideas to a larger scale.

The aim is to not only improve our ability to respond quickly, but to also improve the capacity of the Pacific Island communities affected to be part of the response.

To follow on from the success of this challenge, the Humanitarian Division also ran a Humanitarian Supplies Challenge, to identify new and innovative products, to provide basic needs in the event of a disaster, like shelter and water.

And the outcomes of this challenge will be announced shortly.

As well, I know that applications close for the $10 million Gender Action Platform on 30 November.

Together, with collective action, we can promote women's leadership, participation in the economy and address violence against women.

Ladies and gentlemen, resilience and disaster risk reduction is vital work in our region.

Australia has long been a major contributor when natural disasters strike – and we will always look forward to working with our vital NGO partners on getting better at helping communities in our region.

I wish you all the very best with your conference today and thank you for your kind attention.

Credit: Brock Johnston
Credit: Brock Johnston

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