COP28: How philanthropy is advancing women’s climate action leadership in the Pacific

Michelle Higelin and Flora Vano Fri, 1 Dec 2023 Estimated reading times: 3 minutes

As the UN Climate Change Conference 2023 – COP28 – gets under way, Philanthropy Australia was pleased to partner with Groundswell Giving and ActionAid Australia to hear from Ralph Regenvanu, the Vanuatu Minister for Climate Change Adaptation. Here, ActionAid Australia’s Executive Director Michelle Higelin reflects on insights from the event and the importance of backing women-led action. The charity’s Vanuatu’s Country Manager Flora Vano, who is attending COP28, describes the groundbreaking work she’s been leading with women to build climate resilience in communities already affected by increasingly regular cyclones and environmental impacts.

The devastating impacts of growing climate disasters will serve as a potent backdrop to COP28. Extreme weather events have been costing lives and livelihoods around the world, and it is communities like those ActionAid works with in Vanuatu, who have done the least to cause the climate crisis that are bearing the brunt of its impacts.

At an event in Sydney hosted by ActionAid Australia and Groundswell Giving – in partnership with Philanthropy Australia, Nexus, the Art Gallery of NSW and AEGN – the Honourable Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change spoke about the unprecedented and devastating effect of the climate crisis on the people of Vanuatu, and the critical role of community-led climate action. His message was simple: action is needed today if we want to ensure a climate safe tomorrow.

Michelle Higelin discusses the vital role of Australian philanthropy in funding women-led climate action

It is clear that climate change is happening here and now, making the need for greater investment in climate action more urgent each and every day. Nevertheless, philanthropic funding to combat the impacts of climate change continues to linger below 2% of all annual giving globally. Of the little funding available, even less is accessible to women’s organisations and women’s movements in the Pacific.

The intensifying climate crisis demands greater ambition, scale and urgency from all funders otherwise communities on the frontlines of climate change who have done the least to cause this crisis will be left to bear the costs.

ActionAid Australia CEO Michelle Higelin
ActionAid Australia’s Executive Director Michelle Higelin.

At ActionAid, we have seen firsthand the powerful and long-lasting impact of multi-year flexible funding for grassroots Pacific women-led responses to disasters and climate change. There is no place where this is more evident than in Vanuatu. As one of the most at-risk countries in the world for climate disasters, and with a deeply patriarchal society, the climate crisis will only intensify and deepen existing gender inequalities. This makes it vital to invest in women’s leadership at all levels.

Since 2015, we have worked alongside Ni Vanuatu women to set up and grow the Women I Tok Tok Tugeta (WITTT) Network – a women-led movement that supports diverse women to prepare for climate disasters and advocate for their rights at the local, provincial, and national level. The network now reaches over 9000 women across 5 islands, including over 700 women with disability.

By investing through ActionAid’s Arise Fund, we have seen that resourcing the leadership of women from climate affected communities, not only saves lives but transforms women’s status in society. Women have gone from being ignored when a disaster strikes to leading preparedness and response efforts and in turn, strengthening their community’s resilience to climate change.

Flora Vano, Country Manager at ActionAid Vanuatu, shares her firsthand account of the powerful role women in Vanuatu are playing in preparing their community for climate disasters

In the Pacific, we constantly live with the harsh realities of the climate crisis. Just as we are recovering from one climate disaster, a new one strikes leaving us with no time to pick up the pieces and recover.

Flora Vano, Country Manager at ActionAid Vanuatu (far right).

In March 2023, we were struck by two powerful twin cyclones within days of each other. It was women from the WITTT Network who took charge and ensured everyone in their communities were prepared.

We supported members of the WITTT network to issue emergency warning messages via the Women Wetem Weta early warning platform. Through this platform, we sent information on how to prepare for the cyclone via text messages and a phone tree network to 40% of the population. This undoubtedly saved lives and reduced the loss and damage communities experienced.

In the aftermath of the cyclones, our disability chapter, WITTT Sunshine provided targeted emergency relief, including food, dignity kits and other items to people with disabilities in Port Vila. One woman, who had to move around her house on a bucket because she does not have a wheelchair, was in tears when she received relief because no one had ever reached her in a crisis, and she saw other women like her leading the response efforts.

WITTT members from the island of Malo, who had been spared from the worst impacts of the cyclones, rapidly mobilised and used their resilience gardens to provide fresh food for more than 10,000 people on the worst affected islands.

But our ability to deal with these endless climate challenges are dependent on receiving the funding necessary to scale up and resource women led disaster preparedness and climate resilience initiatives. This is why I will be going to COP28 with a clear message: Wealthy countries must take responsibility for the loss and damage caused by their fossil fuel extraction and provide adequate funding to ensure that we can adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Now is the time to invest in us, listen to us, and we will tell you what works for us.

If you would like to learn more about the achievements of the Women I Tok Tok Tugeta Network in advancing gender equality and climate justice in Vanuatu, read ActionAid’s 2023 Arise Fund Impact Report.

The Cimate Leadership and the Pacific COP31 event was presented by Groundswell Giving and ActionAid Australia, with proud supporting partners Philanthropy AustraliaAEGN and NEXUS Australia, and hosted by the Art Gallery of NSW.