Isles of smiles: Pacific resilience and community in the face of catastrophe

Humans are resilient. Our ability to face adversity, regroup, adapt, recover and thrive again is nothing short of remarkable.

Yet in all my experience as an international banker, having lived and worked in many developing countries, including Ghana, Botswana, Sri Lanka and Thailand, never have I witnessed resilience quite like that of the Pacific people.

"As they say, in adversity comes strength – but happiness?"
Vishnu Mohan, CEO ANZ Pacific

Last month one of the strongest tropical cyclones the region has ever encountered ravaged the archipelago of Vanuatu with unforgiving force. Tropical Cyclone Pam's overwhelming power was also felt in the low-lying island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu through tidal surges that forced many communities from their modest homes and damaged already struggling infrastructure beyond repair.

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The situation was bleak. The world watched on as international news agencies gave Vanuatu's devastation airtime rarely experienced by Pacific nations. Aid agencies rallied their resources and stories of lives and homes lost began to emerge as communications infrastructure was slowly restored.

I travelled to Vanuatu the weekend after Cyclone Pam struck, primarily to visit our staff on the ground and to relay the support of the wider ANZ network to the team. ANZ has been in Vanuatu since 1971 and is established as the nation's largest bank. This same weekend, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, was also in Vanuatu.

As I landed in Port Vila, the damage dealt to Vanuatu shocked me, from the battered buildings to the devastated flora and fauna, once so lush.

But what shocked me even more than the very apparent cyclone damage was meeting our team of enthusiastic, jovial bankers who had worked tirelessly to set up our Disaster Recovery (DR) site to service our customers in Port Vila. (Our main branch in town had been damaged but is now open again.)

These were not 'victims' of Cyclone Pam – they were survivors, and they had a clear mission to jointly do whatever they could for their community and our customers during this very difficult time, regardless of their own personal challenges.

With hindsight, I shouldn't have been so shocked by the community of cheerful ANZ staff and many, many others I encountered in Vanuatu, as I had witnessed similar smiles on the faces of people in Samoa and Fiji following the devastation of Tropical Cyclone Evan in 2012 and in the demeanour of our team and their neighbours in Tonga following the wrath of Cyclone Ian in 2013.


As they say, in adversity comes strength – but happiness?

According to the World Bank, Pacific Island countries rank among the most vulnerable in the world to natural disasters. Since 1950, natural disasters have directly affected more than 3.4 million people. Climate change is clearly only going to add to the vulnerability of many of these societies.

Yet this clearly challenged region of small island developing nations, separated by vast oceanic distances, is home to some of the happiest people I have ever met. International opinion polls agree. Fiji is currently ranked as the happiest place on earth according to polling organisation WIN/Gallup. In 2006 and 2011, Vanuatu held the top spot as the happiest nation in the world according to the Happy Planet Index. Captain James Cook even nicknamed Tonga 'The Friendly Islands' upon his first visit in 1773, a name that's stuck in the nation's ethos and effortlessly sustained by its people.

So what helps make the people of the Pacific so happy? Some attribute this quality to the region's warm weather or the Pacific's ion-balancing ocean spray. There are many theories.

But in drawing from my experiences with the people of the Pacific, who vary greatly in their cultures and beliefs, I would suggest the greatest contributing factor to this is the deeply engrained sense of community that exists across the region.


Communal living is a part of Pacific peoples' psyche from birth. For most, their community is a part of their identity. It is widely acknowledged that people with strong support networks during times of adversity also enjoy the supportive nature of these relationships in their day-to-day lives. This is indeed the case in the Pacific, from which stems, I believe, this innate happiness in its people.

It is a wonderful thing which I should note also brings some challenges as family ties can override contractual obligations to lenders such as banks. But the benefits of such strong community bonds are undeniable.

The Pacific tourism industry, which contributes some 11 per cent of total GDP for Pacific island economies, uses this draw card remarkably well, with global campaigns touting the hospitality and spirit of Pacific people as central to their tropical holiday experiences.

This National Geographic video enticing viewers to visit Fiji is a perfect example of this strategy.

For global companies looking to increase staff engagement and productivity, is there perhaps something to be learnt from this paradigm? Does that sense of community, which comes so naturally to the Pacific, lend itself to aspirations of linking business strategy to employee satisfaction, purpose and productivity?

As I was reminded once again of the incredible resilience and joyfulness of the people of the Pacific, I thought about how we might tap into that from an employee's very first day with a company. Can we replicate the sense of community and support that Pacific islanders practice so well? Can we build resilience in our businesses structures to allow them to withstand the storms of economic shocks?

I believe there are many lessons we can learn from the Pacific's experiences, starting with the appreciation that success is ultimately achieved through the collective actions of willing, determined and happy people.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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