Beyond Aid: Sustainable Disaster Resilience through an Urbanized Pacific Diaspora

This argument appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

By Siautu Alefaio-Tugia

How have Pacific-Indigenousi cultures (specifically the Pacific peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand) drawn on kinship ties extending across urbanized diasporic communities in times of crisis, and particularly during disasters? The diaspora’s own difficult economic circumstances can limit its ability to provide aid, especially among people who have experienced the negative sides of urbanization, including gentrification, anti-immigration fervor, and urban poverty. Pacific-Indigenous urban communities do find ways to effect change despite these forces, like establishing churches as sites of community resilience. But that can only go so far. Supporting Pacific-Indigenous disaster resilience means supporting the diaspora, which can only be done through recognizing the negative impacts of urbanization and improving the livelihoods of PacificIndigenous communities in cities.


In an era of complex disasters, the Pacific region has experienced multiple hazards, from climate-related cyclones, tsunamis, and earthquakes to a major measles outbreak in Samoa and now the COVID-19 pandemic. During disasters, the Pacific diaspora is quick to mobilize aid and typically outlast international humanitarian agencies and local government initiatives. Their solutions tend to draw on indigenous knowledge that is more appropriate than the methods of international organizations for helping the devastated communities. However, the diaspora’s ability to provide and sustain support is limited. In particular, it is hindered by the negative impacts of urbanization, as the majority of diaspora lives in cities. The socioeconomic implications of this urbanization on ancestral nations are rarely considered—yet they must be analyzed, and the urban livelihoods of the Pacific diaspora improved, in order to sustain and strengthen PacificIndigenous approaches to disaster resilience and humanitarian response.

Over decades of migration, vast numbers of Pacific peoples have dispersed across the globe and live across cities that are very different from their ancestral, island nation homelands. The term “Pacific diaspora” encompasses the scattering of people from the Pacific region, which is thousands of years old.[1] Movements across the global village are now a way of life for the diaspora.[2] Transnational kinship ties sustains livelihoods in island nations, as Pacific economies rely heavily on remittances from those living in countries like New Zealand (also known by its Indigenous name, Aotearoa, or as “Aotearoa New Zealand”), Australia, and the United States.

Waves of migration began entering New Zealand from other Pacific island nations in the 1940s and increased rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s, servicing the demand of labor when New Zealand’s economy was booming.[3] During this period, migration was an extension of New Zealand’s colonization of several Pacific islands.4 In New Zealand, more than 380,000 people identify as Pacific.5 Almost two-thirds of them settled in Auckland (also known by its indigenous name, Tāmaki Makaurau), the largest city, often known as the “Polynesian capital of the world.” The rest live mainly in the cities of Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. Over half the Pacific population in New Zealand identifies as Samoans, followed by Tongans and Cook Islands Māori. The Pacific diaspora considers itself the extended whānau (family) of Oceania, linked through ancestral ties with Māori (indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand). Together they are all Te Moana Nui-āKiwa (people of the Pacific). In Sydney and Brisbane, Australia, the Pacific population is estimated at more than 206,000 and is rapidly growing. Large numbers of Samoans (213,439) and Tongans (61,685) live in the United States, mainly in Hawaii and California.[4] These large populations now living outside of Oceania settled into mainly urban areas. Pacific migration and remittances are inextricably linked and are replicated wherever the Pacific diaspora migrate.[5]

The homogeneous term “Pacific” is often used to describe a group of island nations from Oceania, including, though not exclusive to, Samoa, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Fiji. Recognizing and honoring the differences of each Pacific nation is vital, especially as language, culture, status, authority, tradition, obligations, and power structures are different for each. Variations of the term “Pacific” have proliferated over time, starting with “Pacific Islanders,” which is still commonly used in the United States, and continuing with “Pasefika,” “Pasifika,” and “Pacific peoples,” which are used mostly in the Global South. The latter terms will be used interchangeably in this paper.

The Urban Pacific Diaspora

Pacific peoples migrated overseas primarily in search of better economic opportunities—in particular, to help sustain and create a better future for their families and villages in home island nations. In addition to opportunities for a new way of life, many have experienced a cultural dislocation and material hardship that contributes to high rates of poverty, unemployment, violence, and overall socioeconomic deprivation.[6] Similar phenomena have occurred across cities like Brisbane and Sydney, Australia; Honolulu, Hawaii; and the western coasts of the United States and Canada. In New Zealand, the majority of the diaspora migrated initially to Auckland at a time when jobs were plentiful and New Zealand was known as the land flowing with milk and honey.[7] For most of the diaspora, money earned is remitted back to families in villages to sustain livelihoods and cultural obligations.[8] Any impacts, including that of urbanization, on the diaspora’s financial resources will negatively affect families, villages, and nations of the Pacific. At present, most Pacific households are based in urban areas characterized by dense populations, poor housing, ill health, high numbers of school dropouts, and a worsening social deprivation index that underscores Pacific peoples as the lowest wage earners across the New Zealand population.[9] Addressing disparities for Pacific peoples in New Zealand is an ongoing struggle recognized over many years as a priority area across government sectors.[10]

The adverse effects of city-dwelling on the Pacific diaspora were most evident during New Zealand’s economic downturn, which curtailed the significant contribution of Pacific communities on New Zealand’s development as a nation. The political climate toward immigrants shifted from warm and welcoming—there was originally great leniency on visa rules because of the labor market demands—to dark and hostile, as they were seen as “overstayers” who took up all the jobs. “Pacific Islanders” were portrayed as dangerous, aggressive, and alcoholic, even though New Zealand cultivated a pub culture for after-work boozing. This shift is most acutely remembered in the “dawn raids” of the mid-1970s to early 1980s, a blighted period in New Zealand’s history for which activists have recently sought amends.[11] Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued a formal apology on behalf of the government on August 1.[12] The raids terrorized Pacific families, particularly Polynesian migrants, as those suspected of overstaying visas were hunted down at dawn (a time selected for catching people unaware at home) and herded by armed police for deportation back to island nations. Pacific Studies scholar Damon Salesa notes that the raids were “in keeping with the ways the New Zealand state had long dealt with Polynesians in the colonial hinterlands,” but that “deploying such techniques in urban and suburban areas was unprecedented.”[13] The first generation of New Zealand-born Pacific diaspora came of age during the dawn raids and was inspired by groups like the U.S. Black Panthers to form the Polynesian Panthers, which worked to right injustices through community empowerment, running homework centers and social support services, and pushing for social justice reforms.[14]

Pacific migrants initially lived in densely populated areas in the heart of Auckland like Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, and Newton, which are similar to downtown Manhattan neighborhoods in New York City, but on a much smaller scale. However, targeted gentrification pushed Pacific communities out of the city and into new “suburban” areas through the lure of housing that was more affordable and better suited to large island families. The exodus of these families out of the city center and into South Auckland (similar to Brooklyn or Harlem) made way for the repopulating of these areas by New Zealand’s new class of yuppie city-slicker dwellers.

Pacific-Indigenous Disaster Resilience

Across the fields of climate change, disaster risk resilience, and disaster risk management, success is often measured in terms of “resilience,” yet definitions of the term vary. In general, “resilience” involves the ability to adapt and respond to risk; in the words of disaster scholars Douglas Paton and David Johnston, “to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their wellbeing, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways.”[15] When a shock or disturbance arises, a resilient individual or group is able to purposefully identify, access, and utilize available resources.

Disaster resilience is a process of recovery and self-learning.[16] It is the capacity to “return to baseline functioning” after a disaster; yet it is also about advancing through “learning and adaptation.” Some definitions of resilience focus on preparation: It is important to have a “capacity to anticipate, prepare and plan in order to recover from the negative impacts of a hazard and to mitigate, prevent and minimize losses, suffering and social disruption.” Closely tied to this idea is self-reliance. Recognizing the ambiguity of the term “resilience” in the fields of disaster risk resilience, management, and climate change, I argue for the importance of defining a PacificIndigenous perspective based on kinship and family-reliance as enacted through Pacific diasporic churches and community response.”[17] This has far-reaching implications for many diasporic communities around the world, especially those living within dense urban areas with large populations.

Those born in the islands depend upon their kin or family for survival, and many are supported through the remittances that are mainstays for sustaining island economies.[18] They prioritize family-reliance as opposed to self-reliance. Members of the diaspora are not outsiders, but an extension of kinship ties, and they help sustain their kin in home nations. Disaster response in a society such as Samoa whose fa’asinomaga (essence of life) is centered around “others,” or “others-centered,”[19] is organically and collectively resilient. The mainstream conception of community resilience as the ability to overcome extreme events without significant outside assistance can therefore demonstrate a lack of understanding about cultural differences.[20] Samoans treat disasters as an inherent call to respond to their kin, regardless of their geographical location, given their shared tofi (inheritance) and fa’asinomaga.

Tama Fanau (children of the Pacific diaspora) are carriers of indigenous knowledge through languages spoken and unspoken carried in their hearts. Figure 1 illustrates how Tama Fanau act as conduits, facilitators, bridgebuilders, and buffers during disaster response, thereby cultivating an inherent Pacific-Indigenous approach to disaster resilience.

Figure 1. Pacific-Indigenous Disaster Resilience Through Tama Fanau

Figure 1. Pacific-Indigenous Disaster Resilience Through Tama Fanau

Source: Author

The unique Pacific-Indigenous approach to disaster resilience cultivates effective community mobilization that is culturally safe and responsive. It also is more immediate and flexible and outlasts international aid and government assistance.[21] During disasters, Tama Fanau are facilitators of culturally relevant “communication-exchange.” During Samoa’s 2009 tsunami, I was a member of New Zealand’s immediate response team. In one of the medical debriefs, a team visiting the affected villages raised concern around breathing difficulties experienced by babies, young children, and elders due to the burning of plastic water bottles provided by humanitarian aid groups.[22] Everyday cleaning practices for families in villages involved burning waste, which now included the plastic water bottles. This in turn caused breathing difficulties for children and elders due to air toxicity and the newly close proximity of mass numbers of people, as villages had been evacuated to higher ground. A nurse born in Samoa but living in New Zealand suggested rallying villages unaffected by the tsunami to koli mai niu (gather baby coconuts), known for their high nutritional properties, and distribute these instead of plastic water bottles to affected families. This response by Tama Fanau based on inherent local cultural knowledge is an example of Pacific-Indigenous approaches to disaster resilience, and is also illustrated in the Pacific-diasporic church initiative of pop-up testing stations in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, discussed below. If the diaspora were better resourced, they would be able to provide more effective and sustainable support in the wake of disasters. This is evident in the Samoan tsunami and cyclone disaster, where remittances from the diaspora were more immediate, flexible, and longer lasting, allowing families to better recover.[23]

Pacific Diasporic Churches as Urban Sites of Resilience

Despite atrocious historical injustices and challenging living circumstances, Pacific communities draw strength from their cultural values and beliefs to support each other, especially during times of disaster. For example, they garner fortitude and mobilize support for the collective good in Pacific diasporic churches. Missionaries had an early influence in the region and caused Pacific nations to affiliate with Christianity.[24] For the diaspora, church emulated island village culture and became more than a place of worship, as it also helped families maintain language, sustain culture, and receive social support. Ministers, priests, and pastors were also social workers, lay advocates, translators, and more. Ministers’ wives developed Aoga amata (heritage language schools) in churches to ensure that language preservation was prioritized in early childhood education.[25] Over 100 Aoga amata schools now exist throughout New Zealand.[26] Pacific peoples prioritized building churches over home ownership, believing that having a place of worship was more important. South Auckland is renowned for having the most churches; Mangere, a suburb of South Auckland, is often known for the proliferation of churches on every street corner and the sheer physical size of those buildings. Pacific diasporic churches have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic; a Pacific church in Mangere became the epicenter of a virus outbreak.[27]

Because they are sites of community gathering and are connected across suburbs, regions, and home island nations, churches are often the first to activate responses during disasters. During the COVID-19 outbreak in Mangere, pop-up testing stations were set up at Pacific churches encouraging families to get tested.[28] The request came directly from churches and was supported by Pacific medical providers, who mobilized nurses and medical doctors involved in the initiative. This is an example of what I termed “Pacific-Indigenous disaster response and resilience,” in which the diaspora mobilizes faster and more effectively than international aid groups and other conventional facilitators of recovery. In this era of complex disasters, churches become innovative, urban sites of resilience that mobilize disaster response “from the ground up.”

Sustainable Disaster Resilience Through Tama Fanau-Led Initiatives

The transnational communities of Pacific diasporic families and villages demonstrate immense resilience in times of crisis, but they are inevitably impacted by the socioeconomic constraints of urbanized livelihoods. These include, gentrification, densely populated areas resulting in overcrowding, higher costs of living and increased poverty. The most impoverished communities of New Zealand essentially sustain their own island homelands through kinship reliance. They have done so through numerous disasters, including cyclone relief, the 2009 tsunami, the measles epidemic that gripped Samoa in 2019, and more recently, the COVID-19 outbreak in South Auckland.[29] While struggling to meet its own material, social, and cultural needs, the Pacific diaspora continues to respond to complex disasters, motivated by kinship or extended family responsibilities. However, economic disruptions and shrinking work opportunities are expected to lead to a significant fall in remittances, according to the International Monetary Fund.[30] Among the problems that these communities face, the costs of sending remittances to Pacific nations are among the highest in the world.[31] Immediate action in remediating this inequity is an obvious first step in going beyond the lines of superficial aid. Further, investing in improving the lives of transnational Pacific diasporic communities will have a direct impact on sustaining livelihoods of island nations. This can be achieved by recognizing the devastating impacts that urbanization has had on Pacific-diasporic communities in New Zealand and supporting innovations of disaster response grounded in Pacific-Indigenous approaches to disaster resilience. This will prioritize Tama Fanau as instrumental leaders and navigators of disaster resilience and humanitarian response and sustain communities beyond the aid.

1 Pacific Diaspora: Island Peoples in the United States and Across the Pacific, eds. Paul Spickard, Joanne L. Rondilla, and Debbie Hippolite Wright (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

2 Helen Lee, “Pacific migration and transnationalism: Historical perspectives,” in Migration and Transnationalism: Pacific Perspectives, eds. Helen Lee and Steve Tupai Francis (Canberra: ANU Press, 2009), 7–42.

3 Ronji Tanielu and Alan Johnson, “More Than Churches, Rugby & Festivals,” in A report on the state of Pasifika people in New Zealand (Auckland: The Salvation Army Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit, 2013).

4 Lagaga: A Short History of Western Samoa, eds. Malama Meleisea and Penelope Schoeffel Meleisea, (Suva: University of the South Pacific, 1987).

5 Siautu Alefaio, “Mobilizing the Pacific diaspora: a key component of disaster resilience,” The East-West Wire, September 4, 2020,; John Connell, “The Pacific Diaspora,” in Migration and Development: Perspectives From Small States, ed. Wonderful Hope Khonje (London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2015), 244–264; Elizabeth Grieco, “Will Migrant Remittances Continue Through Time? A New Answer to an Old Question,” International Journal on Multicultural Societies, 6, no. 2 (2004): 243–252.

6 Siautu Alefaio, “Mobilizing the Pacific diaspora: a key component of disaster resilience,” (2020).

7 Siautu Alefaio, “Supporting the Wellbeing of Pasifika Youth,” in Penina Uliuli: Contemporary Challenges in Mental Health for Pacific Peoples, eds. Philip Culbertson, Margaret Nelson Agee, and Cabrini Ofa Makasiale (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007), 5–15.

8 Christopher Browne and Aiko Mineshima, “Remittances in the Pacific region,” IMF Working Papers 2007, no. 035.

9 Philip Schluter, Sarnia Carter, and Jesse Kokaua, “Indices and perception of crowding in Pacific households domicile within Auckland, New Zealand: findings from the Pacific Islands Families Study,” New Zealand Medical Journal 120, no. 1248 (2007); Gerhard Sundborn, Patricia Metcalf, David Schaaf, Lorna Dyall, Dudley Gentles, and Rodney Jackson, “Differences in health-related socioeconomic characteristics among Pacific populations living in Auckland, New Zealand,” New Zealand Medical Journal 119, no. 1228 (2006); Riz Firestone, Tevita Funaki, Akarere Henry, Mereaumate Vano, Jacqui Grey, Andrew Jull, Robyn Whittaker, L. Te Moringa, and C. Ni Mhurchu, “Identifying and overcoming barriers to healthier lives,” Pacific Health Dialog 21, no. 2 (2018).

10 See Department of Corrections, 2005–2008; Ministry of Education, 2013–2017; Ministry of Health, 1998; New Zealand Police, 2002–2006.

11 Te Rina Triponel, “‘Shameful stain on NZ history’: Polynesian Panthers push for dawn raids apology,’” New Zealand Herald, April 17, 2021,

12 “New Zealand apologises for 1970s ‘Dawn Raids’,” Al Jazeera, August 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera. com/news/2021/8/1/new-zealand-apologizes-for-1970s-dawn-raids.

13 Tangata o le moana: New Zealand and the People of the Pacific, eds. Sean Mallon, Kolokesa MāhinaTuai and Damon Salesa (Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2012).

14 Melani Anae, Leilani Tamu, and Lautofa Iuli, Polynesian Panthers: Pacific Protest and Affirmative Action in Aotearoa New Zealand 1971-1981 (Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2015).

15 Douglas Paton and David Johnston, Disaster Resilience: an Integrated Approach (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 2017).

16 PaulinacAldunce, Ruth Beilin, Mark Howden, and ,ohn Handmer. “Resilience for disaster risk management in a changing climate: Practitioners’ frames and practices.” Global Environmental Change 30 (2015): 1–11.

17 David E. Alexander, “Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey,” Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences 13, no. 11 (2013): 2707–2716.

18 Browne and Mineshima, “Remittances in the Pacific region.”

19 Siautu Tiomai Alefaio-Tugia, “Galuola: a NIU way for informing psychology from the cultural context of Fa’aSamoa,” doctoral dissertation, Monash University, 2014.

20 Susan L. Cutter, Lindsey Barnes, Melissa Berry, Christopher Burton, Elijah Evans, Eric Tate, and Jennifer Webb, “A place-based model for understanding community resilience to natural disasters,” Global Environmental Change 18, no. 4 (2008): 598–606.

21 Loic Le De, Jean Christophe Gaillard, Wardlow Friesen, and F. Matautia Smith, “Remittances in the face of disasters: A case study of rural Samoa,” Environment, Development and Sustainability 17, no. 3 (2015): 653–672.

22 Siautu Alefaio-Tugia, Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o, and Petra Satele, “Pacific-Indigenous communityvillage resilience in disasters,” in Pacific Social Work, Jioji Ravulo, Tracie Mafile’o, and Donald Bruce Yeates, eds. (Routledge, 2019): 68–78.

23 Le De et al., “Remittances in the face of disasters: A case study of rural Samoa.”

24 Auckland Council, “Exploring Pacific Economies: wealth practices and debt management” (Technical Report 2017/010: 2017).

25 Fereni Pepe Ete, “The role of the church and government in promoting early childhood education in Aotearoa” (conference paper, 1993 NZCER Invitational Seminar, Wellington: 1993), 100.

26 Simon Collins, “Pacific preschools ‘set back 30 years’ by tough English-language tests,” New Zealand Herald, January 14, 2018,

27 Leni Mai’ia’i, “‘Devastating impact’: south Auckland’s Pasifika bear brunt of new Covid-19 outbreak,” The Guardian, August 18, 2020,

28 Liu Chen, “South Auckland doctors provide more test sites for community,” Radio New Zealand, August 26, 2020,

29 Browne and Mineshima, “Remittances in the Pacific region.”

30 Alefaio, “Mobilizing the Pacific diaspora: a key component of disaster resilience.”

31 Alefaio, “Mobilizing the Pacific diaspora: a key component of disaster resilience.”