By FCOSS, member of Forus in Fiji

Constituency participation and disaster responsiveness are key features of the recently adopted amended Constitution of the Fiji Council of Social Services

FCOSS held its Annual General Meeting in November 2018, in Nadroga located along Fiji’s coral coast. The 60 representatives of FCOSS group membership from all four national administrative divisions, adopted the amended Constitution after a year-long review. 

This was a significant achievement for FCOSS given that its Constitution had not been reviewed in over 10 years. 

FCOSS Executive Director, Vani Catanasiga shared that while there had been prior attempts to review the FCOSS Constitution and the policy frameworks of the organisation in the recent past, the attempts had been unsuccessful so far until the FORUS National Capacity Development Support began in mid-2020. 

The Forus project “A stronger International Forum of National NGO Platforms for greater impact on public policies,” injected to enhance FCOSS institutional capacity and responsiveness for constituency-driven DRR and resilience efforts. Based on these, FCOSS would then share whole-of-platform approaches on localization. 

ForusS partnership with FCOSS established the Strengthening FCOSS Responsiveness to Community Led Resilience and DRR (SureFiRe) project to address the following; 

a) A review of FCOSS operational approaches applying lessons learned from the development of The Fiji CSO Protocol & Directory for Humanitarian Coordination at Sub National Level, the Fiji Humanitarian Code of Conduct for CSOs and the Fiji National CSO Humanitarian Reporting Template by the organisation. 

b) Convene two quarterly dialogue/training with FCOSS Executive Committee (board) and staff on operational approaches and policies.

C) Organized a joint annual reflection and community of practice with its sister organisation, the Cook Islands Civil Society Organisation  (CISCO), to share lessons learnt for an effective whole of platform approach on localizing DRR in the region. 

The work began in earnest after the establishment of a Constitution Review Committee in December 2019 upon receipt of news that Forus would be supporting the review of the organisation and its capacity enhancement.  

However by 1st quarter 2020, FCOSS networks were requested by the Fijian government to mobilise alongside hundreds of government workers to support the Covid 19 response after Fiji recorded its first few cases. 

Barely a month later, had Category 4 Tropical Cyclone Harold hit Fiji, which devastated communities in the Western and Eastern Divisions s of the country. 

In ordinary times, the response would have been swift but Covid 19 imposed travel restrictions which added another dynamic to disaster response never before experienced. 

In this scenario, the FCOSS sub-national platforms, District Councils of Social Services (DCOSS) were activated across the country to support the government’s response to respond to the simultaneous crises. 

Although this activation meant a delay in the initial rollout of the response activities, it was providence as the experience of responding to both Covid 19 and TC Harold meant a re-look at FCOSS approaches on CSO humanitarian coordination and the involvement of our constituents in enhancing and strengthening the resilience of Fijian communities. 

Manoeuvring around social gathering restrictions, FCOSS instead opted to convene its Executive Committee (the equivalent of a board) in May 2020 who approved a draft Terms of Reference for the review of FCOSS operational approaches. 

By June 2020 when response efforts phased into recovery mode and when some social gathering restrictions were lifted, FCOSS promptly gathered 32 participants in dialogue held over one and half days.

“We ensured that elements of the TOR were included in the design of the 1 ½ days dialogue programme which included representatives of the DCOSS as the constituents, staff and executive committee members. The dialogue was rich with suggestions about how FCOSS as an organisation could improve the delivery of our mandated national humanitarian role,” Catanasiga shared. 

Catanasiga added that the dialogues helped establish a baseline from which a consultant that was later engaged, would work from to commence the review. 

In addition, FCOSS ensured that the consultant understood the local context, had prior experience in working with Pacific NGOs and had worked on inclusion, would be engaged to carry out the review. 

Apart from the desk review, the consultant also took the opportunity to triangulate some of the initial recommendations made at the dialogue, interviewing affiliates across the four administrative divisions of Fiji. 

A presentation of the initial results to a staff and Executive Committee retreat on August 7th 2020, prompted discussions about engaging constituents in the updating of internal policies and procedures around key thematic areas of operations. 

“I think the findings indicated that because we had neglected to do this process earlier, added to that the new complications brought on by Covid 19, there was a lot more work to be done and even then, constituent representatives on the executive committee,  felt they needed to be engaged in all aspects of that effort,” Catanasiga said. 

Two weeks after, the staff and executive committee re-convened at a training to learn the Oxfam Pacific’s Raising Pacific Voices (RPV)   “Organisational Capacity Assessment” tool (OCAT) and training on the five components needed for an inclusive, transparent, accountable and effective CSO. 

The Oxfam Pacific RPV is a European Union funded project that had developed an Organisational Capacity Assessment tool (OCAT) contextualised for the Pacific region. 

At the end of the one day training, participants agreed to the demarcation of the thematic areas of policy review and development and agreed to a way forward. 

“Going through the Oxfam training and then undertaking the OCAT assessment really drove home the recommendations that had been made from the internal review analysis which was the need to synergise ad hoc policies and contextualise these to current trends, second; ensure its adoption into the strategic documents of the organisation right down to sub national levels, wide dissemination along with awareness activities to drive up constituency ownership and also consistently monitor its relevance, network-wide application  and learning,” FCOSS Executive Committee Chairman, Sitiveni Kunaika said.

By September 2020, three working groups made up of the board, staff and FCOSS constituents had been established to review and update 24 policies deemed urgent by staff and board.

The 3 Working Groups (WGs) are Accountability, Governance, Human Resource and Finance to be led by both staff and FCOSS constituents. 

However whilst there were expectations that the WGs would finalise policies by end of October  in time for the FCOSS AGM in November 2020, this was eventually delayed. 

“Whilst the Forus support enabled us to begin, essentially a revitalisation of a 60 year old organisation, we underestimated the work and focus needed to complete the review of the 2008 FCOSS Constitution, the updating of policies, amidst recovery work for a cyclone and a pandemic within the FCOSS network,” said Cema Bolabola who served as chair of the Constitution Review Committee (CRC). 

“There were hopes that work on these aspects of governance whilst running parallel would also be completed around the same time, but we faced challenges in that regard, Ms Bolabola added. 

FCOSS hopes to convene these meetings between December 2020 to January 2021 to tie up the work around internal review of policies and convene an online community of practice sharing with CICSO. 

“We have done some initial discussions with the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) which is our regional platform, to help us plan ahead and coordinate with our CICSO colleagues. While it’s been a challenging year, we are very grateful for the support and understanding of our Forus colleagues,” said Catanasiga. 

The involvement of constituencies in realigning and strengthening institutional capacity is a challenging process, made more complicated in natural disaster prone areas and under an unforeseen COVID 19 pandemic. However, FCOSS has learnt lessons from this experience and was greatly rewarding. 

There is no doubt that after this project, the level of ownership, credibility and profile of FCOSS to its members and stakeholders has greatly improved and more so FCOSS ability to leverage community resilience initiatives in the face of climate change induced disasters and pandemics.

These, Catanasiga says, is already beginning to emerge.