[Grassroots use of social media to engage and mobilise in small island countries in the Pacific]

In March 2015 cyclone PAM, the largest cyclone ever to hit landfall in the South Pacific, cut a swathe of destruction through the proud Pacific nation of Vanuatu, leaving 11 dead and more than 75,000 homeless; destroying crops, damaging schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure. During the cyclone and in its immediate aftermath, Ni-Vanuatu communities across the country and around the globe turned to social media to connect, mobilise and begin the long process of rebuilding.

Vanuatu has a population of 260,000 people, the Ni-Vanuatu, of whom 70% live a subsistence lifestyle in remote village communities, on 83 islands spread across thousands of kilometres of ocean. As little as ten years ago in many rural villages, like that of my family’s village of Mabfilau on the island of Epi, water was drawn from a well, kerosene lamps were the only light and the nearest telephone may have been an hours walk from the village on a shared telephone post. In the last few years we have seen a dramatic transformation in villages like ours, right across rural Melanesia: a reticulated water supply has replaced our wells, local solar panels have become common place (funded largely by the migrant worker schemes in Australia and New Zealand) and mobile phones are now ubiquitous.

What were remote and isolated communities are now digitally connected, locally, nationally and internationally, via mobile phone and social media.

Following the devastating cyclone that roared through Vanuatu in March 2015, it was social media that become the lifeblood for communication and mobilisation of resources. Linking family and loved ones nationally and globally who were desperate for news and providing a channel for mobilising urgently needed support.

Social media is the new coconut wireless in the Pacific: a grassroots movement of engagement and empowerment providing a channel for advocacy and social change.

The Facebook communities ‘Yumi Toktok Stret’ and ‘Papua New Guineans Against Domestic Violence’ highlight the power and reach of this new media to engage and empower our grassroots communities to initiate and drive social change.

Recent research examining the role social media plays in enabling citizen engagement in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu has also highlighted how each is evolving quite differently, reflecting the differing political and social contexts across the region and the challenges and aspirations of its communities.

What are the implications for health care providers?

A recent report analysing how the NHS makes use of social media concludes that overall the NHS is at a low state of maturity and that the focus currently is on broadcasting rather than engagement. Arguably this is also the case with health providers in Australia and New Zealand.

To be truly transformational health leaders must listen and learn from the voices of their communities, be aware of the social media channels that are providing a voice for community concerns and aspirations, strive to understand their views and proactively seek to engage as partners in improving health care.


Using Facebook to address social issues in the Pacific (2015)

Finau, Glen, et al. “Social Media and e-Democracy in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.” (2014).

How NHS organisations should use social media (2015)

On the brink of something special: the first comprehensive analysis of social media in the NHS (2014)

Social media in Vanuatu:

Yumi TokoTok Stret

Vanuatu Cyclone Pam 2015

Epi Today

Humans of Vanuatu

To donate to support relief efforts in Vanuatu following cyclone Pam: