3,000 soldiers, 13 NGOs and the Vodafone Instant Network

7 November 2017

The Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Network team has returned from a rare opportunity to participate in an exhausting but fulfilling New Zealand Defence Force military exercise. Team Leader, Lise Mackie, shares her experience.

In terms of typhoons and tropical cyclones, 2017 has been a quiet year (so far) for the New Zealand-based members of the Vodafone Foundation's Instant Network team (pictured above with thanks to Mark Mitchell from Caritas Aotearoa).

Despite a few close calls – Tropical Cyclone Donna had us on our toes - Mother Nature has thankfully been relatively mild to our Pacific and Asian neighbours.

But that's not to say that the Instant Network (IN) team hasn't been maintaining its readiness.

Late last month five IN members - myself, Cliff Robertson, Callum Ferguson, Mark Tynan and Rob MacLennan - had the rare opportunity to participate in the New Zealand Defence Force's largest military exercise, known as Southern Katipo.

Held every two years, typically in the northern regions of the South Island, the multi-week training exercise sees the NZDF and its international allies role-play war games and practice humanitarian responses.

IN veteran Rob MacLennan, who has deployed three times to real world disasters, was particularly impressed by how credible and encompassing the SK17 scenario became. "I was reflecting on our week-long adventure while we were being flown back to Whenuapai by the French Airforce and I realised that it actually felt like we were returning from a real life mission," he said.

This year's exercise, known as SK17, involved more than 3,000 soldiers from 13 countries participating alongside more than 600 members from the local community, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government agencies. Their main collective objective was to restore law and order in the embattled fictitious country of Becara, which is beset with economic troubles, ethnic discontent, and increasing tension with its international neighbours.

Joining 13 other NGOs, including the New Zealand Red Cross, UNICEF and Oxfam, the IN team helped establish and operate a camp in Linkwater for internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing their homes from ethnic violence caused by tensions between the Havelock natives (known has "Havos") and the "Wessos" from Westport.

Using zero coverage solutions the IN has previously deployed in real life, the team provided wellbeing calling operations, WiFi, and device charging services for over 120 IDPs (played by local Kiwi residents) so they could stay in touch with loved ones. NGO staff and government officials also benefitted from Vodafone's coverage as they transmitted situation reports, needs assessments, camp registration details and high resolution photographs.

Callum Ferguson was struck by the relevance of the camp scenario for future deployments of the IN team.

"Although we wouldn't deploy to a conflict zone like in Becara, the reality of living in New Zealand is that it is prone to potentially catastrophic events like flooding and earthquakes," he reflected.

"Just like in SK17's IDP scenario, thousands of people could be temporarily forced from their homes, which actually makes our experience in the exercise incredibly relevant. It showed me that what we do is crucial to any displaced or disconnected community."

The camp scenario also allowed the Vodafone team to put into practice freshly acquired skills learned in workshops provided by the Red Cross and CBM New Zealand on gender-based violence and disability-inclusive disaster responses.

"Gaining an understanding of real world, everyday struggles for people with disabilities in disaster zones, as well as the little things we can all do to make the environment more accessible for them, really added to our SK17 experience," IN Team Leader Cliff Robertson added.

3,000 soldiers, 13 NGOs and the Vodafone Instant Network