The Future of Tonga

When I first arrived in Vava’u in October, 2007, I met an American tourist who had also just arrived.  He was surprised to find out that there are Peace Corps volunteers serving in Tonga.  As he put it, “This place is pretty first world”.

At the time, I didn’t think much about it, but over the past two years, I’ve thought a lot about his comment and also about whether Peace Corps should still be in Tonga after more than 40 years.

At first glance, Tonga has many of the qualities you would expect to find in a first world country.   Most of the country has electricity, running water, cell phones, television and Internet.  There is no hunger or homelessness in Tonga and the literacy rate is almost 100%, much higher than the USA and other developed countries.   Many Tongans are bi-lingual speaking Tongan and English and on average, Tongan men have a life expectancy of 73 years old and woman can expect to live until they are 69 years old.

Those statistics don’t seem like a place where you would expect to find the Peace Corps which only works in developing countries.   But as is often the case, there is a different story once you look a little closer.

The economy here is completely supported by foreign aid and by remittances from Tongans living abroad.  Almost everything is imported except for the crops that are grown to provide food for the families here.   There are very few exports and those items that are exported, like kava and Tongan handicrafts are often sold to other Tongans living overseas.

I believe there are products which could be sold overseas and which could help Tonga reduce its reliance on handouts.   However, two very big things have to happen before that can happen. 

First, Tongans have to decide that they want that financial independence.   The people here are so used to being able to ask for things and have it given to them that there is little incentive for them to have to work really hard.   Currently the flow of remittances from overseas has slowed due to the economic problems in the USA and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand.  This means that some Tongans are not getting the support from overseas to which they have become accustomed.   If that trend were to continue, would that be enough to convince Tongans to try and live more independently?

The second major thing that has to happen before Tongans can export products is a major improvement in the country’s infrastructure.   During the pineapple season this year, many farmers who wanted to sell their crops outside of Vava’u, were unable to do so because the two boats that run weekly between the islands were not operating.  For more than a month, there was no boat limiting the ability of anyone to send anything out of here and also causing many items to disappear from store shelves.    There are planes, but that is expensive and the shipping costs can increase the price to a level where it is no longer competitive.

And there are issues with planes.   In March, Air New Zealand cancelled several flights to Tonga causing a back-up of fish that was scheduled for export.  Finally the airline got its flights back late on a Saturday, but because everything in Tonga is closed on Sunday, they couldn’t land at the airport until Monday.   The fish was no longer fresh by then.  And the prices for Inter-island flights are very high.  It is cheaper to fly from Tongatapu to New Zealand than it is to fly from Tongatapu to Vava’u.

It’s not just the transportation infrastructure that has challenges.  At different time in the past week, I have been without water, without electricity, without cell phone service and without Internet service.   I don’t know the reason for any of the outages except that they happen pretty often.

I believe that until Tonga can come up with a way to fix its infrastructure and especially the transportation infrastructure, it will be very difficult for it to reduce its reliance on outside money.

There are certainly other challenges besides infrastructure here.   Right now, there is no foreign investment in the country because of strict laws concerning land ownership and ownership of businesses.   I am not sure those laws are bad.  They keep foreigners from taking advantage of the Tongans and those laws are probably why the wonderful Tongan culture is so well preserved after so many years.   

Unfortunately, I think you will see that change.   If foreign investors were allowed to come to Tonga today, even in a limited capacity, I believe the good-natured Tongans will lose out.  It has become such a part of the Tongan culture to accept “free money” that I fear the Tongans would take the “quick cash” instead of thinking about the long term consequences of giving up their land and their businesses.

This is why I think it is important for Peace Corps to stay in Tonga.   With the right volunteers, we can help educate the Tongans about business and try to teach them to think longer term.   Hopefully we can convince Tongan entrepreneurs to cultivate crops and products that can be exported and encourage them to lobby the government to provide a reliable infrastructure to insure their success.

However, the change won’t happen quickly.  Peace Corps has decided to focus its efforts on educating the next generation of Tongans about business instead of working with the current business owners.   Beginning this fall, Peace Corps is eliminating the business advising program where I work and replacing it with a business education program for students at the secondary and tertiary levels.  There is no curriculum yet for this new program and it will be up to the volunteers who arrive here later this year to help develop it.   Let’s hope that the process of developing and implementing this curriculum doesn’t take too long because I do think there are some significant changes coming to Tonga soon.  

Probably the most significant will be allowing Tongans to have more say in their laws.   The current King, George Tupou V has signed away some of his powers and beginning next year, there should be more representation of average Tongans in Parliament. 

While there are still many questions to be answered about how much influence Tongans will have into their government, there is little doubt that there will be changes.  And hopefully part of those changes will be programs to focus on business and make Tonga more independent of foreign money.


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  1. Hi Steve,

    I found your post extremely relevant and timely, because I've just recently started a website with the specific intent to create more employment opportunities in Tonga.

    In a previous post you had written how a call center might be a great way to generate new jobs, by taking advantage of the low wages and high English skills. Perhaps instead of a call center, a program to train Tongans online skills that are in high-demand by overseas English-speaking business might have these advantages:
    - MUCH lower implementation costs;
    - dramatically lower infrastructure requirements;
    - significantly less training needed to start working (often only a few hours);
    - easily scalable.

    (While there's already a pretty good initial overview at the site, I'll be adding even more specific details about the project and jobs over the next several days.)

    Given your experience with specifically these kinds of initiatives -- in addition to your familiarity with businesses from the US, etc. -- I would really love to get your feedback and suggestions on this project. You're more than welcome to leave comments, observations, advice, etc. at the website; or if you prefer to respond on your blog here, I'll be following your posts as well.


  2. Two of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers also have a post about the issues facing Tonga.

    I thought it was right on target.

    You can read it at Two Coconuts.