Will You Buy This for Me?

It’s no secret that Tonga survives on the generosity of others. The country’s main source of income is from overseas remittances and foreign aid. But times are tough and people aren’t as SOPAC Marker in Matamaka generous. For the first six months of this year, the amount of money sent by Tongans overseas to their relatives in Tonga dropped by 14% and tourism is down 6%.

Foreign aid is also drying up. One of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers was just turned down by New Zealand Aid for a project because New Zealand has put all of its aid to Tonga on hold for the rest of the year. Other countries are doing the same.

This is a big adjustment for Tongans, many of who are very used to asking “Will you buy this for me? You can go almost anywhere in Tonga and you’ll see signs like this one that on a rainwater collection tank saying who provided the money for the project.

For years, the money has flowed freely and all kinds of projects have been funded. For example, early last year I heard about a school that had a shortage of textbooks and no computers, but instead of asking for money to get books, school supplies or computers to help the kids, they instead got the European Union to buy them a very expensive riding lawn mower. And the school doesn’t have a very big yard.

The island of Hunga just finished building a very expensive road from the waterfront up to their village. There is just one vehicle on the entire island, a truck that was also paid for with grant money. The road was built so that the truck could go down this road to pick up supplies from boats. The "Road to Nowhere" in Hunga The road is all poured concrete with a sidewalk on each side, but if you look closely, you’ll notice some obvious problems. There is no drainage, so all the water pours down the road into the harbor below. You can see where the mud has already started to collect. It’s also not straight and it is much more difficult to walk up the hill to the village than if they had build a set of stairs. I was initially told the project was funded by New Zealand, than was told it was paid for by India. You have to wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent installing electricity or running water on the island, of which it has neither.

And then there are the grants which go for great projects but they end up being a waste of time.

The village of Falevai has a beautiful medical center. It’s the only place outside of the main island where people in Vava’u can go for medical issues.Falevai Medical CenterThe center was paid for with grant money. There is just one problem. There is no money to pay doctors and nurses to work there. So the building, which is actually nicer than the Vava’u hospital, sits empty. Villagers now use the fence around it as a clothes line to dry their laundry.

On the surface, all three of these projects probably sounded good on paper: a lawn mower to help a poor school, a road to improve the infrastructure of a village and who could argue with a modern medical center to help people who live on small outer islands. It just didn’t work out that way.

And in fairness to the countries that provided the grant money, they did so out of a desire to help the people of Tonga. It can be hard to say “no” when a friendly Tongan with a a big smile on his or her face comes up and says “Will you buy this for me?”.

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  1. Very good article Steve. I think you encapsulate quite a bit in this article....tactfully. We hope you are doing well!