A group of 170 islands spread over an area roughly the size of Japan, Tonga was inhabited for thousands of years before Captain Cook dubbed them “The Friendly Islands”. Although a 1900 treaty made it a British protectorate, Tonga was never a colony. It is the last Polynesian monarchy. While in 2010 the people elected their first popular parliament to end 165 years of absolute rule, all Tongans proudly refer to their country as ‘the Kingdom’. Reflecting this Pacific heritage, the domestic economy is based on a tradition of sharing and the core values of faka’apa’apa (respect), fuakavenga (responsibility), and ofa (love).
Good Return will work in partnership with Xplore for Success to provide a unique opportunity for female leaders to take part in an immersive cross-cultural experience. The Cross Cultural Leadership Development trip includes five skill development sessions with Xplore for Success. Participants in the 6 day program will also visit the extraordinary fieldwork of Good Return and our partner South Pacific Business Development (SPBD).
At a Glance
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The Kingdom’s ancient monarchy is unique in the Pacific, and although a 1900 treaty made it a protectorate, Tonga was never a British colony. Its land mass is only 748 sq km, and after years of emigration to New Zealand, Australia and the US, its people number just over 100,000. Modern day Tongans are known for their hospitality, food, dancing, and handicrafts made with techniques passed down from pre-contact days. The most unusual of these is the tapa cloth made by village women from the pulped bark of the paper mulberry tree. These handcrafted goods form the koloa (‘treasure’) of a woman, comparable to gold or dowry goods in other societies.
Tonga has a subsistence agriculture economy typical of South Pacific nations. With 62% of people reliant on farming, per head GDP is $5,450 (Purchasing Power Parity or PPP), equivalent to about $15 a day. This ranks Tonga at 130 out of the world’s 228 countries. Some 31% of GDP, supporting 82% of local households, is in the form of remittances from expat Tongans - but these are vulnerable to conditions in their country of domicile. Only 30% of Tongan women are in paid work. A further 40%, engaged in small scale farming, fishing and handicrafts, are officially defined as underemployed. Tourism offers the best hope for future economic activity.
About 70% of the population live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and fishing for their livelihood. For those farthest from the main island, access to basic goods and services is limited - and expensive. This imbalance between urban and rural dwellers means 23% of Tongans live below the national poverty line. In the past, hardship was mitigated by social safety nets in rural communities. But these old systems are breaking down. High rates of migration to urban centres or other countries worsen poverty among the less productive (older and younger) people left behind.
There is no universal standard of literacy, but the most common definition is the ability to read, write and understand a short, simple statement about everyday life. Tonga has high literacy levels with 99% of men and women being literate. This reflects nine years of compulsory education starting at age five, and most children completing 14 years of school. More than 95% of primary students attend state schools, while about 90% of secondary students go to church schools.
Tonga’s small financial sector comprises two Australian and one Malaysian bank. The government wants to extend financial inclusion, and with support from ADB, its Tonga Development Bank is implementing a microfinance loan scheme to empower local women. Another entrant to the microfinance space is Good Return’s partner South Pacific Business Development (SPBD). Launched in 2009, SPBD now has some 5,000 borrowers and 7,000 depositors (all women), and a loan portfolio of over $2 million. But many challenges remain. In Tonga, women cannot legally own land. Current practice is to divide farmland into allotments, with parcels granted to the head of the household (invariably male) by the village leader or local government.
Financial inclusion means vulnerable and low-income people have access to responsible financial services at an affordable cost. Geography, poor infrastructure, subsistence livelihoods - all have contributed to making the Pacific one of the least banked regions in the world. It’s estimated that in some countries less than 10% have access to basic financial services. This is very low, say compared to 30% in the Philippines. But mobile phone technology offers a potential solution for transforming financial services in the Pacific. Today DFAT and UN agencies are working to develop new ways of enabling low-income and rural Islanders to access affordable savings, insurance, as well as credit products.
Here are our people in Tonga. Read stories from local perspective – our born and bred Tongan Village Trainer and Community Banker. And from the Australian expat – our Field Support Officer, who is living in Tonga for the first time.
Curious to know more? Please send in a question – ask us anything.