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What is driving Tonga to economic stagnation?

Sydney, Australia

Dear Editor,

If I may add my own view to the “sustainable development” dialogue previously proposed for readers of the Matangi Tonga. I too would like to thank the proponents of this wonderful dialogue, primarily Mr Helu and Dr Mahina, for their excellent arguments in reinvigorating debate on Tonga’s economic development and future. Matangi Tonga must be congratulated too for allowing us to express ‘our thoughts’ openly and critically. Hopefully your readers won’t find any of us, or our language a bit of a nuisance.

I do agree with Mr Helu’s analysis of the history of sustainable development, particularly in Tonga, and in other western countries. Pacific Island countries at some point in history were exploited because they own some of the most important commodities demanded by outsiders yet deemed useless to us because we didn’t have the investment, resources and expertise to process them in our backyard. This is particularly true in Fiji (when companies conscripted Indians from abroad to work as slaves at sugar farms), and in PNG and the Solomons where acres and acres of forests were mowed down for export. The economic damage to the smaller islands of Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands are equally alarming partly because these countries are totally dependent on tourism dollars. Consequently, new developments are encouraged politically and the expansion of tourism had been argued in favour of anything else. How these expansions impact on Tonga’s social and cultural lifestyle are ignored.

Talamahu Market

I left Tonga in the late 80’s when the Talamahu market was still the centre of economic activity in Nuku’alofa. You can almost watch and witness all the tools of economics operating right inside the market. Domestic farmers and sellers understood the concept of producing just enough to satisfy local demand. They knew the risks if they were to produce too much manioke or kumala because to do so would render one’s market strategy invalid. Oversupplies will have to be discarded or sold cheaply, thus creating an economic loss for the individual. There was always the option for storage coolers for surplus stocks but that was a concept still alien to many producers at the time. Meanwhile buyers in the market, old and young, are busy negotiating for the right…‚ price, often receiving a bargain at the end of the day. If you didn’t have anything else to do at the market, you can always munch on that delicious peanut pack, a very good excuse to hang around longer in case one of your friends drop in, or even better, you suddenly meet that special friend (an old flame may be!). That was Tonga then. Time was on Tonga’s side and the pace of economic activity was confined to our particular way of life and social need. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Today, we belong to a new set of global thinkers. We are no longer confined to the mechanics of how we generally socialise, as families continually drift well apart. Families are operating under enormous pressure to avoid being drawn into a state of competition with nearby neighbours. It is a hopeless thought nonetheless because much of our thinking today is about “survival”. So we Tongans are beginning to think materialistically. The old view about “sharing” may soon be a thing of the past. Of course, it was our politicians that introduced us to this concept by successfully monopolising specific utilities that could have been better left in the public domain. So how would you feel now that politicians and members of the monarchary can top up their income, in addition to a lifestyle that is incredibly privileged for life? It seems that the only thing that is binding us together, is our love for rugby, kava drinking and religion.

Backward economy

Tonga’s prospects for economic development cannot be understood in solation from the rest of the world. We cannot ignore the fact that trade internationalisation and the transformation of knowledge and expertise are changing the way we interact globally as opposed to how we do things in Tonga. With this in mind and to answer some of the questions raised earlier by the proponents of this dialogue, what then is driving Tonga to economic stagnation?

In my view, Tonga’s backward economy is the consequence of two important considerations. Tonga’s political framework is largely problematic (and this will continue for sometimes) partly because we have a system where the King decides on who to appoint, generally for life, to ministerial positions. It is true that in previous years, the public rarely raised an eyebrow or questioned this type of political appointment. What has changed people’s views and attitudes now has more to do with a new form of educated population. Historically, there has been a tendency by government to treat commoners and the public as though their level of intelligence has been confined within Tonga, oblivious to them that Tongans today understood how the real world operates. There was a time in our history when we held the notion that politicians knew best. We now know that much of the progress in Tonga is based on borrowed time and money or aid, negotiated with countries such as Japan, China or New Zealand. This is hardly a case to marvel at our politician’s “achievements”. Soon we will have most of our school buildings, courthouses, hospital, prison, government buildings and major landmark institutions funded by outsiders.

Political reform

Writers before me alluded us to the never ending political reform needed for Tonga. This is really a very sticky issue because so far, politicians aren’t likely to let go of that privileged position. For Tonga to progress to the next level of economic prosperity, it is extremely vital that political reform precedes this. That is what keeping Tonga’s economy stagnated. The politicians are not motivated in any particular direction to implement good economic plan, and they often compromise their role with the desires of the King. Unlike most western governments where politicians fear losing in the next election, Tonga’s politicians have none of that. The government has been reluctant to treat Tonga as a market economy, and the situation where some members of the monarchy have monopolised control of specific industries, have created a huge public backlash as evidenced by the recent public strike in Nuku’alofa. The biggest threat to Tonga’s economic development today is time, and whether the government is willing to stick it out to the reformers.

‘Ofa Atu

Jason Faletau

jfaletau [at] hotmail [dot] com