A visit to the heart of the South Pacific: Taking our partnership with Tonga further

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East Asia Pacific VP Victoria Kwakwa meets with Tongan leaders - July 2019. East Asia Pacific VP Victoria Kwakwa meets with Tongan leaders - July 2019.

I’ve just returned from my first visit to Tonga, a kingdom of 176 islands home to more than 100,000 people in the heart of the South Pacific. 

While the South Pacific may evoke white sand beaches and palm trees, this region of giant ocean states is of increasing strategic interest, and working hard to deliver better standards of living and opportunities for its people, through development that is sustainable and sensitive to the unique cultures that make the region so special. 

Tonga is no exception. I had an enriching four days, meeting with representatives from the government, civil society, women’s groups and the business community, to hear about the real challenges to development on the ground, and how we can better work together to overcome them.

Our relationship with Tonga began in the late 1980s, and since 2017 has been guided by the Pacific’s Regional Partnership Framework, which is keeping programs focused on helping to mitigate the main risks to incomes and livelihoods, and putting special emphasis on addressing drivers of fragility such as climate change.  

Over the past decade, our partnership has deepened. Since 2011, we have worked closely with the government on 21 projects focused on improving Tongans’ standards of living and creating opportunities to fulfill their potential, with our financing increasing tenfold.

We’ve also reoriented our strategy to a few key areas including youth skills development and labor mobility – both critical for Tonga – with participation in programs like the Australian Seasonal Worker Program, which delivers significant benefits to families and the broader economy through remittances.  Going forward, we have to find ways to mitigate any adverse impacts of this program on access to workers for domestic businesses.  

Since healthy, educated people are any nation’s most important asset, and in-line with our global Human Capital Project, support is being delivered to Tonga to reduce high school dropout rates and improve alternative vocational and learning pathways; and improve health service outcomes through more efficient and equitable expenditure. Further, our Pacific Early Age Readiness and Learning project has improved school readiness and early literacy outcomes for children, including a 10% increase in the ability to read with comprehension by the end of grade two. 

We also helped Tonga connect to hi-speed internet in 2014, delivering cheaper and faster digital connectivity under the Pacific Regional Connectivity Project, including to the two outer islands of Ha’apai and Vava’u via an undersea cable. 

We have also most recently helped Tonga’s recovery from tropical cyclones Ian (2014) and Gita (2018). We continue to stand as a committed partner with Tonga in times of disaster, but just as importantly, in strengthening resilience to natural hazards and climate change, including through the Pacific Resilience Program.

During my visit I also had the chance to travel to Tonga’s northern island of Vava’u. Today, thanks to our support through the region-wide Pacific Aviation Investment Project, this critical transport route for Tongans and tourists alike is safe and secure, benefitting from investments in safety equipment and airport infrastructure, such as an upgrade of the runway in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa.

In Vava’u, I joined the Minister of Fisheries, Dr. Halafihi, to launch the Tonga Pathway to Sustainable Ocean project. This US$10 million investment will benefit more than 40 coastal communities in Tonga and some 10,000 Tongans directly engaged in fishing and aquaculture. The project aims to improve management and recovery of fish stocks and better regulations, in support of Tonga’s economic growth.

My heartfelt appreciation goes to the people of Tonga for their warm hospitality and to the government and other stakeholders for our open and productive discussions. Tonga and its people can count on the World Bank’s commitment to continue supporting development efforts amidst its challenges. I’m looking forward to seeing our relationship with Tonga deepen and broaden further in the years to come, and hope to return to a warm South Pacific welcome very soon.


Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President, Eastern and Southern Africa

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