NUKU’ALOFA — Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago consisting of 170 islands and with a population of 108,000. Poverty in Tonga was not historically a concern, but over the years, the country’s economy has become vulnerable.
Tongans depend on agriculture and fishing for a livelihood. Many people are smallholder farmers engaged in subsistence and cash crop production. They grow coconut and root crops like yams and sweet potatoes, sometimes supplemented by bananas and plantains. Tonga’s poor lack alternative sources of income. Those seeking other types of work have limited access to markets and face high costs of transportation. Due to limited employment, many people choose to migrate to other countries, mainly New Zealand and Australia.
Traditionally, Tonga was the kind of place where everyone helped each other out. They lived by the idea of making sure that the community met the needs of its people. However, this attitude has changed due to external influences and other factors over the years. Furthermore, the cost of living has gone up, with higher prices for goods and services.
Roughly 22.5 percent of Tongans live below the poverty line, mostly as a result of a decline in remittances, the transfer of money back home from people who have sought work elsewhere. The result, according to UNICEF, has been “a sharp contraction in domestic expenditure and economic activities of households … [with]declines in government tax revenues from duty, excise and consumption tax.” Also, tourism is down, and with fewer cruise ships and travelers arriving by air, tourist dollars are drying up.
Poverty in Tonga is mainly seen in rural areas. Poor communities are concentrated in the outer islands (‘Eau, Ha’apai, the Niuas and the outlying islands of Vava’u). People who live in the islands farthest from Tongatapu, the kingdom’s main island, have difficulty accessing basic goods, services and marketing opportunities.
Tongatapu has the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, approximately 15 percent above the national average. Vava’u is the second-largest and most developed island. However, those who reside on outlying islands, some as far as 272 kilometers away, must bear the additional cost of transporting produce to and from Tongatapu. The poorest and least developed island is Ha’apai. It has a GDP of about 40 percent below the national average. Many residents of Ha’apai have migrated in search of work on the main island.
The government is attempting to alleviate poverty in Tonga. In 2015, the Tonga Development Bank implemented various microfinance opportunities. An example of this is the Holiday Market Festival, created to help generate income for vendors from outer islands with goods to sell.
– Solansh Moya