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ADB's Work in Tonga

Making High-Speed Connections

Since the 1970s, ADB has been helping Tonga connect to the rest of the world, first through telephone infrastructure and today via high-speed internet access. This complements the work being done to improve government finances, build critical infrastructure, and increase resilience to climate change and extreme weather events.

In Tonga, access to the internet used to be frustratingly slow.

“We used to joke that if you wanted to access the internet you would click on the site, go away and make a cup of tea, drink it, and then maybe when you returned to your computer the site would be up—if the system hadn’t timed out,” recalls Robert Bolouri, chief executive officer of Tonga Cable.

Before the ADB-backed $32.8 million Tonga–Fiji Submarine Cable Project, internet access was only possible through an extremely expensive and slow satellite service. Under the project, connections to the remote Pacific island country were largely improved and costs were more than halved.

A high school student from Tupou High School in Nuku’alofa
A high school student from Tupou High School in Nuku’alofa

Improved internet access is not just a convenience. At Vaiola Hospital in the capital city of Nuku’alofa, the lack of highspeed internet could be a matter of life and death. Radiologist Ana Akauola used to be unable to transmit large data files and had to mail X-rays and CT scans to colleagues in Australia for a second opinion.

The whole process could take up to 10 days. Sometimes, patients died during that time,” she recalls, adding, “now, when I send X-rays, scans, and patient histories to colleagues overseas, they review the material and report back within hours.”

ADB is also supporting the development of electronic applications to improve service delivery in Tonga’s health and education sectors.

Helping to bring high-speed internet is one aspect of the work being done by ADB in Tonga, the oldest remaining Polynesian monarchy and the only Pacific island country that has never been brought under foreign rule. While embracing modernity, Tonga has kept its traditions and culture alive.

ADB is working with Tonga to improve the government’s financial management and spur economic growth to create jobs and reduce poverty. Part of this effort includes infrastructure investments in renewable energy, climate resilience, and water and sanitation.

"ADB has proven in action its relevance to Tonga by assuming an increasingly important role for our socioeconomic development. Six years ago in the aftermath of the negative impacts to Tonga of the international financial crisis, ADB together with key development partners articulated a joint commitment to support Tonga’s economic recovery. Today, we are achieving above average growth, and once again, the government looks forward to foster stronger partnership with ADB to sustain Tonga’s economic growth."

Samiuela 'Akilisi Pohiva
Prime Minister

Moving toward resilience

ADB has a long history of improving communications in Tonga. A year after the partnership began in 1972, ADB’s first project in the country was to improve the telecommunications system. In 1979, ADB implemented a new type of assistance—a multiproject loan that allows more development work to be done via a single loan approval process. Tonga was the first country where this was used.

In 2009, ADB and the World Bank Group established a joint office in Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, to provide on-the-ground support. This included helping the government undertake an ambitious economic reform program. In partnership with Australia and the World Bank, more than $30 million in budget support was provided in 2009, 2013, and 2016. This has helped to restore public finances and debt to manageable levels and channel resources toward health, education, and other areas.

“Six years ago, in the aftermath of the negative impacts to Tonga of the international financial crisis, ADB together with key development partners articulated a joint commitment to support Tonga’s economic recovery,” Tonga’s Prime Minister, Samiuela ‘Akilisi Pohiva, recalled that time. “Today, we are achieving above average growth, and once again the government looks forward to fostering a stronger partnership with ADB to sustain Tonga’s economic growth.”

Agriculture in Nuku’alofa
Agriculture in Nuku’alofa

When a major tropical cyclone hit the outer island group of Ha’apai in January 2014, ADB and the Government of New Zealand provided assistance through the Cyclone Ian Recovery Project, which rebuilt and climate- and disaster-proofed 4 high schools and 12 primary schools. The project also reconstructed more than 45 kilometers of power lines, which restored electricity to 1,000 households.

ADB was also on hand when Cyclone Winston struck Tonga in 2016, and provided $1 million from ADB’s Disaster Response Facility to help in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Helping the island country incorporate climate resilience into its administrative planning and processes is another important and complementary thrust of ADB’s support. The Climate Resilience Sector Project, launched in 2013, will finance a range of least-cost and locally appropriate solutions for climate resilience, with suitable investments identified and implemented by civil society organizations and local communities.

ADB is working to support Tonga in meeting its targets for curtailing climate change by tapping climate change mitigation finance from the Green Climate Fund to help transition away from diesel power generation and toward solar, hydropower, and wind energy. Tonga intends to generate 50% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

ADB will expand its overall assistance to support Tonga in addressing the existential threat of climate change, promoting economic growth, improving the efficiency of government finances and operations, and building critical infrastructure.

This article was originally published in a special edition of Together We Deliver, which tells 50 stories highlighting the importance of good partnerships in Asia and the Pacific in meeting the complex development challenges of this dynamic region.