Seamless transition from Te Herenga Waka PhD to Tongan parliament project

As he completed his doctorate in Development Studies, Dr Faka'iloatonga Taumoefolau found himself immediately employed in a development role in Tonga, working on the Tonga Parliament Buildings Project.

Man with tongan woven tupengu standing beside green sign which says 10 Kelburn Parade, Faculty of Graduate Research, Scholarships, Accent Learning
As he completed his doctorate in Development Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, Dr Faka’iloatonga Taumoefolau returned to Tonga to take up a role with New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as coordinator of the Tonga Parliament Buildings Project.

“Being a Tongan, this is such a legacy project to be part of. I’m very fortunate to be in this position,” says Dr Taumoefolau.

He is responsible for maintaining good working relationships with the Tongan government and managing the project in Tonga.

His role is directly related to his doctoral thesis, which focused on how bilateral aid programmes shaped and influenced national development priorities in Tonga from 2013-2017. The research used the five Paris Declaration principles of aid effectiveness as a framework to analyse the way aid relationships occurred in Tonga over this period.

“I had worked in the international aid space for several years before choosing pragmatically to do my PhD in this area. Often when you are in academia you can’t grasp how principles translate into reality, but because I had previous experience I found that aspect more fathomable,” he says.

“The five principles in the Paris declaration are mutual accountability, ownership, harmonisation, alignment, and managing for results. I selected aid projects in Tonga and analysed how they fit with within this framework. The implementation of these principles was a paradigm shift for aid, and gave the Tongan government more ownership over what aid is used for, and how it is most effectively applied.”

The implementation of the Paris Declaration also changed the language used in aid relationships, says Dr Taumoefolau, where once Tonga was a recipient of aid, they are now collaborators and partners.

“A strength of New Zealand’s role with the Pacific is that it identifies as a Pacific island country itself. It means they can build on these cultural and historical ties within the Pacific, at the global level with the World Bank and the United Nations for instance,” he adds.

While he thinks that overall the Australian and New Zealand aid programmes are doing a fantastic job in Tonga, a concern raised in his research in terms of the application of aid was around proliferation—where several aid projects target the same thing. “So you might have a high volume of aid from different development partners all targeting the same issue. It’s time-consuming and not cost-effective. The application of aid requires more strategic direction at a high level.”

However, aid provided by Australia and New Zealand to Tonga has a positive and long-term impact, particularly on the education sector, says Dr Taumoefolau . “I am a recipient of this aid—without scholarship support I couldn’t have done either my Master’s at Australian National University (ANU), or my doctoral studies at Te Herenga Waka”.

As the eldest of four raised by a single mother, and later when she died, an aunty, education played a big part in his life. Both the Australia and New Zealand scholarships have helped Dr Taumoefolau  along this journey in life.

“I grew up in poverty. If I didn’t have these opportunities, I would not have had this pathway to improve my life. It’s hard to emphasise enough how important that is to uplifting people from poverty.”

He chose to study at Te Herenga Waka after meeting his supervisor, Professor John Overton, at a conference hosted here. He loves Wellington, and he says he may be drawn back to the city when he completes his work with the Tongan parliament project.

“I love my country, but I need to weigh this up with future possibilities. This is an issue in Tonga—retaining the skills and experience here in the country.”

Dr Taumoefolau  is drawn to politics and enjoys observing the progress Tonga has made in the last two decades. He says being a part of the Parliament Buildings project for Tonga is special and he hopes his story inspires others to give back to Tonga.

He enjoys the way in which Pasifika values are recognised in New Zealand society and says, “What I love about New Zealand is how this society encourages and embraces diversity.” He says many Pasifika students go through a journey to try and fit in here, but also to discover their own identity.

“I want to say to them—embrace it, no matter how long it takes you. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak the language. Just embrace your culture, as a Tongan or wherever you or your parents are from.”

He also wants to encourage current Pasifika students not to be ashamed to ask for help. “Apply for a scholarship—if you don’t get it, apply for the next one. Some students feel they can’t open up about their pressures, but there is a team of Pasifika Engagement Advisors there at Te Herenga Waka to help you along your journey and help you. They genuinely want you to succeed.”