NZ-Pacific: The great island money pipeline

Millions of dollars pour out of New Zealand every year, sent back to poor Pacific Islands by people often struggling to make ends meet. ANGELA GREGORY visited Tonga and spoke to people at both ends of the cash pipeline.

New Zealand butcher’s assistant Phillip Makasini, with wide grin and jaunty white cap, stands in a queue at Fua’amotu Airport to check in for the three-hour flight “home”.

He lives in Mt Eden with his wife and daughters, aged 4 and 2.

Tongan-born and still in his 20s, Makasini has been in New Zealand for seven years, working hard to get ahead.

For him that includes sending $200 every week from his $675 pay packet back to his family in Tofoa village on the outskirts of Nuku’alofa where he grew up.

The money pays the school fees of a niece and nephew, Melealatu and Clinton, both of whom he directly sponsors. It has also gone towards building the new Methodist church on the corner of the street where he once played with his seven brothers and two sisters.

Makasini’s beneficence is not all selfless. He wants to come back and live in Tonga, the money also securing his right to build a small house on the old concrete foundations of what was once to be a Government building directly in front of the family home. “I want my kids to grow up here.”

A week earlier, at Auckland International Airport, dozens of Tongans were lining up for the reverse trip. That night, with bad turbulence ahead, the Air New Zealand staff were under strict orders to limit personal baggage to 20kg.

Many of the Tongans simply cleared their suitcases of clothes which they handed to the Auckland relatives waving them off. In preference they take food and gifts to their Tongan families.

These are generous people who often, some say too often, will take the shirts off their own backs to help their extended families in Tonga.

Remittance, the practice of migrant Pacific Islanders sending money and goods back home, is deeply ingrained in the culture.

This is especially so for Tongans where traditional ways still rate highly in its unique monarchical society, with great importance on kavenga (obligations), particularly to kin.

But the obligation can lie heavy on those trying to honour it. There are cases where large families hovering around the poverty line even send money out of the welfare benefits they receive in countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

An Auckland University of Technology study this year found that two-thirds of about 1400 Pacific Island mothers interviewed in South Auckland say such gift giving makes things more financially difficult for their family. The study found Tongan mothers three times more likely to remit than Samoans.

In New Zealand there is suspicion too much of the money is squandered on feeding an increasingly materialistic society in Tonga with aspirations which include four-wheel-drives and colour televisions.

Auckland radio broadcaster Sef Haouli sees some big spending. “Back in Tonga they want a big wedding. ‘Let’s get LA, Auckland or Sydney to pay’.”

Haouli says some are learning to say they will not support such spending and will only help with, say, a more modest wedding or school fees instead.

But many more won’t say no, “even at the risk of personal poverty”.

A European-born Aucklander, who does not want to be named, sees the strain at first hand. His partner, a Tongan nurse aid, holds down two jobs and sometimes works three shifts in a row to get the money to help back home. “I tell her ‘they’re just using you’ but it makes no difference.”

He sees it as grossly unfair. “They have no debts, don’t have to pay large bills like we do in New Zealand.”

His partner, in her 30s, has got into debt helping, borrowing money from loan sharks to send to the family, including her nieces and nephews in New Zealand.

“It pisses me off.”

He also sees Tongans sending money to churches.”The ministers don’t need the money. The villagers pay for everything.”

“They think that God will bless them in the afterlife. All it means is that the people die poor.”

Auckland Tongans pay air fares for their relatives to visit, he says.

“The relatives bring some umu [traditional oven] cooked food and tapa cloth with them and expect to be kept when it’s not worth anything at all.”

IN his first-floor office above a dusty Nuku’alofa side-street, Fred Sevele, an elected MP and successful businessman, sympathises.

“We can become too dependent on remittances to the extent that our friends and relatives in New Zealand suffer. A lot are in the lower bracket of income.”

Sevele believes Tongans have to take responsibility to look at themselves to allow those in New Zealand to get on and pay off their mortgages.”We should not take advantage but be considerate.”

Sevele admits too often there has been a tendency with Pacific Islanders that if anything happens, they ask for money. “To some extent we should be preparing for our own disasters.”

The scale of the cash pipeline comes when, with a fleeting squirm of embarrassment, Sevele admits to running one of many money transfer offices signposted in central Nuku’alofa, his with an annual turnover of about $5 million a year.

He estimates Tonga gets about $120 million in remittances - 60 per cent in value from the United States where the highest number of migrant Tongans live, the rest divided about equally between New Zealand and Australia.

While acknowledging the problem for the givers, Sevele sees the benefits for those who receive. He sees remittances as no different from aid, albeit less effective.

The money goes on daily needs, school fees, church conferences, consumables and capital development like building houses.

“The financing of four-wheel-drives is the exception rather than the rule.”

During the Weekend Herald’s visit to Tonga, out in the villages we saw families who say the New Zealand money goes on basic needs such as flour, sugar, school fees and power bills.

We meet a Tongatapu teenager, Anna Lilyan, who wants to be a teacher. Her aunty in New Zealand sends the family about $400 a month for school tuition and church.

In another village Sisi Lasike gets about $200 a month from an Auckland relative which she uses to help pay for schooling, extra food such as meat for the children and material to make huge tapa cloths to sell at market.

Similarly a group of craftswomen at Tofoa weave mats which they sell locally or send back to New Zealand in return for help with school fees, power and telephone bills.

In the outer island group of Vava’u, a village trust maximises the New Zealand funds.

Siuta Laulaupea’alu, secretary to the Tefisi trust, says the thousands collected from Tongan relatives is merged for the common good.

Already the trust fund has paid for a $10,000 reconditioned flat deck truck which from last December has been rounding up and transporting about 60 village teenagers to five different high schools in the capital Neiafu every day - a 15-minute drive with two runs in the morning, two in the afternoon.

Before that many never made it to high school as they had no way of getting there.

Further funds are used to pay for the petrol and driver and a tutor who runs evening homework classes from a family home.

Laulaupea’alu’s uncle, Auckland University anthropology lecturer Dr Okufitino Mahina, chairs the New Zealand end of the trust.

He sees it as a better mechanism for assistance than individual gifts which can be frittered away. Even if there is a personal and social cost to remittances they are a hard habit to break, he admits.

“As a practice it is built very much into the Tongan psyche … a philosophy that people share resources and look after each other, however little they have.

“It’s in the blood. I sent $1500 just three months ago to help a brother who is building a house.”

At the lowest end of the remittance scale is 45-year-old Sivihiva Tokoma’ata.

She lives with her family in a dilapidated hut in Vava’u, just round the corner from the popular Tongan Beach Resort.

With empty eyes and six thin children hovering in the background, she explains how it takes every effort to feed the family.

They get about $100 a year from New Zealand if they are lucky. Her only source is a brother in Kaikohe, himself a father of nine.

The money goes on flour and sugar and they try to get by on root crops, fishing and with their chickens and pigs.

She says her children are in good health but a hacking cough from a toddler suggests otherwise.

Their “house” has dirt caked on the floor, just a curtain carving off the sleeping area. The cladding is banged together, a patchwork of flimsy wood from packing crates. The flies are aggravating, scrawny puppies hide from the sun under the floor, and the pigs roll in their muck just a few metres away.

On Tongatapu another family is eking out an existence.

Ma’aimoa Feku, 32, mother of three young children and a fourth on the way, with husband Tafe Feku, 39, grows peanuts which they sell on the roadside at Makangau village for $1 a bunch.

Feku says he can keep his young family well fed, working hard in the bush to provide kumara, kasava, yam, taro and he goes fishing most days.

The $100 they get from New Zealand about every three months pays the power bills and provides a tiny safety net in their almost cashless life.

Still Feku prefers his subsistence lifestyle to what he once had in New Zealand where he had a job and a family to a Maori wife.

But how long can the cash cows in New Zealand and other host countries be relied on?

Fred Sevele is amazed remittances keep going. “Ten years ago the argument was that as time went on and Tongans had families outside Tonga with mortgages and other commitments it would stop.”

Some do send back money to build their own houses in Tonga but they are a tiny minority.”At one stage they think they’ll come back but don’t because of family ties.”

New Zealand High Commissioner in Nuku’alofa Warwick Hawker confirms it is always a matter of concern that remittances may dwindle and a study by Melbourne’s La Trobe University has raised serious doubts about the likelihood of their continuing at the current level.

Anthropology lecturer Dr Helen Lee found a disturbing complacency remittances would just carry on in face of significant obstacles to maintaining the necessary ties. They include policies slashing Tongan immigration, intermarriage and the loss of culture and language.

In host countries Lee finds an increasing criticism of remittances among young Tongans with growing negativity about the draining of families’ incomes.

“Many members of the younger generation have grown up watching their parents struggle to earn enough income to cover their obligations to kin, church, nobility, and so on, often leaving their immediate family wanting.”

There is evidence young Tongans have no intention of remitting in the future and that also applies to older migrants with no family left in Tonga to whom they feel obliged.

“If we look 10 or 20 years ahead, to when the youth of today have established independent households, and have control of their own incomes, the inevitable question is whether they will choose to remit, either directly or indirectly.”

Back in Auckland, business student Lelu Tu’uta, 24, who grew up in Tonga, says she does not imagine her children will send money out in the way her parents and siblings do.

“We do it for our love back home. My kids won’t have that understanding or perspective, - they will probably say, ‘Who cares?”‘

Her parents still send up to $2000 a year back to their oldest daughter’s family on Eu’a Island, south of Tongatapu.

Tu’uta, the first and so far only member of her family to get a university degree, says her sisters and brothers help with parcels of clothing and food. As a student Tu’uta can spare only about $5 a month.

She is determined her family won’t go under trying to prop up their Tongan relatives. “I budget it all out. Only when we have extra do we send it.”

She translates her point of view to her father Mosese and mother Silia who is decorating a woven mat in the corner of their modest Mangere home. They nod in agreement.

In New Zealand the chairman of the Tongan Advisory Council, Melino Maka, says it will always be difficult for Tonga to wean itself off remittances.

But it was critical the community worked to come up with a sustainable economic solution. “The reality is we don’t want to keep sending money but at the end of day we have strong family ties there. It puts us in a pretty awkward position.”

* Angela Gregory and Richard Robinson’s visit to Tonga was sponsored by the Pacific Co-operation Foundation


Most of the money sent back to Tonga goes through the worldwide Western Union company. There are limited postal services especially to the villages and sending cash is insecure.

The traffic is big enough to support two Western Union branches in Nuku’alofa, another two to service the western and eastern districts, and one in the outer island group Vava’u. Branches of the Tongan Development Bank handle remittances in the other island groups.

In New Zealand, Tongans fill in a “To Send Money” form and pay cash and fees at a local branch. At the other end relatives complete a receipt form and provide valid identification or answer a test question.

Some smaller private companies also offer money transfer services and some churches also perform the role.

NZ Herald 05.06.2004