Monday, March 19, 2007

Schools, hospitals & clean water

To get a feel for the issues facing Tonga, visiting local people is the perfect place to start. Visiting schools, the local hospital and nearby village water projects has allowed me to see first hand what life is like here in Tonga - and understand what a difference NZAID projects can and do make, given time and careful planning.

Here is a run down of my observations.

As part of the week long education review, we had the opportunity to visit two schools. The first was a government primary school and the second, a non-government secondary school for girls.

The primary school has just over 300 students, 10 teachers and 12 classes. It's a school sports day so the children are outside having sack races. Smiling and laughing, it definitely looks like a lot of fun. The class rooms appear very basic and students are taught in both Tongan and English.

Children attend primary school until year six when they complete the national examination to enter high school. It's a hard exam and students cannot continue their education unless they pass. The top students in the country will go to Tonga College while others might go to a non-government school or leave school altogether, depending on their results. In this school there are 15 students (out of 72 in year six) that are repeating year six.

The principal of the school shows us the key issue facing the school at the moment - the toilets. There is only one toilet working at the moment and they do not have the funds to repair them. For a school of this size, it really does cause major problems for the health and well-being of the children.

Queen Salote College is a Wesleyan girls' college. This means that students are taught the core curriculum plus the extra religious curriculum. The school has approximately 900 students including year seven and eight and 30 teachers with an average of 35 students per class. Girls are dressed nicely in blue and white and there are some classes being taught outside under trees.

There is an immediate contrast between this school and the last school, however non-government schools also face difficulties. The school is funded by fees paid by students and funding is tight. The school has a strong alumni association which does what it can to assist. One of the key issues here is that teachers at non-government schools do not get paid as much as the teachers at government schools. Teachers here talk about the difficulties of the English curriculum, a lack of resources and variance in quality of education across all the schools.

Vaiola Hospital
In Tonga all healthcare including dentalcare is provided free of charge. I met Dr Kyan, an Australian doctor who has been funded by NZAID to work at the main hospital in Tonga, Vaiola Hospital, on a 15 month project improving the service, systems and capacity of the outpatient and casualty unit. The project will finish in July.

Dr Kyan shows me around the hospital and we discuss some of the issues facing the people of Tonga. Diabetes is a major problem here and people are often reluctant to seek help - preferring to try local medicine first, meaning that foot amputations and the like are a common sight. This can also be a factor in many of the other cases presented in the casualty unit where patients are brought in at the last possible miniature, giving doctors and nurses a very small window of opportunity to save the patient.

There are clear differences between what we might expect to see in a hospital in New Zealand or Australia and what I can see here. There are massive queues of people waiting for prescriptions. The windows in the wards are open to the outside, exposing patients to mosquitoes, dust and dirt. It's hot and there is definitely no sign of strong-smelling disinfectant hat you might find elsewhere. But Dr Kyan is quick to point out that these observations are not what makes a good hospital. It's about having the knowledgeable, helpful staff who can treat patients.

Changes are on the way. The World Bank and the Government of Japan have supported a major renovation of the hospital and the results are obvious. The new wing is modern and clean and houses brand-new operating theatres, an ICU unit, the maternity wards and obstetrics. Further developments are also planned.

Clean water for all
It's hard to imagine life without running water to wash and clean but for many villages in Tonga, this is a reality. It's a way to measure development, the town officer in Tatakamotonga, a village that received NZ government support for a water reticulation project told me. The project saw the replacement of leaking piping that was over seventy years old. Before the project was completed people would have to carry water in a bucket from the cement tank to their homes to wash. Now they can have a shower 24 hours a day. People can now install flush toilets, showers and washing machines - reducing risks of typhoid and other diseases. He called the fresh clean water a gift from the NZ government. Everywhere the gratitude of the people was obvious.

I visited Lapaha, where a 200,000 litre wooden tank has been installed to provide the community with clean water. The next stage of the project is to install rainwater tanks for each household to supplement the main tank. The water committee has collected $300 Tongan Paanga from each household to contribute towards the costs and we are now waiting on the Tongan Ministry of Health who have the mandate to release the funds so the construction can get underway.

The third village a much smaller village called Makapaeo where most people are unemployed or live off the land. Here, AusAID funded a water project and NZAID funded a road project - two simultaneous projects that have made a big difference. Now in the rainy season, people no longer have to walk through mud with buckets of water. Not only has the road provided better access it will ensure that the water piping has an extra long life. And the smiles on the faces of those who live here and their heartfelt gratitude is a great way to end my trip to Tonga.

Watch this space for further postings from the field.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

A load of rubbish

First stop today was the Popua dump – a dump that I have heard much about on my trip so far. The dump has been here for a approximately 55-60 years. Located next to a squatter village between the sea and the lagoon, this dump is a weed between the roses. This is unlike any landfill that you might see in a country like New Zealand. It is filled with families of pigs foraging in the muck, people scavenging in the rubbish, not to mention an overflowing assortment of car wreaks, steel, plastic bottles, household waste, chemical waste and who knows what else. And all this flows into the lagoon and the nearby village. When the wind picks up the rubbish blows across the road and into the sea. It's a grim picture and is a major health hazard. But things are looking up.

A world class landfill facility called Tapuhia opened in December with the ability to manage waste in a sustainable manner. This AusAID funded project has made a great difference to Nuku'alofa. Recycling stations have also been established around town and a managed by the community, with a great deal of success. There will soon be a kerbside waste collection which will require a major awareness campaign to change the way people think about waste.

With the assistance of NZAID, the Popua dump will soon be closed and rehabilitated – creating a public reserve. A great deal of planning has gone into the design and construction of this project and the first visible stage of the project is a temporary fence which was completed a couple of weeks ago. Immediately one can see that the fence will stop the rubbish blowing out to see and will encourage people not to use the dump. The dump will close at the end of the month and people will need to use the Tapuhia Landfill for household waste.

Once closed, the contents of the Popua dump will be investigated fully. Ground water will be tested and the site will be surveyed to gage how thick the waste is. The rubbish will be sorted Steel will be recycled and the rubbish will be compacted and covered with clay. Careful planning will ensure that gas emission will be minimized. It's not going to be a quick task; the project will take approximately two years, but it's definitely not a load of rubbish!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The central business district - three months on

It's my first visit to Tonga and it's hard to imagine that just over three months ago, pro-democracy riots destroyed most of the central business district of Nuku'alofa. As I wander around people are going about their business, cars are driving around the streets and buildings house government ministries, cafes and shops. One could easily suppose that it looks the same as it ever did. But I am not familiar with what was once there - an air conditioned cinema, a large hotel, buildings that housed businesses, the Chinese embassy, shops, restaurants, large supermarkets and bustling markets. 154 businesses were affected but today very little evidence remains of the destruction; destruction that is almost too hard to comprehend.

Within two months the destroyed buildings were cleared and all that remains are empty lots cordoned off with barriers and the occasional presence of the military and guards (mostly around the government buildings). The military still hold emergency powers but life is starting to get back to normal. The handcraft markets have returned although the vegetable markets are still empty. Produce stalls have started to pop up outside of town and some businesses have set up shops outside the damaged area.

It's hard to know exactly what happened on November 16. Some people say that it started as a pro-democracy movement that escalated into something else. And they say that it wasn't supported by all of Tonga and the villages have removed themselves from what happened.

Today it's business as usual and something that just happened (although the investigations are still going on). Crops are still growing, children are back at school, celebrations go on and people are getting on with their lives. The NZ Police are still here - but most of their work tends to focus on the community; building relationships and skills and creating customised education programmes for schools and participating in community events - quite a change from the state of siege mentality when they arrived for a last minute deployment in December. They will return home to New Zealand in April.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A commitment to education

Yesterday morning started early when we arrived from Auckland at 1.30am. And when I finally tucked myself in bed at 3am it was with reluctance that I set my alarm for 7am to face a full day of meetings.

It is the first day of a week long mission to complete the annual review of the Tonga Education Support Programme (TESP) - a project designed to build a framework that will provide consistent and equitable and quality basic education for all. NZAID has committed NZD$14 million to be spent over three - five years. Over the course of the week, NZAID, the World Bank and the Tongan government will work out a work plan for the next 12 months. It's not going to be an easy task.

While Tonga has one of the highest literacy rates in the Pacific region there are still pockets of the community, like special needs education that are missed out. There are also issues of access and quality which need to be addressed.

The last eighteen months have been particularly difficult - a public strike, voluntary public service redundancies, the passing of the late king, and the riots of November 16 have highlighted unexpected challenges. We need to look at what has gone before and then move forward to make sure changes take place that will bring a better outcome for schooling. Open and honest dialogue need to take place and issues around capacity, communications and policy need to be addressed.

Meetings with the Minister of Education, the Education Ministry, the TESP team, Prime Minister Suvele, the Minister of Finance set out the agenda for the week and are generally filled with optimism of what the programme could achieve - once some hard decisions have been made It is clear that it will take a whole of government approach.

Sometimes it is hard to believe the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes in a programme of this nature - the importance of getting it right and building an initiative that will build capacity and be sustainable is something that can never be overlooked.

The night concluded with a cocktail function hosted by the Ministry of Education - a mixture of dignitaries like the Ambassador of China, the New Zealand High Commissioner, the project donors and education specialists reflect the importance Tonga places on this education programme. It's a positive start to the week.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A visit to Tonga

Tonga is an archipelago of 129 islands with a population of just over 100,000 people. It's one of the more developed countries in the Pacific, boasting one of the best literacy and life expectancy rates in the region. That said, limited resources and opportunities, and a vulnerability to natural disasters means that hardship still exists. This year NZAID has an allocation of NZD $10 million to spend on the region. So what are the priorities? What impact is this funding having?

On Sunday I'm heading over to Tonga to find out.

Here's a run down of what I expect to see....

In November 2006, pro democracy riots destroyed the entire central business district of Nuku'alofa's ... leaving thousands of people without jobs and much needed income. Earlier this year the New Zealand government announced a $2 million business recovery package. While it will be too early to see any results, I'm hoping to make some useful contacts that will allow me to get a feel for the current situation and find out whether people are hopeful for the future.

And while I am there, I'll also have the opportunity to visit a number of NZAID funded projects including a solar electrification project, a water quality improvement project and even the Popua dump as well as schools and the local hospital - hopefully giving me a good understanding of the issues facing the people of Tonga today.

It's going to be a busy week so watch this space.