05 August 2010

Is Globalization Good for Tonga?

Is globalization good for Tonga? Dr Isidor Walliman, author of On the Edge of Scarcity and Globalization and Third World Women, gave a lecture on the subject on Wednesday at Atenisi, Tonga’s only university. It’s a question that is in constant discussion in Tonga, as more and more Tongans work abroad and as it becomes harder and harder to ignore the foreign goods and influences creeping their way into every day life.


A constant conflict in Tonga is the difference between traditional Tongan culture and the new westernized forms of organization that Tonga has recently adopted in connection with the rest of the world. Business organization as the West knows it is a very recent development in Tonga, a country which does not have a cultural history that is familiar with professional accountability, strict deadlines, performance measures, and incentives. We see a lot of this conflict in the multiple private and public organizations who have wonderful policies written down that are never enforced, and therefore not followed. The form is there, but the function is absent. The most successful organizations in Tonga have been able to adapt the Western model to Tongan sensibilities (and vice versa) at their very core, “choosing their battles” proverbially, rather than relying on a Western veneer over a disorganized lump that is neither efficiently, beautifully, culturally Tongan (like a community organization), nor reliably, predictably foreign (like foreign-owned local businesses).

Dr Walliman gave a very interesting talk, arguing that increased industrialization in Tonga would run against what he described as “input problems, output problems, and land use.” Everyone jokes that Tonga’s main export is its people and it’s main import is remittances, and they’re not too far off. Exporting a main industrial product from Tonga, according to Walliman, would face the input problems of not being able to get enough resources on small, geographically remote islands, and the output problems of what to do with the waste created by the production. Even if industrialization took off, the increased population it would encourage would have nowhere to go on such small islands, and the land would not be able to support the food needs of the larger population. He cited the classic economic illustration that industrialization has to start with increased agricultural production, because to support every person not producing food, the farmer has to double his own food production. He concluded by saying that industrial society in Tonga is either too damaging or too impossible to sustain, and that Tonga should scale back industrialization to focus on becoming more self-sufficient.

After he finished, a delightfully heated discussion broke out, with “protectionism,” “anti free-trade,” and “western elitism,” thrown around, and I was laughing to myself, remembering a similar heated debate in business school in which a friend in jubilant favor of fair trade jokingly cried out, “The WTO [World Trade Organization] kills babies!!” to a shocked and then uproarious room, which then promptly became a school-wide joke.

Atenisi university itself is far from what you’d think of if you’d just stepped off of the lush lawns and brick buildings of most small institutions in the USA. A cluster of low buildings around a sparse grass and dirt field, it resembles the government primary schools across the islands in its simplicity and small size. The institution has no more than 30 students and currently has one fully-functioning classroom, in which Wednesday’s lecture was held. Despite its physical limitations, it attracts illustrious Tongan and foreign lecturers from around the world, and the tiny louver-windowed cement-walled classroom was packed with brains, business, and PhDs. Among the attendees were the NZ Aid head of the Tongan office, the King’s pilot, and 5 or 6 prominent foreign business people, some who have been in Tonga for more than 20 years, hailing from the Netherlands, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Regardless of my own opinions on globalization in Tonga, about which I will keep diplomatically mum, the question is an important and relevant one for Tonga, one that we all need to keep wrestling with.

picture credit: http://www.sailingdownthemoonbeam.com/Site/Photos______files/Tonga%20Market.jpg

2 comments:

  1. Excellent reflection..thanks, Elena!

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  2. Excellent article! My views on globalization have been changing. I used to think it was a wonderful idea, but now believe that globalization as we know it causes more environmental damage (shipping of foods / goods), destroys cultures, assumes we all need the same kind of government / religion / whatever, helps the large corporations to the detriment of the people, and generally isn't such a great idea.

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