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Development assistance in Tonga

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Australian Volunteers program in Tonga

Case study: Australian volunteer shines a light on education in Tonga


Photo: Cecilia Davern, Australian Volunteer for International Development, surrounded by grateful and enthusiastic students. Source: N. Fifita, Ocean of Light School.

From 2014 Cecilia Davern worked with the Ocean of Light International School in Tonga as an Australian Volunteer for International Development.

Cecilia's vast experience in teaching indigenous communities in both Papua New Guinea and North Queensland made her an ideal candidate for the assignment as Curriculum Development Advisor and Teacher Trainer. Specifically, she worked to ensure the curriculum was delivered consistently and was complied with, to reinforce the basic literacy skills of students.

Not only did Cecilia successfully engage with teachers and parents, but her passion had seen many community members (with no connection to the school) begin volunteering their time every week. Together they worked to ensure Tonga's young people had access to effective education.

The focus of Cecilia's work is critical to ensuring high quality education outcomes for students.

But she went 'above and beyond' her volunteer project requirements, when she organised a holiday camp for children in her village during the school break. The focus was to build relationships between young people living in the same village but attending different schools. The participants explored the concepts of unity, community service and friendship while also looking at the strengths and challenges in their village. Senior students were trained and encouraged to act as facilitators and group leaders for the activities to increase their engagement and build new skills. Parents attending the final night barbeque and presentation congratulated Cecilia on the strong friendships developed, and the growth in maturity and confidence of their children.

The school was confident Cecilia had built the capacity of both teachers and students at Ocean of Light and in her local village. This will have a long-lasting effect on the students for their education, and as they face other life challenges in the years to come.

Case study: Gordon and Sonia Muir


Left to right: Sonia Muir, with college colleagues Kina and Sister Kieoma and Gordon Muir on graduation day 2013. Source: Sonia and Gordon Muir.

In 2013, Gordon and Sonia Muir rented out their house, sold their car, and took leave from their jobs – all to help train Tongans and improve health outcomes.

For a year the couple from Orange in central west New South Wales, were volunteer teachers at the TAFE-style college, 'Ahopanilolo Technical Institute, in Tonga's capital Nuku'alofa. Gordon was a cookery teacher/mentor, while Sonia taught communication classes and assisted with a range of administration tasks.

The College had about 120 students aged from 17 into their 30s, and 18 staff.

Graduating from an accredited course significantly improves the students' employment opportunities. Gordon said that of the 52 students that graduated that year, 47 were now employed in what was a high youth unemployment country.

Gordon also used his expertise to initiate evening cookery classes and encourage a healthier diet. This was vitally important in a country like Tonga, facing serious health challenges. Non-communicable diseases including heart conditions, diabetes and obesity have been occurring there in epidemic proportions. This had not only cut life expectancy, it also put a significant burden on the country's health system.

Gordon also helped students run the Pot Luck Training Restaurant where he helped to refine and implement hospitality efficiencies.

Both Gordon and Sonia encouraged anyone who wanted an amazing chapter in their lives to join the program and help build the capacity of people in developing countries.

Sonia said, it was a year of living more simply and described the unique experience of being immersed in another culture as a privilege.

Case study: Fiona Webster, Fisheries Statistics Officer, Department of Fisheries, Kingdom of Tonga


Fiona Webster

In a bid for better management of local fishing stocks, Australian volunteer Fiona Webster was placed on assignment with the Department of Fisheries, Tonga. Part of her role was to analyse data collected by fishing communities to build sustainable fishing practices.

Fishing communities in Tonga were returning to traditional methods of management, whereby local villages had exclusive fishing rights to the nearby reefs and were responsible for the management of the area. The Tongan Government was formally re-introducing these locally managed areas in response to declining fish resources, concerns about food security, and environmental and economic stability.

For five years, local fishing communities had gathered fish catch data, but staff at the Department of Fisheries lacked the skills and staff to analyse it. Fiona's assignment focused on data analysis, and trained staff in data management, analysis and interpretation.

Fiona had been able to determine that community managed areas were still overfished. This had resulted in the Department of Fisheries seeking funding from international donors to reduce fishing pressure within the reef areas, by developing alternative livelihoods such offshore fishing and intensive agriculture.

Fiona also worked with fishing villages sharing information from the data analysis and raising awareness of environmental sustainability. This resulted in local communities having a greater understanding of the impact of their fishing activities and also encouraged them to continue collecting data.

'It has been an incredible experience, especially visiting and working with the remote fishing communities. The people in these villages live in the same way as they did a hundred years ago. I feel that through my assignment I have helped communities to manage their fishing practices more sustainably,' Fiona said.

There are now six islands in Tonga with community-managed fisheries, legislated under the Fisheries Management Act 2002.

As part of the data collection initiative, Fiona developed key questions to better understand fishing practices: including, the species of fish being caught; whether catches are increasing, decreasing or remaining stable; and if fishing is occurring at a sustainable rate.

Fiona provided a written report of her findings, along with management recommendations for the future, for presentation to local fishing communities.

'I am sure my friends and family think I am in a dugout canoe somewhere, saving turtles, but no; I am typically in the office all day every day with an excel spread sheet,' Fiona said.

How to apply

More information, including applicant eligibility criteria can be found on the Australian Volunteers website.

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