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Michael Hassett, Ph.D., President + Co-founder of Friends of Tonga Inc 01.02.22

Michael writes on the inequality experienced by the Pasifika communities & the responsibility of the global community.

"...More funding and aid should not just be given after crises but should be proactive to ensure that these communities are able to weather whatever storm..."

Friends of Tonga (FoT) is a volunteer-led, non-profit organization, which is headquartered in the greater Washington D.C. area. Our board of directors hail from Tonga, the United States, and New Zealand. FoT was founded by a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Tonga as a way to provide disaster relief after Cyclone Gita slammed into Tonga in 2018. However, our mission quickly expanded and now seeks to connect all people with a vested interest in the welfare of the Tongan people and to partner with local Tongan organizations to support, enhance, and amplify educational initiatives, and opportunities in the Kingdom of Tonga.

To date, FoT has supported the construction of the first cyclone and earthquake-resistant early childhood center in all of Tonga, funded over 50 scholarships for high school education, designed and implemented a pen pal program that connects Tongan students with international classrooms, and created a video-read aloud library to support English language learning that has been recognized by the United States Library of Congress. We are now marshaling an international relief effort in response to the Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha'apai volcanic eruptions and subsequent tsunami that occurred on January 15, 2022.

It is our firm belief that Pasifika communities are largely overlooked in the United States of America and across all western-industrialized countries and that the challenges these communities face are often invisible to the world at large. Specifically, many view the Pacific Islands as an idyllic honeymoon or holiday destination, while largely ignoring the social and environmental impacts that the islands face. We believe that this invisibility stems from many factors. For example, in the United States, the Asian-Pacific Islander rubric is used as a way to group Pasifika communities. This rubric categorizes all Pacific ethnic groups under one definition, which removes any nuance between the different cultures that are represented geographically within Oceania. Lumping all Pacific Islander groups with Asian groups does not give the former adequate representation, while causing confusion to the wider public regarding cultural and geographic elements that are unique to Pacific Islanders and not found in or near continental Asia. This also unfortunately causes a disparity in how money is allocated to these groups of peoples by not addressing the specific set of challenges the Pasifika community faces: most urgently climate change and public health.

The threat of Pasifika communities becoming the first climate change refugees is becoming an ever increasing concern and without bold world-wide coordination to curb climate change, this inevitably will become a reality. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster. Our inaction, as a global community, has sent the message that it is acceptable for Pasifika communities to be collateral damage for our incessant need to continue consuming at our current (and unsustainable) rates. This is unacceptable. Responses to the specific set of challenges these communities face are urgent and can include a wide range of interventions. These include supporting and building infrastructure that is weather-resistant, public health interventions, and providing the tools and education for Pasifika communities to compete in a globalized economy. Moreover, funding and aid should not just be given after crises but should be proactive to ensure that these communities are able to weather whatever storm.

Friends of Tonga believes that the inequality experienced by the Pasifika communities compared to industrialized nations should be recognized and steps taken to mitigate it. This begins with communicating to the broader community that a problem exists, that it matters, and that it should be addressed. We seek to provide programming to advance literacy rates for Tongan students, so they can be empowered to force the rest of the world to take them and their communities seriously.

Friends of Tonga has always viewed itself and will always view itself as an ancillary to Tongan-driven community efforts. This can be seen in the way our programming has been designed and implemented, which is driven by community leaders and has to be formally requested. Likewise, our disaster relief to assist the Tongan communities affected by the recent Hunga-Tonga Hunga-Ha’apai volcanic eruption will be driven by Tongan organizations and local stakeholders that can best guide equitable and responsible resource allocation to target communities with the most need.

If you are interested in making a donation to Friends of Tonga, click here

Written by Michael Hassett 

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