Contactless aid in Tonga: Re-thinking disaster response in the Pacific Islands

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Image: Nuku’alofa, Tonga. Adli Wahid, Unsplash

By Dr Kate Pruce, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Leadership for Development, International Development Department, University of Birmingham;
Isobel Wilson-Cleary, Program Manager and Deputy Director (Operations), Developmental Leadership Program, University of Birmingham;
Allan Mua Illingworth, Research Monitoring and Evaluation, La Trobe University;
Prof Chris Roche, Professor of Development Practice and Deputy Director (Impact), Developmental Leadership Program, La Trobe University

On 2 February 2022, Tonga went into lockdown after detecting its first community transmissions of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. This occurred just days after the Pacific Island nation began receiving foreign aid in the wake of the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and subsequent tsunami that cut off the island. The Tongan government has stressed the need to continue the country’s ‘contactless’ aid approach, in order to follow COVID-19 protocols and keep the virus out.

Contactless aid can refer not only to delivery but also remote assistance, such as coordination of local groups running the response in-country and online training for pandemic preparedness. Such an approach is a one way to help shift away from the dominant ‘fly-in/fly-out’ model. It also reflects a growing focus on the commitments agreed by the global humanitarian sector at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 (coined the Grand Bargain) to localise support, funding and decision-making in humanitarian response.

Neighbouring Pacific Islands and Tongans themselves have driven emergency response efforts following the volcanic eruption, despite international news reports mainly focusing on aid contributions from Australia, New Zealand and others. For example, the Fiji Tonga Relief mission shipped 244 tonnes of humanitarian supplies to Tonga, following the contactless rules, as part of a joint effort by Government, partners and the Tongan community in Fiji. Learn more about the coordination and deployment of the mission in this video.

This echoes findings from a 2019 baseline study of localisation in Tonga, based on the Measuring Localisation Framework, that found strong evidence of a shift towards increased power and decision-making for national and local partners, as well as national actors, such as the Tongan government, leading on humanitarian action. However, the same study found limited evidence of community participation and engagement in shaping humanitarian programming.

COVID-19  has created opportunities, as well as challenges, for communities that could facilitate a shift towards more locally-led responses in humanitarian aid as well as in longer-term development cooperation. Development Leadership Program (DLP) researchers from across the Pacific have highlighted the importance of local leadership and locally-led solutions in the wake of the pandemic. For example, rural communities in the Solomon Islands developed informal barter systems in response to limited support from elsewhere and the Fiji Women’s Fund has introduced mechanisms to protect grant recipients and support frontline services during the crisis.  

However, many donors have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo bringing the risk that even reformed aid and development approaches will be locally-informed without being locally-led. Decolonising aid and challenging the unequal power dynamics in the international aid and development systems is an urgent priority due to the ongoing failure to translate rhetoric into practice. To achieve this requires tackling the deep-rooted racism, legacies of colonialism and neo-colonial aid practices underpinning the wider sector.

Rather than attempting to return to ‘normal’, we should be aspiring to shift towards a new normal that builds on Pacific expertise and uses indigenous methods of gathering knowledge such as the Melanesian practice of tok stori. Contactless aid should not be seen as a temporary replacement for business as usual in the humanitarian and development sectors, but part of a genuine process of localisation that enables local organisations and communities to lead the humanitarian responses and development processes that affect them.


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