More citizens in Tonga will enjoy efficient and resilient delivery of public services due to the increasing use of digital and mobile devices in government’s operation.

This will be a ‘new normal’ as Tonga prepares for potential threats to public health, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, but will also add to Tonga’s resilience to the impact of climate change.  

Tonga has experienced intensified cyclones – for example, Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold which occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown, severely impacting the government’s ability to function in a traditional office environment.  

In a virtual handover ceremony today, equipment including laptop computers, conference speaker phone and external hard drives, was handed over to the Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality Division of Tonga’s Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The handover session was conducted online, using the online conferencing facilities supplied to MIA, connecting teams based in Tonga, Fiji and one of MIA’s Directors who has been stranded in the United States since March due to pandemic travel restrictions.    

The partnership between the Tongan Government and UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji which enabled this digital step has been developed though the Australian funded pilot project, Rights, Empowerment and Cohesion (REACH) for Rural and Urban Tongans, called Tonga REACH, implemented by UNDP in partnership with UN Women.   

The REACH project has developed an ‘integrated mobile service delivery model’ that brings key government and non-government service providers and their services to people’s doorsteps, providing information on key rights and services available, then delivering them immediately on site.

The REACH model began in Fiji in 2015, and has expanded to Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu in pilot.  

Since its roll out in Tonga in March 2019, staff from government agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs) have travelled to remote island communities and suburban residents delivering over 5,500 services to individuals – majority of whom are women.  Dr Fotu K V. Fisii-ahi, Chief Executive Officer for Ministry of Internal Affairs, said, “Tonga has so far been blessed to avoid the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the face of current challenges posed by climate change and Tropical Cyclones, there is a new normal mode of communication for virtual.  

It is the government’s responsibility to be prepared to ensure the continuity of quality public service provision with a more resilient and inclusive manner.

I thank the Government of Australia for its support and the partnership with UNDP and UN Women, which enabled us to meet this challenge on a timely basis, and to upgrade the initiative taken by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality Division.”    

The services delivered to citizens have included information and registration of domestic violence cases by Tonga National Centre for Women and Children (CSO); health screening by the Ministry of Health; legal aid services including free legal advice and counselling for domestic violence survivors by the Ministry of Justice.

People also benefitted from information sharing from the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Fisheries, Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Lands and Infrastructure, Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Police.    

Another key partner in the REACH initiative is the Tonga Family Protection Legal Aid Centre (FPLAC), the nation’s first national legal aid institution providing free legal advice and representation to survivors of family violence.

This primarily means for female survivors of family violence, but also open for children and men. FPLAC benefits from the contribution of ICT equipment which is already being built upon. UNDP is funding a digital transformation exercise with FPLAC.

This will see development of an online self-guided legal and rights information platform and versatile mobile application to increase FPLAC’s ability to reach out some of Tonga’s most vulnerable citizens.

It will also increase their ability to connect with the FPLAC and national referral network that UN Women is supporting, helping to ensure survivors are able to receive the legal and physical protections and services they need.  His Excellency Mr Adrian Morrison, the Australian High Commissioner to Tonga said, “I am glad Australia is supporting the Government of Tonga deliver critical services to the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged governments around the world to re-think the way they deliver services to their citizens. REACH is an example of how initiatives are able to turn this challenge into an opportunity for progress and improved service delivery.”  

Mr Levan Bouadze, Resident Representative of the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji said, “Our effort for progress in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and response to the COVID-19 pandemic are intertwined, as we are ‘building forward better’.

I am grateful for the support provided by the Australian Government and the partnership with the Tongan Government and UN Women.” Ms Sandra Bernklau, Representative for UN Women Fiji Multi – Country Office, said “UN Women is proud to support the Women’s Affairs and Gender Equality Division in advancing our shared aim towards ensuring that all women have access to support and services for domestic violence.

This has been especially important in the planning and response to humanitarian crisis such as COVID-19 and TC Harold.

The REACH model works because it helps to ensure direct access to services and support for women and girls who have difficulty accessing these services otherwise, and we are delighted to be able to further support the efforts with these additional resources.”   

The REACH project aims to contribute to Tonga’s sustainable development path in which no one will be left behind.

It focuses on SDG 5 – to achieve gender equality and empowerment of women and girls, and SDG 16 – to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.  

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