Exploring the Tongan perspective on corruption, transparency & integrity

By Mary Jane Kivalu
TINZ Pacific Outreach Coordinator

Some countries struggle to conserve and profit from resources due to weaknesses in economy, governance and institution. These weaknesses make these countries vulnerable to corruption in various sectors. Culture is often used to explain practices that can be deemed as corrupt and non-transparent.

In light of this, Transparency International NZ set out to explore these notions more as part of its South Pacific Outreach Project. These blogs will give insight to multiple Talanoa sessions that were facilitated with a cohort of Tonga-born NZ residents. The aim of these Talanoa sessions was to explore the Tongan perspective on corruption, transparency & integrity.

We hope that the findings from these Talanoa sessions will inform future engagement with Tongan people in the region, in regards to addressing corruption, encouraging transparency and integrity. We also hope that the findings will set a precedent of consultation practice when wanting to develop conversations in the Pacific region about corruption, transparency and integrity.

The first Talanoa session was called Understanding Corruption, Transparency & Integrity: A Tongan Perspective.

What is Corruption?

Participants of the Talanoa were posed the question: What is your understanding of corruption?

Responses came in different structures; some attempted to define the concept of corruption, some identified specific practices that they perceive as corruption. Others challenged that corruption exists in the context of a Tongan society. Donald Trump & Police Officers were among those stated as examples of corrupt people, as well as People in Power, leaders and outsiders of Tongan societies.

A few participants attempted to define corruption and stated it as the abuse or wrongful use of power – “Ngāue hala ‘aki ‘a e mafai”.

Another popular phrase mentioned was “Hū lalo uaea” which translates to “entering beneath the wire”. This refers to someone trespassing or escaping a property by entering or exiting beneath the wired fence. It is often used as an analogy in reference to someone using shortcuts, or using a process that is alternative to the usual process.

For those who did not set out to define, they identified specific practices that they thought were examples of corruption. Unethical leadership, the rich helping themselves while the poor struggle to fend for themselves, colonisation, racism, power and titles, to name a few.

Many challenged the idea of corruption existing in Tongan societies. It was suggested that the term corruption is a western-imposed idea that clashes with the Tongan way of living. Processes and rules of thumb existed in a well-functioning Tongan society long before western civilisation introduced its “standards” to the kingdom.

On one hand, corruption is said to be heavily rooted in Tongan societies, but on the other hand, there is no corruption in Tongan societies, only the Tongan cultural practices and protocols.

What is Transparency?

A similar second question was asked; what is your understanding of transparency? Many answered the question in reference to completing a task or fulfilling a responsibility. They must be done using the following:

  • a reliable person is to complete the job/task;
  • a clear, ethical process is used that is clearly understood;
  • information and perspectives are communicated clearly and openly, through a calm and positive conversation/Talanoa or consultation process;
  • taking everyone along on the journey of completing the task or fulfilling the responsibility;
  • sharing the results and outcomes with everyone involved;
  • respecting boundaries and limitations;

This almost gives a checklist of the things that one must make sure they have when working with and for Tongan people.

What is integrity?

The last question asked What is your understanding of integrity?

Many participants quickly linked integrity to honesty and what it takes for someone to remain honest to themselves and their beliefs. This suggests that anyone can be of complete integrity if they can justify their actions by their own worldview.

The cohort agreed that integrity requires patience, true faith, standing your ground and not being influenced to sway on your beliefs and what you believe is right. Jesus was referred to as a man of complete integrity. Community leaders and people given responsibilities often would have had to prove their integrity in the past.

Participants highlighted the need to differentiate integrity from other personality traits of people, and knowing when people are just trying to do their job according to what they think is right.

A lot of interesting conversations derived from this Talanoa session, and it proved to be a learning opportunity for all. Participants were able to refer to specific examples even though the concepts were initially foreign to them.

Great start to a great journey

We acknowledge that this is the beginning of a journey for the participants, but we are grateful that they were willing to be open and honest when taking part in discussions. A great start to a great journey.

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