One down, one to go.
The Global Integrity Dialogues workshop held August 13th in the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa was a success, bringing together a diverse mix of key stakeholders from government, civil society, the media, and aid donors to debate prospects for governance reform in this small country facing a political transformation in 2010. Although the previous week’s tragic ferry sinking meant that participation from the police and the Prime Minister’s office was impossible, we were pleasantly surprised by the strong turnout of senior officials from the Ministry of Finance, the Public Affairs Commissioner (Tonga’s ombudsman), major civil society groups, and the head of Tonga customs, among others.
When you get the right people in the room and give them some good data to work with, good things tend to happen.
Many of the details of the actual discussion will be shared as we put together the final public Conclusions and Recommendations (posted here, eventually), but there were a number of interesting tidbits that came out of the discussion worth sharing now:
- Unsurprisingly, cultural and religious factors loom large in assessing the prospects for transparency and accountability reforms in Tonga. Participants eagerly picked up on issues related to “gifts” versus bribes, notions of public versus private obligations, and the need to promote basic transparency measures to help weed out the obvious abuses of custom being used to peddle influence.
- Surprisingly, participants were energetic about tackling two reforms that we had recommended could possibly wait in favor of others: access to information and political financing. On the former, we observed that the Integrity Indicators data for Tonga seem to suggest that despite a lack of a formal RTI/ATI mechanism, information was able to flow freely in some cases. Participants, however, argued that a formal access to information regime should be put in place now rather than later, even in the absence of the necessary archival systems.
- On the issue of greater controls around the financing of political candidates, we suspect this resonated because virtually no one has raised this issue in Tonga — ever. While we initially argued that political financing reform could possibly wait in favor of, say, procurement and budgeting reform, multiple participants were adamant in arguing that Tonga should solve the problem now before it becomes a more significant problem and leads to scandals. Hey, we’re not going to argue — political financing is a vexing issue worldwide, and political will is usually the missing element in addressing it.
Whatever happens in Tonga in the next 18 months on governance reforms by will greatly influenced by the constitutional and electoral reform process, a response to the 2006 riots that seeks to grant greater political power to popularly elected officials at the expense of the Tongan King and the nobles. Though this potentially complicates matters by drawing governance reforms into the extremely sensitive discussions around political reform in Tonga, we heard repeatedly that stakeholders in Tonga should take advantage of the opportunity provided by the reform process to put into place best practices, where appropriate.
Thanks to all who attended and provided their rich input to such a sophisticated and nuanced debate.
Our next stop is Nadi, Fiji for an overnight, followed by our next workshop in Honiara, Solomon Islands.
— Norah Mallaney and Nathaniel Heller