Reflections from a facilitator on a Tonga Dialogue

With a 6:45pm departure from Sydney, and a two-hour time difference, we did not arrive in Nuku’alofa until 2:00am. We were still met with a full terminal of people ready to joyously welcome home what appeared to be half a plane full of Tongan seasonal workers returning from several months in Australia. A very noisy and colourful welcome to Tonga!

After just a few hours’ sleep, an early start with a visit to Tupou College, to meet headmaster Feleti, who took us for a tour through the extensive grounds (where the boys grow and raise all of their own food). We also met Dr Asinate Samate, principal of Queen Salote College, which is the equivalent school for girls.

Kenneth Katafono, my co-facilitator, got stuck in Kiribati and was unable to join us for the dialogue. As Kenneth was not available, he was also unfortunately not able to deliver his blockchain workshop. I agreed to present my financial education program to the Tongan entrepreneurs (knowing that Kenneth is a hard act to replace!). It’s a new program but it’s getting a workout and hopefully adding some value for the participants. I am certainly enjoying delivering it!

The 20 or so local Tongans were then joined by four Australian subject matter expert volunteers for the dialogue. ICDP aspires to bring people of Australia and the Pacific closer together. It uses the ‘second track process” to initiate and develop relationships through dialogue. We were looking to provide a platform for such a network to grow in Tonga by identifying projects that we could become involved with, with an ICT component, pursued for the benefit of Tonga. Tina as usual continued to provide awesome logistics. Simone, the ICDP CEO, put in a guest appearance as a co-facilitator and did an absolutely stellar job!

The overwhelming majority of Tongans consider themselves Christians. Faith and prayer are central, and we started our dialogue with a very impressive prayer delivered by Pauline Tafuna. She immediately became our “go to” prayer person for the remainder of the dialogue!

Our wonderful host Mr Paula Pouvalu Ma’u, CEO, Meteorology, Energy, Information, Disaster Management, Environment, Climate Change & Communications (MEIDCC) opened the dialogue and welcomed all participants. We then broke the ice and learned a bit about each other by describing us as our mothers would! We also allowed our Tongan colleagues (soon to be friends) to introduce Tonga to us, from their heart. They told us that Tonga was deeply communal, faith-based, a small homogenous community with a large diaspora largely based in Australia and New Zealand, suffered from a chronic lack of jobs, youth unemployment and all the problems that go with it, politics, food, and a passion for life, learning and to make Tonga a better place. This introduction was so meaningful, and so heartfelt, that it created the perfect environment for the discussions to follow.

Most people do not naturally throw themselves unreservedly into new environments – quite natural really! But by creating a safe environment, slowly, slowly, the ideas emerged, took a little shape, faded, and re-emerged in a slightly more mature form. We continued this multiple times and stimulated discussion by asking the question: “think of the future Tonga that you want, without the constraints of what limits us today. What do you see and feel?”

Dinner at Ancient Tonga. We facilitators got a little confused about the correct protocol for the timing of prayers, which was taken with very good grace by our Tongan friends! Terrific food with good conversation, relationships being formed. The Minister for Education Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni joined us and spoke positively about the work being undertaken. The ideas from the afternoon coalesced a little more, rolled around, forming, storming. The Australian SMEs, adding clarity and direction where they could, the Tongan Women in ICT, who kindly co-sponsored the dialogue, were like sponges with the coders! Python seemed a popular topic!

Wednesday dawned, after a walk along the beachfront and breakfast, back into the swing of it. Second day often starts nervously, with the participants a little uncertain because, naturally seeking clarity, they haven’t yet achieved it. The facilitators tell them to “trust the process” (and, as always, the facilitators silently hope that the process works)!

Start with a check in – how are you feeling and what do you hope to get out of the day? An unusual start for most of the participants but, at the end of it, we have a pretty fair idea about everyone’s mindset and engagement, and we can be more constructive and empathetic as a result. To work…

The ideas kept coming and coalesced 6… 7… 8… 9. Keep the funnel as wide as possible and get everything on the table. Then we talk, cull, talk, refine, define; a couple get discarded and a few merge. Two ideas sit happily alone and will be done. It feels like there is an elusive piece missing – the facilitators call a timeout. We throw it around and get a couple of views.

It starts to feel right when we put cultural preservation at the top; youth unemployment as the existential problem. The tech hub is the catalyst for action:

  • define the hub
  • define the projects that can be done through it
  • let the projects nourish and sustain the hub, and vice versa

Sounds like a plan.

The group form themselves into teams based on interest and are given two hours, including lunch, to refine their projects and write a pitch. They will have five minutes to pitch their project by describing the problem, the vision, the three-month deliverables and the ask. I’m not sure how many of our Tongan friends had done anything like this before but, with the help of each other and the Australian volunteers, they attacked the exercise with gusto.

A formidable (not really!) judging panel of Simone, Edwin Liava’a (CEO, Tonga Cable Ltd) and the author, we listened to the pitches.

Wow! Where did those shy, retiring Tongans go!

Such passion, enthusiasm, commitment to their project! It was awesome!

We have defined projects and a pathway. I have confidence that this group, collectively and individually, will change their country, for the better!

I wish them all luck and Godspeed, and we offer them our heartfelt thanks for the experience, our time and our network.

Andrew Carriline

Andrew Carriline


Andrew is an Ambassador for ICDP, the Chair of the Pacific Connect Business Network Council, and was a co-facilitator for the first Dialogue in Tonga. Andrew is an experienced business executive, commercially astute and highly skilled at operating successfully in regulated environments. After a long career at Westpac, he has recently built a portfolio of non-executive, mentoring and advisory roles in the ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’ sectors, and is engaged in the start-up community, where his experience adds considerable value to founders. Andrew practised corporate law in the public and private sector and held a number of senior legal and operational roles in Westpac.