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Working overseas is tough. But it can be even tougher for workers trying to send their hard-earned money back home to help relatives. Sione Tau, a Tongan who has been picking strawberries in New Zealand for eight seasons, knows this all too well. Until recently, he had to navigate the cumbersome process of withdrawing cash from his bank, negotiating with a remittance agent, and paying a high fee before money could be sent to his wife in Tonga.

Like Tau, half of all adults in Tonga work outside their country. Their burdens have grown in recent decades because of regulations related to anti money-laundering policies and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CTF). Since many banks consider the providers of remittance services to be high risk, prices of remittances have increased. Tau and his peers were sometimes forced to turn to the grey market for a solution, but too often it involved high fees, unfavorable foreign exchange rates, and a greater risk that the money could go missing.

Money sent home by Sione Tau, a Tongan who picks strawberries in New Zealand, helps meet his children’s school obligations.

The Ave Pa’Anga Pau (“Send Money Securely”) voucher, a cashless, compliant, and stable remittance product, is an alternative channel that Tau and other Tongans are now using to send money home. It was developed by IFC and the Tonga Development Bank (TDB), with support from the governments of Australia and New Zealand. The low-cost, mobile- and computer-based product “allows you to move your money from your bank account in New Zealand to your bank account in Tonga and cash it at any of our branches from Monday to Saturday,” says Leta Havea-Kami, chief executive officer of TDB.

There have already been close to 5,000 transactions worth over $2 million Australian dollars (about $1.5 million) since the Ave Pa’Anga Pau voucher was launched in February 2017.  Typically, these remittances are used by Tongans to cover essentials, pay for education and health care, support small businesses, and help the broader community.

TDB is also making use of the remittance voucher as part of a new loan program to help migrant workers picking fruit in New Zealand pay for local costs of the seasonal worker program before they depart. About 120 seasonal workers have signed up for loans, using the remittance voucher to make their repayments. These are worth about $130,000 in total.

Since the launch of the remittance voucher, the cost of sending remittances has fallen from about 7.5 percent to around 5 percent on average, according to TDB.

The World Bank Group has been working in Tonga and other Pacific Islands since 2010 to reform and modernize legislation related to payments and remittances. This provided IFC with a foundation to work with TDB and a New Zealand-based technology company to develop the new remittance voucher product. Subsequently, IFC sought regulatory approval by the New Zealand and Tongan authorities, a key step in designating it as a legal retail product in New Zealand.

Image: Half of Tonga’s adults work outside their country, a small island in the South Pacific.

Multiplying the Benefits

The Ave Pa’Anga Pau remittance voucher doesn’t require a fee—an important factor for customers who work long hours to save as much as they can. Users benefit from a competitive exchange rate, which helps their money stretch even further.

Receiving the remittance is also streamlined for those back home: for example, Tau’s wife, Elizabeth, no longer must drop everything and rush all the way to town to collect the money. “I can simply walk over to the next village to get the money from the TDB bank branch there, or have it deposited straight into my savings account,” she says.

The Tongan economy would not have survived without remittances.”

Sefita Hao’uli, Tongan government official

The Ave Pa’Anga Pau voucher has also made life easier for Alipate Fihaki, who works as a volunteer teacher at a boarding school in Tonga. His parents send him money from New Zealand to help him with living expenses. Since the product is accessible via mobile, it’s convenient anywhere and anytime. “I can flip out my smartphone and check if the money is in before heading to one of the branches,” he says.  “It’s challenging to find the time to get out to town just to get money, when I’m trying to do my work.”

Alipate Fihaki, a volunteer teacher in Tonga receives money from his parents.

The product was geared specifically to the needs of citizens in Tonga, a small island nation in the South Pacific, where remittances comprise more than one-third of the GDP. Remittances are also a major source of foreign exchange.

“The Tongan economy would not have survived without remittances,” says Tongan government official Sefita Hao’uli, who represents the interests of Tongan workers in New Zealand. “We don’t have much in the way of natural resources. The most valuable resource we have is our population. We are able to earn foreign currency from people we couldn’t afford to give jobs to.”

Money sent home by seasonal workers has enabled women to free up their time to make “tapa”—large mats that they sell to raise more money for their families.

Technology that Improves Lives

Innovations in technology have helped the Ave Pa’Anga Pau voucher become a valuable resource for the Tongan government, economy, and people.  The product’s robust back-office system automatically scans every transaction. This mitigates AML/CTF risk and expands the market for foreign exchange in Tonga, which has been traditionally dominated by commercial banks.

Now, TDB is offering Tongan businesses foreign-exchange solutions at a competitive price, which is significant for a country that largely imports from its neighbors.

Apart from the benefits to national institutions, the individuals and communities feel the impact directly. The “trickle-up” effect of these remittances can’t be underestimated, according to Hao’uli. “This is money that goes straight home to Mom, and is spent in the villages,” he says. “The entire village benefits from this.”

IFC fosters sustainable economic growth across the Pacific region by financing private sector investment, mobilizing capital, and advising businesses and governments on projects that generate returns for investors and provide lasting benefits to communities. IFC’s work in the Pacific is guided by the Pacific Partnership. Australia, New Zealand, and IFC are working together to promote sustainable economic development, reduce poverty, and stimulate private sector investment across the region.

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Homepage photo: Students at Tailulu College, in Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa. © Tom Perry/World Bank

Published in June 2018