Rachel Harrison’s experience as a volunteer could have been cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but instead it led to e-volunteer work that has in turn led to development work for Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand.

Rachel was just six weeks into her UniVol assignment with the Youth Development Division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Tonga when the call was made to bring all VSA volunteers back to New Zealand in March 2020.

“The Ministry of Internal Affairs gives out youth grants to different youth groups right across Tonga’s islands for livelihood and income generating activities, and I was helping out with some analysis around that. To be honest, it was early days, so unfortunately I was only just starting to figure out what I was doing when I had to leave.”

Rachel initially carried on volunteering remotely, but distance from a very hands on team made things difficult, and after a few months she stopped working on this assignment, although she still stays in touch with the team. She has, however, continued doing some work for the New Zealand
High Commission in Tonga.

The year 2020 marked 50 years of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and Tonga, as well as 55 years of VSA’s presence in Tonga. The work for the High Commission was helping to organise the celebration of this milestone year, and was originally a side project for Rachel while she was on assignment.

“Even though most of the planned anniversary events had to be cancelled in Tonga, there was still scope to have some kind of celebration, and so I worked on highlighting the depth and breadth of the relationship between New Zealand and Tonga across that period of time.

“It started with talking to past VSA volunteers who had volunteered in Tonga, from 1969 at the earliest, right up until the last couple of years. I spoke to them about their assignments, what they did, what they learned, what knowledge, skills and experiences they brought back to New Zealand, and if they had maintained any kind of connection with Tonga. I then used this information to write a profile on each volunteer, and these were shared on the High Commission’s Facebook page.

“All the volunteer profiles then became part of an exhibition in December, which coincided with International Volunteers’ Day. The profiles were printed and displayed both in the VSA office in Wellington and also in a cafe on the main street of Nuku’alofa, which was a bit of a social hub. We then had a simultaneous launch event in both locations, with a Zoom link connecting the attendees – volunteers, partner organisations, government employees and community members – at the two celebrations, which was very special.”

Rachel is now working on profiling members of the Tongan community in New Zealand. This assignment focuses on the relationship between the two countries. The connections and networks she has made, has stood her in good stead for her work at Caritas, looking after their Tonga programme. “The work I did with the Tongan community totally translates into what I’m doing now, whether it’s working with people in Tonga, or Kiribati, or Fiji, or Tangata Whenua partners in Aotearoa - those cultures are all different but it’s about recognising that a relational approach to development is so important.”

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At the launch (L to R): Tonga volunteers and Programme Manager (PM). (L to R) Bruce Johnson; Sally Drager; Rachel Harrison; Tina Mackie (PM); David Cramp


The VSA event for the joint launch of “VSA in Tonga - celebrating 55 years of partnership” exhibition.


(L to R): Sokopeti Sina (lay pastor and community leader), Stephen Goodman (VSA CEO, Jackie Frizelle (MFAT Divisional Manager)