Social policy, social work and fatongia: Implications of the Tongan concept of obligation


  • Siosiua Tofuaipangai University of Lo’au the Falemaama of Moana
  • Peter Camilleri University of Wollongong



fatongia, obligation, social policy, neoliberalism, pacific, indigenous


The dominance of Western social work discourse is slowly being challenged as voices from indigenous cultures are expressed. This paper examines the Moanan-Tongan concept of fatongia and considers how it might contribute to a re-examination of the English language concept of obligation in order to develop a more socially progressive perspective on social policy and social work. In countries with a neoliberal welfare state the concept of obligation has become a vexed issue between citizenry and the state. The neoliberal requirement to demonstrate certain behaviours in order to gain access to benefits has challenged the consensus of social rights that imbued traditional notions of state welfare. We argue that rights and obligations have became separated as the Western welfare state discourse has shifted from a rights agenda to an agenda of obligation. Fatongia is about obligation that is entered into freely: it involves the giving of a gift that is enjoyed and reinforces mutual obligations. It is reciprocal and symmetrical and leads to stronger sense of community. By comparison, obligation in Western discourse is asymmetrical, coercive, compulsory and oppressive. For social work practice, the concept of fatongia offers a new direction in which rights are broadened into duties, and responsibilities into gifts. The duality of obligation and rights under fatongia implies a web of relationships between people, families and communities. This offers social work practitioners a constructive and progressive narrative for relationship-based work with clients/service users, and a celebration of rights through doing duty.


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How to Cite

Tofuaipangai, S., & Camilleri, P. (2016). Social policy, social work and fatongia: Implications of the Tongan concept of obligation. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 28(1), 60–67.



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