By Carol Kerbaugh

Growing up on Fakaofo, one of three atolls that make up Tokelau, Heto Puka MC/MPA 2024 never imagined straying too far from home, let alone getting a master’s degree from Harvard.

Home to some 1,500 people, Tokelau is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Getting there is no easy task. Without any air transportation services, a 30-hour boat ride from Samoa is the only way to access the islands.

Tokelau is the last dependent territory in the Realm of New Zealand. Two referenda in 2006 and 2007 that would grant Tokelau self-governance failed to reach the required two-thirds majority to change the nation’s status.

“There was so much uncertainty,” Puka explains. “There was poor infrastructure, telecommunications were intermittent, and shipping transportation was substandard and oftentimes catastrophic, particularly for the vulnerable members of our communities. Even within our government institutions, there were a lot of gaps. We couldn’t make effective decisions because of annual rotational leadership changes. We just didn’t have the public services to support self-governance, and people were not confident.”


Heto Puka standing in front of Harvard Kennedy School sign


By 2016, not much had changed. Puka, then the director of finance for the Government of Tokelau, and a group of top government advisors devised a five-year major capital infrastructure development program to bolster the nation’s telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and better position the islands for self-governance.

“One of our priorities was to introduce an interim air service primarily to respond to medical evacuations and emergencies on island,” Puka explains. “Over the years we had lost—and we continue to lose—people in tragic circumstances, primarily due to the limitations of sea transportation. We saw interim air service as a necessary and urgent first step.”

Puka and the Tokelauan government officials hoped the capital infrastructure development program would prompt a larger conversation with New Zealand about Tokelau’s future, including centralizing the government’s operations in Tokelau; they currently operate out of Samoa.

“It was a comprehensive strategic plan, and our leaders were determined to do this for our people,” Puka says. “We wanted to join the international community, and being Indigenous people, we wanted to exercise our own rights.”

heto puka standing in front of glass wall

“We wanted to join the international community, and being Indigenous people, we wanted to exercise our own rights.”

Heto Puka MC/MPA 2024

The New Zealand government, however, was not receptive, and Puka was dismissed in 2017.

He relocated to New Zealand to support his family, but the political fallout of the failed program proposal was all over the media. After struggling to find meaningful work, he went back to school to earn a master’s in finance at the Auckland University of Technology and took online courses at Harvard Business School during the COVID-19 lockdown. It was then he learned about Harvard Kennedy School. His son encouraged him to apply, and he was admitted to the MC/MPA Program with a scholarship.

Looking back, he sees his dismissal as a blessing in disguise.

“If I was still working for the Government of Tokelau, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to Harvard where I am learning from renowned professors and meeting an amazing and diverse group of people,” Puka reflects. “I thought Tokelau was in such a unique position with its problems. But being at HKS and in the MC/MPA Program with students from all over the world has taught me there are similar problems in communities and nations around the globe. There’s so much expertise and professional knowledge within HKS. It is a testament to the School’s ability to create exceptional leaders.”

“I thought Tokelau was in such a unique position with its problems. But being at HKS with students from all over the world has taught me there are similar problems in communities and nations around the globe.”

Heto Puka MC/MPA 2024

Puka is expanding on his professional background in finance by taking courses in new areas this fall semester. Among them are API-205, “Politics and Policies” with Professor Deborah Hughes Hallet; IGA-103, “Global Governance” with Professor Kathryn Sikkink; BGP-264, “Capital Markets Regulations” with Professor Hal Scott; and DPA-115, “The American Presidency” with Professor Roger Porter.

“Professor Porter’s class gives perspective into how America has been able to become the most powerful country in the world after being a colony just 250 years ago. It didn’t happen overnight, but with the resilience, determination, and courage of some good people, they were able to make this happen,” reflects Puka. “Learning from Professor Porter, who shares anecdotes from his years working in the White House under Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, has been fascinating and inspirational.”

Puka has also found Professor Sikkink’s teaching on global governance issues, including the role of UN systems in countries’ development and decolonization, to be encouraging and enlightening.

It is lessons from courses like these that Puka hopes to take home to Tokelau.

“I want to learn as much as I can at Harvard, but hopefully I can go home and work with the people of Tokelau and the New Zealand government to deliver on Tokelau’s aspirations for self-governance and self-determination.”

Currently, there are plans for another referendum in 2025 or 2026.

“Fundamental issues that undermined our identity as Indigenous people, including institutional gaps within our governance structures, remain unaddressed,” says Puka. “I hope the UN plays an active role in ensuring that Tokelau is well-equipped and has the proper structure, systems, and processes within its institutions before it attempts another referendum.”

While he’s unsure what the future holds for his professional journey or for his nation, Puka is certain the opportunity to study at HKS will open doors to resources and connections that will benefit Tokelau’s quest for self-determination.

Aerial image of Tokelau’s Fakaofo atoll courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Portraits by Winston Tang.

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