A Poverty of Opportunity: Different Ways to be Poor

By Adria Orr | KF17 | Samoa

Anyone coming to Samoa must have conflicting expectations in their mind–I know I did. After all, developing country or not, isn’t it a tropical island paradise? Upon receiving my placement from the Kiva Fellows program, an initial googling revealed tourism websites touting beautiful beaches, blue skies, and resorts. As I peered anxiously at the pictures, I thought to myself, “While other fellows are dodging motos in Southeast Asia or battling blackouts in Africa, I’m going to be living in…Hawaii?” I’ll admit a kernel of disappoinment–so much for my 4 months roughing it ‘in the field,’ I was going to be jet-skiing to work!

Ok, so my imagining of the commute to work wasn't SO off..









Of course, my expectations were adjusted after further research, and now after almost a month and a half on the ground, I realize that the truth is even more complicated than the contradiction between impoverished nation and tropical paradise. In truth, Samoa is neither impoverished, nor paradise. People in Samoa do not starve or find themselves homeless–the abundance of natural food sources plus enough fertile land for countless subsistence farming operations, combined with strong extended family ties, ensure as much. But if you’re looking for 5-star resorts overflowing with luxury, seemingly single-handedly employing the surrounding villages, you won’t find that either. For better or worse, Samoa has staved off the dominance of tourism that its peers, equally small, tropical, and beautiful, have long succumbed to. Tourism is a significant and growing sector, but unless you specifically go to the small clusters of hotels and resorts, you would hardly know it.

Good news, then, for Samoa’s culture, which is wholly and hardily intact, but what of its economy? Ah, that troublesome thing, the economy. True, if starvation and homelessness are what you seek in poverty, you will not find that sight here. Samoans, after all, are a notoriously hefty people. But does that mean that there is no poverty here? I would argue that there is, although it may not break the hearts of international donors or inspire anyone to donate via TV-ad emergency hotline. What you find in Samoa is a poverty of opportunity. 

Traditional Samoan fale.

After all, everyone wants to improve their lot and secure a better future for their children. Just because you’re not starving doesn’t mean you don’t struggle with an inadequate house–often a couple of one-room fales, multipurpose living spaces smaller than an American family room–overflowing with family members who far outnumber the limited bedding space, capacity of your small outdoor kitchen, and the communal outdoor toilet. It doesn’t mean you don’t struggle over school fees, medicine for sick kids, and the outsize demands of elaborate ‘gifting ceremonies’ and church donations (in order to impress, some Samoans give up to 30% of their income to the church). So then, you work hard to earn some money, save a bit, spend a bit, and slowly improve your family’s situation, right?

A few thoughts on the Samoan economy, highly relevant in considering this scenario. According to the US State Department website, Samoa’s exports in 2010 totaled $72 million, consisting of fish, coconut products, nonu fruit products, processing of automative components, beer, and taro. Not too bad, except that their imports from the same year were $374 million. Realistically, Samoa is probably always going to struggle to reduce that import-export gap, unless they suddenly discover that the island is made of gold and oil. After all, what industry can they take on? Shipping costs for a remote island basically rule out significant manufacturing activities. Tuna canneries are a boon in neighboring American Samoa, but it doesn’t look likely that that luck will spread west. Commercial agriculture is difficult–farming in the tropics means that EVERYTHING, crop or not, wants to grow on your land, plus imported farming supplies are very costly–and the size of the island limits its competitive abilities.

All of Samoa's shipping/port operations fit behind this floating dock.

In Apia, by far the biggest town (in fact, the only town recognizable by Western standards), I can walk from one end of the business district to the other in 10-15 minutes. The central food market, the only one on the entire island, would fit on a football field. The fish market and flea market are both even smaller. This is the scale of business in Samoa. And yet, while the scale is small, it is expensive. To survive–food, housing–may not be too costly, but to do anything else, you must pay. The limited domestic manufacturing means that almost everything must be imported, and importing things to a tiny island in the middle of the ocean is pricy.

One estimate I found stated that 18% of Samoan are formally employed. I can’t say if that is entirely accurate, but if it’s not, it’s not far from the truth. So, where do people work? They drive taxis or work for the government, at banks, restaurants and stores. Some of them work for hotels or resorts, or other tourism businesses. But leave Apia–which takes about 5 minutes in a car–and you will hardly find any of those things (besides the resorts, which are all outside of Apia). Village shops are small, family-owned, usually run out of a storefront attached to the house. There are no restaurants, besides the handful of resort-based ones. Definitely no banks. What, then, to earn a living?  Many farm small plots of land, taking a couple of sacks of taro to the market each month, or make small snacks to sell out of their homes or at local schools. Far too many borrowers that I spoke to were the sole breadwinners of their families, depending on the meager income of these activities. The difficulties of scaling up are even more pronounced with limited markets (both people and space) and expensive inputs.

When I look at the countryside of Samoa, I see a land of plenty to sustain life. But income generation? Economic opportunity? It becomes less clear. A better future for the children? What will they grow up to do? The sad answer is, many of them will leave. There’s a reason that there is a considerable Samoan diaspora scattered through Australia, New Zealand, the other Pacific islands, and parts of the States. There’s also a reason that when I look at the loans disbursed by SPBD, the loan purposes all begin to run together. What can you do besides grow some vegetables, catch some small fish, or make some food, and try to sell it to your neighbors? There is no big city to flee to where you can hone a trade, no urban-rural divide because there is no urban or rural. The challenges can be crippling, and I’m sure this is not the only small island country to struggle against them.

Few would dispute that Samoa is a developing country, but the fact that some development indicators are strong–literacy rates, life expectancy, child mortality rates, to name a few–belies the truth: Samoa is poor. Not in many of the ways that you may think to look for, but what I’ve learned here is that there are many different ways to be poor.

Adria Orr (KF17) is a Kiva Fellow living in Apia, Samoa and working with the country’s only MFI, SPBD. She is getting used to living in a country where, if you drive for 7 hours, you’ll be in the same place you started, and hopes you will learn more about SPBD and support our borrowers!

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