Beneath Samoa’s tranquil surface

After tossing out some statistics on the poverty situation in Samoa in my first entry, I think I’m ready for a more personal take on the impact of impact of micro-credit and the overall economic situation in Samoa.

South Pacific Business Development is one of Kiva’s earliest partner microfinance institutions. With an entire staff of just 16 employees (including management), the institution covers over 2,000 active clients, whose loans total over $700,000. SPBD follows the original Grameen Bank model by administering its loans via borrowing groups. With very few exceptions, all of its clients are women.

My first field visit was to accompany Tafauga, one SPBD’s 8 loan officers, to a client group meeting at the Leauvaa village, where I was to take Kiva profile photos for members of a newly-formed borrowing group. As we maneuvered along ever-narrowing roads towards the village center, I glanced outside the passenger window and was strangely transported back to my early childhood. Hazy memories of my brief times spent in the rural Chinese countryside were stirred up as I watched pigs, chickens, and dogs roam free alongside the road. In contrast, the lush vegetation and towering palm trees provided an exotic tropical twist that I’ve never encountered before in my life.

We soon arrived at the meeting, which took place in a large open fale (fah-leh). Fales are the traditional housing units of Samoa, and are common even today among locals and tourists alike. Their lack of walls, external or internal, is designed to maximize the flow of cool breezes in the hot climate, but also neatly reflects the importance of family and community in Samoan culture. Makeshift blinds are used only in times of heavy storms, and wandering dogs and livestock regularly require shooing off during the night. I’m quite glad to be living in a western-style house myself, as it will take nothing short of a demolition crew to take my precious walls from me!

The meeting itself was a total blast. The ladies, most of whom were middle-aged, were extremely welcoming and had great senses of humor. The eldest among them were also the most outgoing, and they were completely unabashed in immediately asking me for my marital status. After confirming that I was single, they would jokingly flirt and titter amongst themselves in Samoan, making many off-color jokes (as Tafauga later told me). Meanwhile, I was running around snapping pictures, a goofy grin on my face, feeling like I was at a fashion shoot. Most of the ladies really seemed to enjoy having their photos taken, and I even had a few request for multiple shots, each one for a different pose.

Since my eye-opening first visit, I have been to several other client group meetings. These visits have been to accompany various loan officers on their actual payment-collection rounds, and I soon realized that my first foray did nothing to prepare me for these utterly grueling outings. Leaving the office usually just after 9am, the loan officers rarely complete their rounds before 4pm. Many meetings are conducted in fales with no chairs, where everyone is expected to sit cross-legged (it is considered rude to point your feet towards the center of the meeting). After a few accumulated hours in this position, I was having difficulty standing back up! It is amazing to watch only 8 officers cover over 2,000 clients around the island on a weekly basis, and I have gained a great amount of respect for their tremendous hard work.

After a couple of weeks of field visits, I am beginning to better grasp the island’s complex socioeconomic condition. Most notably, I was never struck by a sense of overwhelming poverty and destitution in the same way that many of my fellow Kiva Fellows in other countries have described in their blogs. There were no dilapidated slums, no starving infants, and street begging is extremely rare. The strong social support from tightly-knit communities, combined with the extremely fertile island soil and an abundance of livestock, has meant that the vast majority of the population does not experience the severest of hardships, such as starvation or homelessness. The literacy rate is at an astronomical 99.7% (due largely to the support of education by the church) and life expectancy is at 71 years.

Despite the lack of desperation-level poverty, the continuing prevalence of subsidence living reveals several deep underlying issues. The strong sense of community that I described earlier presents a truly double-edged sword. The same support system that takes care of the lazy, disabled, and powerless members of society also means that domestic breadwinners will often have to support large extended families. A system of communal ownership, combined with a lack of rewards for individual effort, can effectively stifle individual initiative and broader economic development. Fa’alavelave, lavish gift-exchange ceremonies that accompany weddings, funerals, and church openings, are great fun to attend, but can drain months’ worth of funds in an instance. At church, families compete against each other to see who can donate the most money, as the amount given by each family is called out and recorded during service. Often, families give more than they can afford in order to maintain their social standing. All these obligations tend to add up quickly, and many families struggle along life without hope of ever gaining financial independence.

Compounding the problem is that, like many other Pacific Island nations, the presence of poverty tends to be hushed up. Before arriving here, I had no idea of the harsh economic conditions. From my impression and conversations with locals and fellow expatriates, unemployment has been rising for quite some time, while the cost of living is steadily creeping up, resulting in more and more families becoming dependent on financial remittances from relatives abroad (total transfers having reached an estimated $57.9 million already in 2002). There has not been much effort from the government, at least from my limited perspective, to combat the problem. Hopefully in time, the proud island nation will realize that its cultural richness and breathtaking natural beauty cannot serve as a substitute for economic self sufficiency.

All of this makes Kiva and SPBD’s efforts all the more important. It has been so encouraging to see the spirited persistence these enterprising ladies as they seek to build a financially-liberated future for themselves and their children. I am truly glad to be part of it all.


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