Many Westerners come to Samoa and quickly make one of two judgments: all Samoans are poor OR no Samoans are poor.

That dichotomy can be perplexing, so I decided to engage a Centre Manager (loan officer) in a conversation about it. One who stood firmly with the belief that all Samoans are poor. None of this should be treated as a final judgment. Far too early for that.

To paraphrase:

Everyone in Samoa is poor, he stated.

If I ask the people if they’re poor, what would they say? They would say that they’re not poor.

So why do you say that they are? What do you mean by that? No one sleeps on the streets. Everyone has a home. The community spirit in Samoa would not allow anyone to be sleeping on the streets. No one is starving. Food is abundant. Using these gauges, a passing observer might instinctively decide that there is no poverty at all.

Many international relief organizations define poverty as living on less than $1 a day. By that standard, Samoa is considered one of the most impoverished nations in the developing world. But if you travel to parts of India, Africa, China, you will see emaciated homeless, tangible poverty. But in Samoa, though many live on no money, they grow their own food, make their own clothes. Without even property taxes, they can live self-reliantly. Plus, smiles are ubiquitous. Everyone seems content with their standard of living notwithstanding the tribulations of any society (jealousy, greed, infidelity, etc)

I had to dig deeper into how exactly this CM defined poverty, so I asked from a different angle. How will you know when Samoa is developed? What are the indicators? Many Samoans do not have electricity or potable running water. When they have those things, we will be developed.

But is that going to make them happier? Maybe, maybe not. I surmise that the overall happiness is greater here than in most, if not all, developed countries. Is electricity and running water going to make Samoa a happier, better country? Maybe, maybe not.

(I will resist entering in the dispute over poverty and development and happiness. The enduring “what’s really best for this country?” question.)

So then no one is really poor?

When I walk into a village for the first time that is not a part of SPBD, the women are still smiling. It’s our nature. But once they enter the program, I can see a different smile on the women’s faces. Starting a business, earning money, making payments gives them dignity. Everyone knows about money. Now they feel they’re a part of that system. I come from a poor background. Like most Samoans, I had a sort of poverty of the mind. Belonging to SPBD, starting a business, gives them a purpose, a drive, a goal. Pride. As an outsider, you cannot see this difference in their smiles. I don’t work here for the money. I can make more money at the National Bank. I work here for them. For a better Samoa.

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A cynic might say that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I want to feel good about what I do; therefore I will only see the good in what I do. But this CM, who I can attest to his blunt honesty, was only speaking with absolute sincerity.

SPBD’s stated mission is “to improve the quality of life of poor families of Samoa by providing training, unsecured credit, ongoing guidance and motivation to help the clients start, grow and sustain micro-businesses.” In reality, I would say that is the ancillary benefit. For this one CM, his mission is to fill a void of knowledge and purpose. Provide a sense of duty and accomplishment. Running water and electricity are the tangible outcomes of poverty alleviation. But in a country mostly content, the mission is increased dignity. Evidenced by a different smile that most outsiders will never be able discern.

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