Palagi corruption and Samoan poverty

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

If you’re a visitor – or a foreigner – to this country, you could be forgiven for thinking that we Samoans are a weird bunch. We are referring to the fact that our people generally welcome and embrace most things palagi except when it comes to things that make us look bad. Then we suddenly play the Samoa vs palagi card. 

Yes, we love the palagi stuff and we’ve allowed them to transform the way we live our lives. You know what I’m talking about.

But when it comes to corruption, hardship and poverty, you suddenly find that there is a different measure for Samoa and palagi.

Let me explain. Not too long ago, the Controller and Auditor General uncovered instances of unbridled corruption and mismanagement in some government offices. The issues were highlighted in not one, not two but at least three reports tabled with Parliament.

These reports were referred to what’s called the Officers of Parliament Committee (O.P.C). They investigated the claims, costing taxpayers lots of money and they were required to report back to Parliament with their findings.

In the end, the O.P.C, a group made up of highly qualified accountants, lawyers and other respected professions, confirmed the findings of the Controller and Auditor General. They found that there existed corrupt practices among some public servants and there were also instances where some had colluded to defraud taxpayers. To remedy the problem, the Committee recommended taking legal action against the individuals implicated.

Well, that didn’t happen, obviously. The report was tabled and the government brushed it aside in its response. Neither the report nor the government’s response was the subject of an open debate as Members of Parliament should have done and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today in paradise, the people implicated are running around, living their lives without a care in the world.

Outside Parliament though, a senior Member of Parliament’s response about corruption really baffled the mind at the time. It still does.

Listen: “The palagi corruption is different from Samoa corruption. Compared with bigger countries, any corruption in Samoa is tiny.”

“The corruption that happened in the United States with its financial crisis spread out to other countries affecting us and other countries in the world. But if there’s corruption in Samoa, it doesn’t affect American Samoa, it’s domestic for us.”

Wow! So there is palagi corruption and Samoan corruption? And Samoa’s corruption is domestic what? Hogwash. A humungous load of hogwash!

Let’s park that issue there for now and let’s revisit the issue of poverty. 

Last week, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi again dismissed claims that poverty exists in Samoa.

“There’s the palagi way of defining (poverty),” Tuilaepa said about reports identifying poverty here. 

The Prime Minister said he has instructed the Bureau of Statistics to use the “Samoan way” of measuring poverty, not the palagi way. 

This is not the first time Tuilaepa has rubbished claims about poverty. Not long after his government launched the first State of Human Rights Report for Samoa, which identified undeniable poverty in this country, he turned around and called the report writers “foolish.”

The report, by the way, was launched by the Prime Minister himself. Compiled by the Office of the Ombudsman as the National Human Rights Institution (N.H.R.I) of Samoa, it found that one in every five Samoans live in poverty.

Here, take another look: “Despite progress in big picture economic growth and within high level development framework, there is disparity in development outcomes particularly in rural and remote areas.”

“Approximately 20 per cent of Samoa’s population lives below the basic needs poverty line (B.N.P.L), with the higher proportion of rural populations falling below the B.N.P.L. Basically, this means that about 1 in every 5 Samoans lives in poverty.”

Folks, we repeat, those are not our words. Those are the words of the report endorsed by Prime Minister Tuilaepa when he spoke at the launch of the report.What’s more, he called for the formation of a Parliamentary Committee to follow up on the report’s recommendations.

But then he changed his mind.

“That is based on palagi thinking,” he said.“It’s a foolish thought based on the idea there’s not enough food and income. That’s such foolish thinking (for Samoa).”

Which brings us back to the point we made at the beginning of this piece. Isn’t it funny how this government has embraced everything about the palagi world but, when it comes to topics they are uncomfortable with, it suddenly demands that they are viewed in the Samoan context? 

Doesn’t this remind us about a certain official who spoke about how corruption in Samoa is peanuts compared to what’s happening in bigger countries?

So what is the Samoan context of poverty?

According to the Prime Minister, poverty is defined as someone who is so poor they walk around without clothes.

 “They’re naked all the time,” he said. “Have you seen someone like that in Samoa? If the answer is no, then there is no-one living in poverty in Samoa. There is no-one walking around on the road naked.”

But that wasn’t all.

 “I have never heard about anyone in Samoa who has died because they have become so skinny from the lack of food.”

Well, fair enough.

But aren’t our people dying left, right and centre because of the bad food? Isn’t malnutrition just as bad as poverty since they both result in death?

The reality in Samoa today is that many of our people are so poor their diet habits are shocking. They are being fed the cheapest processed food much to their detriment. 

Think of the cheap cans of mackerel being pushed around for fa’alavelaves, some of that stuff is not even fit for animals and yet that’s what many of our people depend upon. Look at the soft drinks and sugary food being promoted freely around the place.

The bottom line is this; regardless of what Prime Minister Tuilaepa and his administration say about poverty, corruption and hardship, the people of this country are not fools. They can see right through those empty words and the political rhetoric.

Indeed, we cannot deny that poverty and crippling hardship are real issues in Samoa. 

We’re talking about the poverty of jobs, poverty of ways to earn money and poverty of opportunity that ultimately results in the poverty of your stomach.

Yes, if you don’t have a job to earn money, you’re bound to go hungry. Your children will end up starving. That’s the bottom line.

And that’s why these people are on the streets. They see it as a form of employment; they see it as the only way to make a living. 

Would they be skipping school and risking the wrath of the law if they were not desperate? Would the number of street vendors be growing in Samoa today if there was no poverty? Would the number of break-ins, robberies, social issues and crimes have increased if there were no poverty?

Ladies and gentlemen, as long as our government ignores corruption and denies poverty, the issues will continue to fester. Crime will keep on breeding crime and even more crime. It’s going to be a very sad future.

But let’s not lose hope. We must never lose hope. Justice is on its way. 

One sweet day, yes, one sweet day.

Have a wonderful Wednesday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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