White elephants, economy and the need for cost benefit analysis

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Aid and white elephants are not exactly strangers to each other. Especially where cheque-book diplomacy is involved since the focus is not always on what people really need but rather a formality so that the funders can tick their boxes, have their cocktail functions, be merry and fly the flag.

Can this happen in this part of the world? Absolutely. 

Contrary to the line toed by the government and officials in their circle, we’ve seen many examples of these – even in Samoa. 

We always have to remember that not all that glitters is gold. Folks, just because some structures look mighty impressive and flash, they don’t necessarily mean they are useful to us. It doesn’t mean it is the best thing especially for the amount of money spent on them. It’s money – quite often millions - that could have easily paid for extra teachers, doctors and nurses to ensure our people have their absolute basic needs met.

Speaking of basic needs isn’t it heartbreaking that while so many millions are dumped into these white elephants and yet so many people in Samoa don’t have access to water and electricity?

On the pages of the Village Voice section everyday, there are pictures and stories of countless poor families whose houses look like third world country shelters. The worst part is that many of them don’t have access to a steady supply of running water. Some of them are still relying on dirty wells and other ancient ways of collecting water for survival. 

And then there is the issue of electricity. You would think that this is 2018 where people in Samoa wouldn’t have an issue with these very basic things. And yet that is the reality in some of the poorest and remotest areas in this country.

Now isn’t it downright cruel that there are families living on the very edge of absolute poverty in this country today, and yet our government is continuing to dump millions of tala into projects that have failed once, and are likely to fail again?

A story that grabbed the attention was one under the headline “Govt. slapped with $290,000 host fee” published on the front page of the Friday edition of your newspaper.

The story talked about how taxpayers will have to fork out $290,000 as the host fee for the Pacific Games in 2019. This column has since been told that the figure is a lot more than what has been stated. One reliable source told this writer that the money is US$450,000 (T$1.08m). That is a lot of cash.

But the amount is only a fraction of what is likely to cost the country to host the Games, with less than two years to go. Figures that have already been floated about point to an overall bill of $40million or above.

Interestingly, according to the President of the Samoa Association of Sports and National Olympic Committee S.A.S.N.O.C, Fepulea’i Patrick Fepulea’i, the government is paying the host fee because S.A.S.N.O.C. cannot afford it. 

Which is understandable.

But that means every one who is paying taxes in this country is forking out for it. And when push comes to shove, the same people will have to cough up the $40million need for the Games to happen.

Now this is fine if we knew our economy was in a position to be able to sustain this sort of spending. But it is not. Again, contrary to what the Prime Minister and his government say, people in the know about the economy and finances are worried about the state of Samoa’s economy. Bankers and Finance analysts will tell you we are in a very precarious position.

Keep in mind that it is not just the Pacific Games we have to worry about. The government has committed itself to a number of risky commercial decisions – including Samoa Airways nonetheless – which require millions to bankroll.

Where is the money coming from? How are the leaders of today planning to sustain such spending – on top of maintaining their luxurious lifestyles and perks?

The simple answer is this. There are two ways. One is from you, the silent submissive taxpayers. You will be taxed for every step you take in Samoa. The second option of course is aid, which opens the door to unsustainable borrowing. 

What is being used as collateral? This shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. All we’ve got apart from people are our marine and land resources. Don’t forget that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Think about it.

Which brings us to the point that we want to make. The leaders of this nation must sit down and make some very tough decisions. They have to look at the projects they are committing our people to and ask if they are really necessary.

We are talking about the need for a proper cost and benefit analysis in relation to all these projects – including events like the Pacific Games. Such an analysis will require us to look to the past to determine whether all the major events we have hosted actually added value to the lives of the people of this country. 

Let’s look at some of the recent events for example. Given that there have been promises of millions to be generated for the economy, was that the case for Samoa? 

How much money did we make from hosting the South Pacific Games in 2007? Was it worth it compared to the amount of taxpayer funds and aid money spent? 

Think of the S.I.D.S. conference a few years ago. Again it cost this country millions of taxpayers and aid money to host. Was it worth all the headaches and the millions in expenses? Did Samoa profit from it? And by how much?

Conversely, if we made a loss, how much was it? 

Members of the public deserve to know because up until now, these figures have remained a mystery. So much for a government that gloats about transparency, accountability and good governance as their mantra.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are legitimate questions, perfectly normal to ask. You see, far too often we become so excited about these projects and hosting such events with the notion that it will automatically inject “millions” of dollars into the economy.

But more often than not, history tells us the opposite. We end up having to shoulder millions in losses.

Which is why Prime Minister Tuilaepa and our leaders have to be prudent.

They must be cautious and know that they are committing our people to calculated risks, not foolish risks at the whim of someone’s pursuit for fame, personal riches and glory.

Have a restful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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