Shocking sights amid desperate times

The thronging crowd and shattered glass and Congregation Christian church of Samoa (C.C.C.S.) Sogi hall on Monday morning was a disheartening sight. 

We are known for the fa’aSamoa, the code which we live by and which prioritises honour, love, respect and community. 

None of these attributes were on display on Monday morning as a thrusting crowd apparently pushed people towards its front into glass, leaving them in need of hospital treatment.

This could be a breach of our fundamental principles and the prioritising individual needs over the welfare of the many.

This could be an example of poor Government administration in action. The Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labor (M.C.I.L.) knew that demand for seasonal work was spiking this year. And yet it chose as its location for registration an area at which applicants would have to enter through a narrow bottleneck through glass doors, which were prone to shattering and leaving wounds. These factors combined with a registration system run on an apparently first-come-first-serve basis was a recipe for disaster. 

For what is one of its flagship policy programmes, the Ministry should have anticipated extra demand.  

Against the backdrop of political unrest and a ravaged economy Samoans have shown their commitment to the values that constitute our national character. Peace has prevailed in the most unlikely of circumstances. And for that our nation has to be commended.

But, one year on from the state of emergency, Monday’s scenes were perhaps the first hint that our economic decline is starting to push people. 

We do not necessarily blame any of the one-thousand plus Samoans who gathered at Sogi in hope of a better life, more money or even a chance to get away from a country benighted by political turmoil and lost opportunity. 

We do not even presume to say that the injuries sustained by our fellow Samoans were the result of deliberately selfish behaviour; we do not make that assumption at all. There is an old saying about the madness of people in crowds, but large gatherings of people undoubtedly have their own unique dynamic that can quickly become dangerous quite by accident. One stumble, or misstep, or piece of information can move through crowds as ripples do water and each person’s response combines to unleash a combined energy that is often simply untamable.

But the economic response of the now-caretaker Government to the recent economic downturn was no doubt itself a ripple moving through that that crowd on Monday; a timid policy that did too little for the needy. 

More could have, and should have, been done to ensure the welfare of people in Samoa and to help the estimated 4500 people who lost jobs in this nation, no doubt many of whom are now out of options and looking abroad. 

The H.R.P.P. Government claimed at the time to have helped boost the Samoan economy with the benefit of stimulus packages.

It did indeed pass two stimulus packages, which were themselves feather-bedded with discounts and waivers that did not save jobs or put money in people’s pockets, but not to say nothing of that they simply did not pass as a real economic policy response.

It is accepted wisdom that when a nation’s economy is against the wall that the Government should respond with fiscal policy and counter-cyclical spending. Pumping more money into the economy helps to offset the drying up of the private sector and massive job losses.

At its most generous interpretation (to overlook all the possible objections to what does and what does not constitute real useful stimulus) our Government spent $150 million on two separate economic stimulus measures. 

But a deeper analysis of the Government’s fiscal role shows that the stimulus was hardly what it was made out to be. 

While on the one hand we were being told that the Government was coming to the economic rescue, the actual amount of money spent by the Government fell during the fiscal years of 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 (quite substantially in the latter). 

Is a stimulus package worth the paper it’s written on if the Government is decreasing the overall amount of money it is putting into the economy when it is needed most? We don’t think so.

Our neighbours’ spending has not contracted. Tonga’s increased substantially; Fiji’s has held steady and the Cook Islands and Vanuatu both this year took on USD$20 and USD$12 million debts respectively to help with their budget.

So why does Samoa seem to be the exception? Perhaps it has something to do with the Government regularly issuing press releases about the national debt being paid down.

Well, this downturn has not been the time to seek plaudits for paying down debt from $1.01 billion to $1 billion. They win no praise from this newspaper, which questions why the nation incurred so much debt, much of it to China, so that it had no breathing room in case of a catastrophe, in a region known for them.

And while we’re talking about finances, here’s a question that has been on our minds and which might help the Government to help us understand our current financial pickle. The World Bank, last December, announced it was providing USD$25 million in grants to support our recovery from the crisis. Last July the Asian Development Bank announced that it was providing USD$20 million for the same reason.

There have been other, lesser grants, too, from other institutions. But these two alone are almost equivalent to the size of our stimulus package on current exchange rates. Whatever happened to that money? The Government made a point of announcing its delivery. But we would like to find out how it was disbursed. So too would many others. 

Samoa’s economic response to COVID-19 was a time for thinking outside the box; for restructuring our finances; for recognising that we were facing the mother of all crises and acting accordingly. 

But we were instead shortchanged by a tepid response that helped too few and abandoned too many. 

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