By: Athan Makansi – KF8 – SPBD, Samoa

A few days ago my grandmother sent me an email:

Athie,

Thank you for your updates.  I have really enjoyed reading them.  I was wondering, from your experience in Samoa, do you think poverty is a state of mind?  Also do you think the women borrowers gain a sense of worth from access to financial services?

Love,

Grandma Nellie

I love you too Grandma, and you got me thinking.  So here’s my answer.

Many Samoans do not think of themselves as poor.  No one is going hungry (in fact the large girth of Samoans is quite famous) nor is anyone lacking a roof above their head, nor clean(ish) water to drink and bath.  As my friend Tui put it, “You can live here without money.”  Food is in abundance.  For example, in the backyard of my flat there is a coconut tree, a papaya tree, breadfruit tree, wild green beans, and wild cabbage. Similar edibles are plentiful in most backyards throughout Samoa – and I live within the city limits!  Families outside the city can grow large plantations of crops.  Also, Samoa has an incredibly reliable and generous community system. Everyone looks out for everyone else. If you don’t have a home, a relative or neighbor will take you in.  If you have no food, a friend will gladly feed you.

But the UNDP ranks Samoa as one of the 50 poorest countries of the world. As I walk around Samoa I see many manifestations of poverty. Samoans don’t have all the TVs, BMWs, laptops, or other luxuries, that characterize the western world.  Many people dressed in faded second hand clothes from developed countries.  New clothes are quite expensive for Samoans. Homes are in poor shape –some are infested with termites, some have makeshift walls of tarps and plywood.  Samoa has poor health. The Samoan diet consists of very poor quality food.  Samoa imports the leftover junk food from New Zealand and Australia.  Almost all products are processed and canned.  Canned meat, especially corned beef is considered a delicacy.  Also, the preferred way of cooking is frying.  For such a small population, Samoa must go through a record amount of cooking oil.  Samoans suffer from diabetes, obesity and heart problems. Moreover, their quality of healthcare is quite poor.  Often, Samoans wait for hours and hours in line for their appointment.  Doctors’ pay, comparative to Western societies, is very little.  Samoa definitely lacks the benefits of a developed country.

And yes, Grandma, I think this poverty is certainly accentuated by a state of mind, an awareness of everything that Samoans could have but don’t, everything that is available in the western world.  As Samoans become more aware, through TV, the internet and other media outlets, of the luxuries available to the developed world, but not available to themselves, they begin to think of themselves as even more impoverished.  As an American I am immediately assumed to be wealthy.  Acquaintances assume I own a gigantic flat screen TV, drive cars like The Fast and the Furious and that I can purchase multiple rounds at a local bar without a dent in my wallet.  Because of the fantastical way the media portrays the US, Samoans become increasingly self-aware of their poverty.  Their idea of self-worth becomes diminished since they don’t have these luxuries.

This is where South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), Kiva’s microfinance field partner in Samoa, provides a great service. Microfinance has considerable power to change a women’s sense of worth. By offering loans, savings accounts, and (beginning in September) life insurance to lesser-income women they can change the borrower’s self-perception.  These women, who could never qualify for a normal loan through a regular bank, now have access to basic financial services such as loans and savings accounts just like people in more developed countries.  The benefits of these financial services here in Samoa go beyond simple monetary gain.

Financial services, most commonly in the form of a loan, emphasizes these entrepreneurs’ place in the community.  Whereas maybe without a loan they were homemakers, who raised children, and did odd jobs for a bundle of potatoes, or traded their leftover carrots for some noodles, now in their spare time they make a good to sell to the public.  This gives them a specific role in the community.  Everyone in the village will know that Siloma is the potato selling lady and Otilia is the lettuce lady and Muna is the coconut lady, and Faaofo is the firewood lady, etc.  The women have an identity associated with their role in the village.  This gives them a sense of enormous pride.  It also connects them to their neighbors. People rely on Siloma to supply potatoes and Otilia to supply lettuce.  Others in the village come to the ladies to buy their goods, mostly produce.  In many cases this is a good excuse for the ladies to chat and catch up on the village gossip.

SPBD’s services are not a cure-all for poverty.  Of noticeable absence in these entrepreneurs is a drive to get ahead.  Most women are happy enough to produce their one good and stop there.  Very few try to offer new products to sell, or seriously expand their businesses.  Maybe it’s a lack of knowledge about business management. (This is something SPBD will try to address.  In September they will roll out a series of classes on basic business principles.) Because of this, women can get caught up in an obstinate cycle of loans.  They take out a loan just to say they have a loan.  Having a loan allows them to come to the weekly SPBD center meetings in their village which often serve as a social event and it gives them certain delight to say they are financially responsible enough to be paying back a loan.  If SPBD’s success were measured by the number of smiles at a center collection meeting, it would be a wealthy company indeed.

Lend to borrowers from SPBD!

Athan Makansi, KF8, is currently serving his fellowship with South Pacific Business Development (SPBD).  For more information about SPBD, click here.

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