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Rebuttal to Steve Pruett's Samoa Then and Now By Peter Harrer (pharrer@hotmail.com)

August 18, 1999

I want to express my appreciation to Steve Pruett for his trenchant response (http://pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu/pireport/1999/july/07-27-18.html) to my article regarding the current state of Peace Corps service in Samoa (The Softest Job: Has the Peace Corps Overstayed Its Welcome in Samoa? http://pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu/pireport/special/peace_corp.html). His rephrasing of the title question into "on what is that welcome based?" goes to the heart of the Corps' dilemma. To wit, our program is being used as an instrument to delay reform and maintain the status quo. Such circumstances, in light of the recent assassination of Public Works Minister Luagalau Levaula Kamu, demand a complete reappraisal of our 32 year-old Samoa program. In addition, his comparison with his own Peace Corps experience there thirty years ago fortifies that assertion. My regret is that the article has not inspired an equally frank response from other authorities. Besides a brief letter of acknowledgment from Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan, neither Peace Corps/Samoa Country Director Steve Nagler, nor Samoan Minister of Education, Fiame Naomi, all of whom received copies, have deigned to comment.

However, it is in a spirit of gratitude that I take issue with a few of Steve's responses. It is pleasing to learn that during his tour in the Peace Corps he attended to the balance of payment reports at the Samoan Ministry of Finance, and that his counterpart is now the prime minister of the country. It signifies that his service was worthwhile, for which he can take pride. Even the project of building latrines, the value of which some of his peers disputed, was a useful activity that contributed to Samoa's quality of life. What a falling off there has been in the succeeding years!

In case after case, technical volunteers with whom I served were assigned meaningless activities. One wonders, for example, what Steve's response would've been had he spent his days pushing a tea trolly at the Ministry of Finance? It is precisely this change in the volunteers' level of activity where he misses the point. Granted there are many problems attending service, but meaningless assignments should not be one of them.

This condition is partly due to the change in Samoa's level of development, its attitude toward the Peace Corps in relation to rival foreign aid programs, and the Peace Corps' policy of placing volunteers (the PCVs) in every conceivable job regardless of need. Steve implies that if I'd stuck around longer than 9 months, there might have been some improvement in my assignment at the National University of Samoa. A likely scenario perhaps, had I not been brought there under false pretenses. As the article documents, my services as a video advisor were never required. Unknown to me, my function was largely to serve as a funding resource. When that possibility fell through, I was cut adrift. An altogether different quality of experience from Steve's position of being waited out.

His history of low volunteer responses to Peace Corps programs, the high levels of volunteer attrition, and the continuing recruitment of volunteers without need, are conditions demanding our attention, not acceptance. Moreover, when 64% (or just over three-fifths) of the Samoa PCVs polled in the Peace Corps 2000 Survey reported that their programs should be reduced or discontinued (42% not recommended continuing the program, 22% reduce current program), isn't it time to review our activities?

As for health issues, I saw no serious evidence of malnutrition, but perhaps, had I been assigned to a program empowered to address such a worthy subject, my opinion would differ. What I did see were instances of untreated diseases like elephantiasis, diabetes, and alcoholism, and chronic social problems like family violence and teen suicide. All are conditions begging for assistance.

I stand corrected regarding the evidence of National income figures as opposed to those of GDP. However, the fact that the NI per capita figures are higher than GDP only sustains the assertion that Samoa's standard of living is much changed since Steve stepped off the plane in 1969. Whether Samoa is living beyond its means, or not, my concern remains the inadequacy of the Corps' program to accommodate these conditions.

Steve complains that I overstate Samoan prosperity, and illustrates its uncertain foundation by quoting differing migration and population studies. Regardless of whether it is real or projected, Samoa's prosperity, and its growing appetite for consumer goods and services, is our greatest obstacle. A major question for the Corps in the next century must be, "How can we continue to promote the goals of democracy and self-sacrifice in an environment saturated with messages of material satisfaction and instant gratification?" Especially when these messages are often derived from U.S. corporations? Modern advertising campaigns and television, coupled with the affluence of Samoans returning from years abroad, are winning their hearts and minds. Even if these images do not reflect reality, they affect consciousness and how our program is regarded.

Though not 100%, Samoa's bilingualism is the result of universal English instruction at the public schools. A remarkable achievement in which the Peace Corps has played a valuable part, as Steve states. Even in the remotest villages in Savaii, one can always find people who speak passable English.

Other than these niggling details, Steve added significantly to the discourse. His observation that, due to migration, Samoa is no longer a place, but an identity, is a vital consideration for any foreign aid initiative. Furthermore, his account of Samoan agriculture languishing while foreign aid continues to pour in demonstrates how friendly governments maintain their dependency and prop up the status quo.

With or without the Peace Corps, let me second the motion to continue assisting those trying to reform Samoa. Considering the recent political tragedy, it's all the more urgent to reappraise our role before an additional 32 years passes.


Comments on Peter Harrer’s Article: "The Softest Job: Has the Peace Corps Overstayed Its Welcome In Samoa?" http://pidp.ewc.hawaii.edu/pireport/special/peace_corp.html


By Steve Pruett (srpruett@aol.com) Peace Corps Group IV, Samoa, 1969-1971

A few weeks ago, in Honolulu, I discussed with Peter his thoughtful article on the Peace Corps in Samoa. Thirty years ago, I stepped off a DC 3 onto the grass strip at Faleolo Airport to begin my own Peace Corps assignment. For me, it was my hardest job. Many things have changed and many haven’t. I do not think the Peace Corps has worn out its welcome. But on what is that welcome based?

Peter can never know if he would have been more successful had he stayed longer. It took me quite a while to settle into the Economic Development Department. I did the very technical Balance of Payments reports (at age 23) and in my second year, I worked with an energetic young Samoan just returned from Auckland with a Masters in Commerce, obtained at considerable sacrifice by his family. (He is now Prime Minister.) But I did not accomplish much in my first nine months.

Peter reports that 42 percent of PCVs recommended against continuing their programs. Not new. About half of my group of 20 consisted of water seal latrine builders, a project they increasingly felt was well within Samoan capabilities. We once calculated that for all the money spent on their "toilet" training, travel, etc., the USG could have flown in new ones and a plumber. Most terminated early. Peace Corps staff could help little, as there were not always appropriate alternatives.

Peter notes a drive to increase numbers of PCVs without reference to need. Not new. Then, Peace Corps measured success by numbers and percentage completing full tours. (The early return rate for Samoa PCVs was exceeded only by the Korea program.) In 1969, there were 150 PCVs (about one percent of the population), many Mormon missionaries, and other expatriates. Some of us wondered if the Samoans would conclude they should just sit back and let the foreigners do the work. We also became aware from travel to New Zealand that there were many capable Samoans living abroad (and remitting funds), who we had indirectly replaced and for free. Expatriate personnel still provide much of the health care (under foreign assistance). Samoan professionals leave for higher paying jobs (and status) overseas. To retain trained personnel would require much higher salaries, but this would radically impact Samoan society.

Peter incorrectly states GDP per capita has climbed to over $900 (from $201 in 1970) because of remittances of family members abroad. Remittances generated by employment of Samoans in New Zealand, for example, are transferred to Samoa, increasing its National Income. In 1992, the World Bank reported Samoa’s GDP to be about $150 million, about $940 per capita, based on a population of just under 160,000. Adding remittances of about $40 m. raised Gross National Income to near $1,200 per head. However, subsistence fishing and agriculture, non-cash production not included, were greater then than now. Some observers note that remittances constitute a major proportion of village income, but discourage village production. It is easier to write for money than to fish. Peter’s point remains valid that Samoa is living beyond its means.

Regarding Japanese assistance, Peter should not completely dismiss altruism. Nations, like people, do things for many reasons. Samoa’s fishing grounds are not all that valuable. Its Exclusive Economic Zone is smaller than most because it is sea locked - surrounded by EEZs of other countries. Japan has given a lot of financial aid, but would never open its borders for outsiders to work in Japan.

Peter and I were stationed in Apia. He alludes to village agriculture when he states that no one is starving, but there have been continuing reports of malnutrition among children. Back then, Fay Calkins (My Samoan Chief) and her husband Vaio Alailima wrote in "Samoan Values and Economic Development" (1964) that Samoans may see foreign assistance as equivalent to family obligations in their culture, but foreign donors expect results and an end to it. Calkins describes how agricultural production could not be increased because jealousy would result if one family or individual became relatively more prosperous. The fruits of hard labor, or investment, on the land could be claimed by others in a culture where sharing was obligatory. Samoa has solved the problem of distribution, but not production. Samoan agriculture remains fragmented. There has always been pressure to return the Trust Estates to the villages from whom the Germans took the land almost a century ago. Perhaps small scale, communal agriculture can be efficient; thus far, I’ve not seen it.

I believe Peter’s overstates apparent prosperity. It is based on an uncertain foundation. A World Bank study (Hooper 1998) states that 6,000 Samoans in New Zealand in 1961 increased to 86,000 by 1991. Many more have migrated to Australia, Pago Pago and the U.S. I think the true figure is much larger. Many children born to Samoan parents are foreign citizens, but still consider themselves Samoans. Despite a high birth rate of around 3%, the out migration held the increase to only 0.5% per year. Population, 150,000 in my time, rose only to 160,000 in 1990. A disturbing note, Ahlburg ("Demographic and Social Change in the Island Nations of the Pacific," East-West Center, 1996) estimated Samoa’s population to be 200,000 in 1993. Life expectancy has increased. The elderly are an increasing burden. New Zealand has severely reduced visa availability for Samoans. Many may be forced home, but as a whole, Samoans can’t go home. There are too many of them and Samoa is dependent on their remittances. There is a secondary migration of NZ Samoans to Australia. The enduring loyalty to family in Samoa is remarkable, and admirable, but those sending money home are often hard pressed to raise their own children. With fewer Samoans migrating, they will be pressed even harder.

Assisting Samoa is complicated as it is no longer a place, but an identity defused beyond its borders. Even village chiefs (matai) are locating overseas, yet matai titles and the rest of the Samoan social system remain tied to village land, the least productive sector in Samoa. Making it productive requires changes that would impact the culture, something Samoans seem reluctant to do. In effect, Samoans abroad, along with international donors, provide welfare to the wealthy - villagers "sitting" (literally in Samoan) on untaxed land that could be quite valuable, if it could be sold for more productive use. Samoa can decide whether and when to make reforms, but it cannot expect the international community to pay for unproductive traditions.

Many of Peter’s other points are well taken. Better advance work by Peace Corps staff for placement of PCVs was/is desirable. It is easy to say and hard to do. A high failure rate is probably inevitable no matter how hard Peace Corps staff tries. I’m dubious that a 10-year time limit would have any good effect. It might work the other way. Individual volunteers are already limited to 2 to 3 years. Back then, I sometimes felt I was being waited out. Peter’s suggestion of coordinating assignment of PCVs with funding is a good one. Teaching of English by native speaker PCVs will always be beneficial in Samoa. There are a lot of Samoans who speak good English, but I’d hardly describe the place as bilingual. However, PC teachers should not replace Samoan teachers who leave because of inadequate pay.

Should Peace Corps continue in Samoa? Putting Peter’s figures another way, fifty-eight percent of the PCVs recommended their programs be continued. Development is hard work and frustrating. I’d guess that figure is much better now than then and one worth building on. To answer my own question, Samoa did not welcome me. It was that part of it that sought progress. Many Samoans (and even a few PCVs) were against modernization, especially in the village. Sometimes, out of the blue, a Samoan would say to me, "Isn’t the Samoan way wonderful?" I heard this so often that I began to suspect some were trying to convince themselves. The people in the village were wonderfully hospitable, but clearly needed no help in being Samoan. I’d vote to continue to assist those trying to reform Samoa. But it gets harder to justify when agriculture continues to languish and the principal export product is young people, giving bitter meaning to the term "Cradle of Polynesia." I disagree that Peace Corps has worn out its welcome, but will continue to be concerned about the reason for that welcome.

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