Fa’a Samoa: Is the Future Of Samoa in New Zealand?

Listener: 9 October, 2004.

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade;

From “Sunset Beach” near the village of Falealupo, the most western part of the Samoan island of Savaii, one looks across the international dateline to tomorrow. Beyond it is New Zealand, where around 120,000 Samoans live – half of all our Pacific Islanders. Auckland is the largest Samoan city – should one say “congregation”? – in the world. Are we Samoa’s future?

It is more complicated than that. Colonial competition divided the islands of Samoa between what is now an independent state of (Western) Samoa, with about 180,000 people, and, to the east, American Samoa, with about 60,000. They look north to Samoan settlements in Hawaii and California, but there is also a constant interchange of people and products between the two jurisdictions.

New Zealand Samoans, although poorer than average New Zealanders, have a material standard of living about double the level of Samoans in Samoa. Even so, the homelanders are literate, with a life expectancy of 70 years. On the UN Human Development Index, they came 70th out of 173 countries in 2001. They appear no less happy than New Zealanders, but have less opportunity there to be, say, a professor of English or to play international sport. Some migration is inevitable, but that is also true for some New Zealanders.

What strikes conventional economics is the vulnerability of the economy to external shocks, despite the Samoan Government’s careful fiscal management and modest external debt. As in most places, production and incomes are underpinned by imports. In 2003, Samoa’s total foreign currency outlays for merchandise and services amounted to 475m tala (about $280m), but exports earned only 280m tala ($165m). Almost three-fifths of that revenue comes from tourist receipts, which makes the economy very exposed to fluctuations in the world tourist market. (It is also exposed to cyclones and global warming.)

The gap between imports and exports is mainly covered by 160m tala ($95m) of remittances from overseas Samoans to their families or for churches and schools – almost three times what the country receives in foreign aid. The biggest remittance sources are the US (39 percent) and New Zealand (31 percent). Some of the tourist receipts are the consequence of Samoans visiting their homeland.

In Samoa, Samoans mainly live in villages, near a church, which is also the community centre. (The denominations are diverse.) The families are large – the typical woman has four children, double the New Zealand average. The limits of economic activity mean there is a steady migration of Samoans overseas that reduces population pressures. New Zealand Samoans continue to keep fa’a Samoa – Samoan ways – even though today over half the New Zealand community is born here. Many can still speak Samoan, they are much more religious than the average New Zealander, and they have larger families, too, averaging three children per New Zealand-born Samoan woman. Their remittances and visiting their homelands show that they remain committed to Samoa.

The Samoan diaspora is not unique. Most nations have members outside the national boundaries, including a relatively smaller New Zealand diaspora (less than 15 percent of the local population, compared to about 100 percent for Samoa). Remittances are not the only way a diaspora supports its nation. Irish-Americans were an important source of investment in the Irish economic boom. Overseas New Zealanders assist us in the international transfer of technology.

There is also a challenge for the hosts. How are we to treat our Samoans? Is it to celebrate the diversity they bring to New Zealand life? Do we respect that they are both New Zealanders and Samoans? Given their younger population, their economic contribution will include providing the nurses for our ageing population. Our aid funding the education and health of Samoans is partly an investment in our future. And although there are common interests between the two governments, there are also differences as to the numbers of migrants and who should migrate. Both countries want the skilled professionals, while migrating professionals may not be as committed to sending remittances. Until recently, the diaspora has not been a policy interest. But in a globalising world, we can no longer ignore the issue, nor hide behind platitudes.