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Op-Ed: Final Tamaseugogo

The Tamaseugogo series of opinion editorials as published in the Samoa News was premised on the Samoa News editorial penned by its Editor-in-Chief Rhonda Annesley on August 31, 2012 — “Welcome to American Samoa — Land of the Potholes”. In this timely piece, Rhonda Annesley decried the “construction” by ASG leaders of the literal and figurative pothole roads afflicting the territory for so long.

In the first piece of the series — “American Samoa- Land of the Potholes:  O Lafu Lafu a Tamasuegogo”, I briefed the story about La’auli and his older brother Fuaoleto’elau, and Gauifaleai — the prize of the brothers’ traditional manhood adventures. I then weaved in the “potholes” (“lafu lafu”) or issues in the eight pieces that follow, in an effort to keep “issues” on the radar of the public office candidates and their respective campaigns, and of the voting public.

As the story goes, La’auli claimed the prize and went on to hold the paramount chiefly title of the great Malietoa — “to whom Samoa listens” (“E fa’alogo iai Samoa”); and Fuaoleto’elau, after deciding not to avenge his loss, became the wise one and conceded with these words (translation of the title) — “The Fiso and Tolo leaves are but two varieties of the sugar cane species… La’auli’s blessings are mine just the same”.

By Tuesday evening this week at 6 P.M., in the gubernatorial runoff election, we will have chosen our next governor for the next four years. Will we have elected a “La’auli” who turns potholes into ‘works of art’ for all people of the territory to enjoy? Will our “Fuaoleto’elaus” give their blessings for a united effort to improve the condition of all in American Samoa?  Time will tell.

While the last two standing gubernatorial candidates turn any unturned rocks for votes, confirm and reconfirm secured votes, shake the fence to befall the fence-sitters into their yards, or dare invade ‘enemy’ territory to promise the world for votes, please allow me one more time to remind the two candidates, their respective teams, and voting public about the essence of “the Public” Rhonda Annesley talked about in her editorial piece, and ending “La Serrata” I proposed in mine.

Both pieces call for an “inclusive” American Samoa where basic protection and empowerment is provided for all; where the interests and well-being of all citizens are just as important as those of the leaders; and where the young and qualified American Samoans are encouraged to work or conduct businesses in the territory to help elevate the standard of living for all, instead of being discarded in favor of the unqualified chiefs or others of the Elite.

Throwing Caution in the Wind

The territory’s former chief statistician filed his concerns- questioning the integrity of the American Samoa Census 2012 with the appropriate federal agency, congressman, governor, and Fono.  The acting director of DOC, however stands by the validity of the census count as was carried out and thus the results now being reported by the media. Hence, it may be wise to allow for this divergence of opinions as we read the census results and assess their policy implications. On the other hand, the results may be close enough for government business as they say. Well, maybe; then maybe not. With caution we should use the 2010 census information; and utilize other available information in our effort to forge public policies that make sense.

Ti’otala Lewis Wolman reported a more promising financial status of the territory as measured by the household income distribution in the territory (based on the 2010 Census); and the surge in the cost of living during the ten year period (escalating even more since) — which negated the reported general improvement in household incomes. 

The bottom line then appears, especially for the low up to the “middle class” ($50,000 as Ti’otala has it), life hasn’t changed a whole lot as the 2010 nominal income levels (before cost of living adjustments) would otherwise indicate.  In fact many families at the lower end of the scale would have had experienced a standard of living worse off than the previous ten year period. 

Ti’otala further reported American Samoa as a better educated population progressively — that is every ten years or over time. While I found that conclusion unremarkable because we have a free education system, I found the five thousand college graduates figure impressive. 

What would be more interesting though is the distribution of this figure by degrees (AA, BA, etc.) and by major or field of study (P.E., education, sociology, nursing, engineering, trades, etc.). Then an analysis (over the ten year period or twenty even) of how well our education system has met the demands of our job market or economy; and how much of the deficiency has been met by migrants- this would be telling and useful for planning and development purposes. Determining the unemployment rate in the territory would also be useful.

Moreover, Ti’otala in a Chamber of Commerce forum asked one of the gubernatorial candidates — who recently graduated with a Masters degree — why the increase in numbers of teachers with degrees and the standardized test scores by local students take different directions.

The number of American Samoan teachers with college degrees correlates with the increase in household incomes over the past ten years. However, their productiveness if measured in terms of standardized test scores by students could be described as woeful. An explanation of this divergence would be helpful.

Economic Development

I am indebted to Lelei Peau, acting director for DOC, for his comprehensive attempt at addressing my concerns in his letter to the editor in the November 9, 2012 issue of the Samoa News.  It’s good to know the DOC mission is to enhance the quality of life in American Samoa. 

Now how about enhancing the quality of life of those struggling local small businesses to which the (stuck) ARRA funds were intended? How about improving the quality of life of families adversely impacted by not enforcing zoning laws? Is the industrial park allowing retail businesses and residential quarters now? If so, why wasn’t it publicized so other retailers and dwellers have a fair go at such opportunities to improve the quality of their lives?

The displacement of local businesses and occupations by migrants is sweeping and dispiriting — could DOC have foreseen this trend thirty years ago? Could the territory have been better prepared for these severe challenges? Perhaps if the environment and culture have been left to the proper departments or agencies, DOC would have had given the enabling of local businesses and workforce sufficient time (in collaboration with other government agencies, and business and community organizations) so as to empower local businesses and workforce to weather the foreign waves of competition and stand their own grounds.

Further, our benefactor the US would have never forsaken the territory in the face of the recent financial and economic crisis, and tsunami. This security blanket comes with the pact our forefathers had subscribed to for us in 1900 and 1904. But what continues to “meltdown” is local businesses not getting the ARRA funds slated to spur business development as part of the US recovery plan. And the “freezing” of the minimum wage in the face of astronomical cost of living (given its stated benefits) is not something I would write home about.

I respect the milestones DOC has accomplished over the years in terms of development, (especially) the environment, and perhaps culture. But it is clear in my view that economic development hasn’t been the primary focus of DOC.

One wise and successful man once said, “Success will come from simplicity”. Perhaps this is the rational perspective the economic development of American Samoa needs, perhaps it’s time to simplify DOC.

Those pesky Deficits

Our politicians’ love affair with budget deficits is of world-renown status. Fiscal year 2012 ended with a 7 plus million deficit; deficits of at least a million dollars and eight hundred thousand dollars are projected for the Fono and Governor’s office respectively at the end of the first quarter FY 2013, ending on December 31, 2012.

Hence, budget deficits will await the territory’s new governor as his inheritance and ultimate challenge. A sound plan of action by the new administration should include the elimination of wasteful outlays, increasing revenues fairly, and operating government within budget; setting sound goals for the territory, and utilization of qualified personnel to implement the plan to achieve those goals. Or will he continue the ‘deficit culture’? 

Message of Hope at the Crossroads

The work awaiting the new administration and Fono is a lot harder than it sounds here; but it can be done. It has to be done.

Most of us who are concerned about American Samoa and her future are in our 50s- 70s; in twenty years perhaps at least half of us will have moved on. And that is why this election means much more than which team wins it; it means what we can all do together to lay the foundation for future generations of American Samoans to become competitive in the global arena; and maintain their identity as American Samoans (if they so wish).

The story about La’auli and his brother is the message of hope and courage, and spirit of goodwill and working together to achieve common good. Come Wednesday; let us rally around our new leaders to help build a solid foundation upon which future generations can grow.

May I bow out with La’auli’s words of hope and courage: “E vala vala ae tu manu; E lafu lafu tamaseugogo.” In simple translation, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Our territory’s landscape may be adorned with literal and figurative potholes; but if we stand together as a people — a nation — to solve our problems — we shall overcome.  God Bless!