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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

Details »

The proprietor of a small beach resort on Upolu’s south coast

Samoa is a remarkably neat country. Carefully manicured lawns and flower-beds line the main roads, kilometre after kilometre – just one signal of the Fa’a Samoa, the traditional ‘Samoan way’. Each village has a council, the fono, made up of the heads of extended families, the matai, who, among their other local government functions, ensure regular garden inspections. Look beyond the gardens and you will see the fale, the open-sided houses used for family and village meetings. Then look up and be impressed by the biggest buildings by far: two or three substantial churches per village, encompassing most Christian denominations. On Sundays, when the capital, Apia, becomes a ghost town, Samoa’s rural roads are thronged with families resplendent in brilliant white headed for their service.

The Samoan islands in the Pacific were settled around 7,000 years ago. Then from the 1800s they were colonized, mostly by missionaries. The eastern group of islands became – and remain – the US territory of American Samoa. The western islands passed first through the hands of Germany and then New Zealand, before gaining independence as Western Samoa in 1962. In 1997, the country changed its name simply to Samoa – over the objections of American Samoa.

Samoa’s two main inhabited islands, Upolu and Savai’i, consist of green hills of volcanic origin dotted with waterfalls and small ‘plantations’ growing breadfruit, bananas, and the root vegetable, taro, that provides many people with a subsistence living. Tourism is important to the economy. Some visitors head for swish hotel-style resorts; others prefer to rent from small family businesses that offer thatched fale on the beaches. Almost all the land is communally owned, which helps protect family incomes but can frustrate entrepreneurs wanting to establish new businesses.

Still classified by the UN as a ‘least developed country’, Samoa has nevertheless made steady progress and in 2007 had the highest human development ranking in the Pacific. With strong family structures there is little severe poverty, though a fifth of the population are below a ‘basic needs’ poverty line, largely because of high food prices. Almost all children go to school, even if standards in some of the rural areas are low. And the main health problems now are those of lifestyle and diet. Samoans are typically hefty, and have produced some famous international rugby players who play for foreign clubs such as Leeds, but overall fitness levels are worrying: in 2003, 57 per cent of Samoans were classified as obese and another 28 per cent as overweight. In the few buildings in Apia with elevators, notices plead with those going to lower floors to take the stairs.

In common with other Pacific nations, Samoa suffers from its remoteness, which makes exports difficult and imports expensive. Many educated young people, seeing few opportunities in the rural areas, migrate to Apia, which now houses a quarter of the population. But work is scarce there too, so often they emigrate: around a quarter of Samoans work overseas, about 50 per cent of them in New Zealand; their remittances provide the equivalent of a fifth of GDP.

By Pacific Island standards, Samoa has been politically stable. This may reflect traditional structures which encourage or impose consensus. Nevertheless, elections are vigorous. A plethora of candidates, often from the same party, may contest a single constituency – sometimes followed by a flurry of court challenges with accusations of corruption. Even so, Samoa seems to have become effectively a one-party state dominated by the conservative Human Rights Protection Party. In part this is because of the weakness of the opposition. But it is also because the governing party has the power of patronage, which encourages defections, and has also made constitutional changes that inhibit the formation of new parties.

Fact file

Leader Tuilaíepa Saíilele Malielegaoi
Economy GNI per capita $2,840 (Fiji $3,950, NZ $26,830).
Monetary unit Tala.
Main exports Fish, beer, coconut cream, taro. Fishing, including for tuna and marlin, provides more than half of exports. Manufacturing is limited: the largest enterprises are a Fosters-owned beer plant, and a Japanese factory, Yazaki, which exports automotive parts to Australia.
People 183,400 (2009). Annual population growth rate, 0.5%. People per sq km 0.6 (UK 253)
Health Infant mortality rate 21 per 1,000 live births (Fiji 15, NZ 5). More Samoans suffer from non-communicable diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and cancer than from infectious diseases. A fifth of adults have diabetes.
Culture A very cohesive society. Almost everyone is of Samoan origin. The distinctive national dress is the lavalava, a sarong worn by men and women, including the police, who have a plain blue version. Most men have elaborate tattoos. Next to rugby, the most popular sport is a variant of cricket played with a three-sided bat.
Religion Formerly animists, most Samoans were converted to Christianity: primarily Congregational, Methodist and Catholic. Most villages have two or three churches. The national motto is ‘Samoa is based on God’.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution Inequality is steadily rising, with disparities between rural and urban areas, and between islands. In 2002, the richest 10% of households earned 31% of total income and the poorest 10% only 1.8%.
Literacy 99%. Virtually all children go to primary school; almost 90% of those who complete it get some secondary education.
Life expectancy 72 years. This has been rising steadily and most deaths now are from lifestyle diseases.
Freedom Samoa has a unicameral parliamentary democracy, with regular and free elections and a fairly vigorous free press. Within villages, power usually lies in the hands of matai and their families.
Position of women While there is no discrimination in either customary or modern law, women still have less influence than men. Only 1 matai in 19 is a woman. Women's average earned income is 38% of men's. Around half of women have experienced some form of domestic violence.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality is illegal but, confusingly, a form of transgender is accepted as part of Samoan culture – Fa'afafine, boys who have been brought up as girls. They do not consider themselves as gay, though they do have sex with men, and are considered a kind of third gender.
Previously reviewed 1991
New Internationalist assessment The space for political debate in parliament has been narrowing. The conservative Human Rights Protection Party has been in power since 1982 and has been steadily squeezing out the opposition. In the 2011 elections the governing party will be fielding 116 candidates for 46 constituencies. Press commentators lament that ‘democracy is dying’.

New Internationalist issue 440 magazine cover This article is from the March 2011 issue of New Internationalist.
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