Ears on the Wall Syndrome: Debt is slaver of the free...

30 November 2012

The New Zealand Pacific Maori Voice newspaper a month ago (September 28th), published the article Dealing to bad Pacific debts. It stated “there are 885 Pacific islanders in New Zealand who today owe $24million to finance companies and car dealers. The statistic does not include Pacific Islanders with mortgages.”

Dr Featuna'i Liua'ana and author of Ears on the Wall syndrome

Dr Featuna’i Liua’ana

Some two months later, major New Zealand and overseas tabloids and media outlets picked up on The Pacific Families and Problem Debt Report, the product of a joined research carried out by the New Zealand’s Families Commission and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, which reiterated this newspaper’s earlier scoop of a staggering 885 low-income Pacific families owing more than $NZ24 million at an average of more than $NZ27,000 per family.

When the New Zealand Pacific Maori Voice newspaper broke the news, it coincided with a campaign initiated by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs with the help of a marketing agency called Tangata-Ogilvy under the guidance of Frank Koloi to raise debt awareness. The campaign has been in full swing since the middle of October in the major cities with the cooperation of various Pacific media, Pacific communities, and various Pacific churches. The message has been spread far and wide, and more and more Pacific people have been identified to be in extreme debt.

The recent recycling of the story by the media has helped to revive the problem and bring it once again to the attention of the public, especially Pacific people themselves. There are no words to describe just how preposterous it is for a small amount of people to owe so much money to fewer people. It reminded me of David Ramsey,  the American television and  radio personality, and financial author, who quipped “you must gain control over your money or the lack of it will forever control you.”

There is no doubt that many of the 885 families mentioned in the report have had their lives controlled by debts, and they are trapped in a cycle of debt that they could no longer free themselves no matter how much they try. Part of the problem has been the readily available financial assistance on offer to people who already have massive debts through schemes that fall short of being elaborate scams.

For instance, the daily tripe by car dealers on various Pacific language radio stations guaranteeing people quick financial assistance to purchase a vehicle, with a $2000 to $3000 gift to spend as one wishes, is an invitation too good to be missed for many Pacific people who are struggling to make ends meet, and with the festive season just around the corner. According to the conversations on the street, the lure of a $2000 to $3000 gift in the hand, is the primary reason why many people want to purchase a new vehicle that many of them don’t need.

Many deliberately go down this road knowing their financial outlay cannot sustain another loan, but the chance to pay another bill, put more food on the table, and to fulfil family and church obligations, outweighs all reasoning not to buy a new vehicle. Those with ears on the wall syndrome will no doubt be aware that a high percentage of people who purchase new cars under such financial incentives, have their vehicle repossessed within three to four months because they cannot keep up with the repayments.

It is back to square one for many but the difference this time is no vehicle but more debt to pay, and the cycle continues as family members pitch in to help when one member of the family become defunct. The great writer Charles Dickens, once remarked in his book Little Dorrit when explaining what credit meant, said, “credit is a system whereby a person who can’t pay, gets another person who cannot pay, to guarantee he can pay.”

The debt problem among Pacific people will not go away, because desire outweighs logic when the wallet has been running on empty for a long time, and when the opportunities to fill that wallet presents itself, recklessness would always outweigh prudence. There is an urgent need to control the finance companies who are working together with devious businesses to lure into debt people who are already inundated with debt.

It has been pointed out that people make choices, but greed rather than reasoning decides the outcome. I agree with such criticism regarding the weakness of the human heart over the human mind; but we need to think of being in too much debt as  being too drunk. The publicans will always advertise their beers and ales, but they have a moral and lawful duty not to serve people who have had too much and are too drunk, or they will be fine or worse lose their license. Such an attitude towards loan sharks and their promoters would curb the debt curse.

But taking steps against these unethical financial places, and talking about it can only go so far in solving debt problems, and it is just one side of the coin that contributes to the problem. The Families Commission report identified that many families’ lives have been silently ruined by debt over many years, because of the reluctant to own up and talk about their debt problems. The more Pacific people get into debt the less likely they will talk about it; pride takes over and the search for a quick fix will lead to more loans, which most of the time would be channelled into satisfying a gambling habit that is fuelled by the determination to quickly recover what has been lost.

But, such  desperate actions have seen many Pacific people graduate to a life of crime that eventually leads to family violence, a breakdown of family values and family relationships, and the cycle of playing Russian roulette with debts would be passed on to the next generation.

The debt awareness campaign has improved that issue, but much more work needs to be done. And this is where the Pacific communities and Pacific leaders need to step up. The report by the Families Commission also identified cultural practices, such as giving money to churches, to family obligations, and to community events, as the other main causes for Pacific people’s debts. The debate will continue till the end of time, whether church, family, and community obligations are the main causes of Pacific people’s debt; but I can safely say, that all three can, and in many case, contribute to many people being in debt.

Pacific people have had the Mitre 10 syndrome of ‘Big is Good’ for many years and add to it Pacific pride and the competitive spirit of families, churches, and communities, the ‘Big is Good’ mentality gets inflated and controls many of our Pacific people’s actions. The church has a pivotal role to play in educating our Pacific people on the  subject of moderation, and to show how to truly live by the Christian principle of ‘freewill giving’ without compromising the virtue of giving.

There is a need to change the way we give to our churches, families, and communities; not in terms of how much but in terms of attitude on how to give, why give, when to give, and what (amount) to give. Take away all the pride that motivates doing things excessively, because all eyes are on you and your church and families. Don’t be swayed by the sweet talk of the chiefs, church ministers and people who want to put you on the pedestal and heap praise on you, because at the end of the day friends, family, and church members, will say goodbye, and you are left to pick up the cost; that is the price of pride.

The current economic situation makes it even more plausible to prioritise our spending and our giving. I know it is hard for Pacific churches to survive in the present economic environment, and must rely on their parishioners to pay the bills and fulfil projects that benefits the people and their church, and such expectation on parishioners I wholeheartedly support. But, when unnecessary events and gatherings are initiated with great costs for the sake of ‘want’ but not ‘need’ and with very little benefit to those involved, the church then becomes an accessory to debt.

The Pacific churches need to understand that while the bible does not say debt is a sin nor forbid debt, it does warn against debt and extols the virtue of not going into debt. And it is in this light that Pacific churches and its leaders, must take the lead in educating our Pacific people on the negative benefits of being in debt.

Pacific churches can start being role models by not going into debt themselves, because in the end it will be the parishioners who will be paying the debt on top of any other debt they may personally have. And please, stop the scare mongering tactics of telling people they will not go to heaven if they do not give more than they are actually giving to their churches and God.

Remember the bible teaches us not to use God’s name in vain! As for family commitments, the time has come to change the mindset of our families in doing and fulfilling family obligations. As Pacific people, we do not hide from family obligations; it is ingrained in us! But, we should not be imprisoned by its present setup and huge expectations of our extended families, parents, and chiefs.

The ‘Big is Good’ mentality needs to go out the window, because the only thing that it really achieves is the inflation of the egos of our families, especially the chiefs who wants to show off in front of his peers and community the wealth and riches made possible with the debts of the silent few. We want to be part of our families in all their obligations, but with little less extravagance and pompousness.

We Samoans, and perhaps other Pacific Islands, have a saying that say too often, but never seem to practice, E sui faiga ae tumau fa’avae (we change the way we do it but the foundations remain). Why can’t we change, and stop overdoing things and keep it simple; it is the difference between enjoying living indebted to a stress free life and a life living in debt for lifetime.

Debt is the slaver of the free, something the great American poet Ralph Emerson agreed with when he wrote, “A man in debt is so far a slave.” Benjamin Franklin always reminded his family of the blessings of being debt free, he said, “Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt”. And the bible teaches, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.”

As we approach Christmas, let us be mindful of the greatest debt paid on our behalf by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We owe nothing to God except our praises and keeping his word alive in all places; and likewise we owe nothing to anyone, except keeping others alive and content with what very little we have to give.

And so remember, to keep on praying for a more prosperous New Zealand, as we continue to seek the peace and prosperity of this country to which God has given us to dwell. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper…





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