Responsive partnerships: Ms. Maeva Betham Vaai reveals her vision for Samoa’s future

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Ms. Maeva Betham Vaai joined the World Bank in 2009 as the first Liaison Officer for the Joint World Bank Group and Asian Development Bank Liaison Office established in Samoa. By 2016, she became solely responsible for the World Bank Group. In this Q&A, Ms. Betham Vaai shares what it was like growing up in Samoa, how the Bank’s presence has grown in the country and her vision for Samoa’s future.   

What was your childhood like growing up in Samoa?  

I grew up in an extended family. That’s normal in Samoa; you live with your brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents. There were seven of us, three brothers and four girls. 
I’m actually a twin, which is good fun. We both went to the same schools, from kindergarten through to the University of Central Queensland in Australia on government scholarships. My twin studied arts and I studied business. But a lot of lecturers got us mixed up. We both became public servants and she used to fool the drivers of the Treasury Department I worked with, and I used to fool the drivers of the Ministry of Justice she used to work for! 
How would you describe Samoa to someone who knows very little about it? 

We have a slogan that Samoa is the ‘hidden paradise of the Pacific’. It’s also the cleanest country in the Pacific. I like to say that to people who have never been here. You want to go to the cleanest place? Go to Samoa. 
We have a very rich culture that is all about respecting others and sharing. I am particularly proud of our traditional Matai system. It is a chiefly system that honors you when you serve your family, community, village and government. You are entitled to a chiefly title from your extended family. 

A Matai title links you to your family, your village and ancestors forever. You could meet someone in Europe that also has the same Matai title and start a conversation, tracing back through your history. It links you back to being Samoan, wherever you are.
Maeva Betham Vaai
Liaison Officer, World Bank Group, Samoa

What led you to work at the World Bank? 

When I left university, I wanted to earn money, so I started working in the Treasury Department. When I went there, I quickly realized that I don't get to see money - I only saw the figures on paper! I worked there for 14 years and enjoyed every minute of public service life.  
Eventually, that job led me to work as an Advisor to the Executive Director representing Samoa on the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Board, where I was exposed to the area of development. I saw that a lot of the development challenges that Samoa faced were actually less severe compared to other countries in the region. 
I was then approached to set up a joint World Bank-ADB Liaison Office here in Samoa in 2009, thus I joined the World Bank in 2009 and have been exposed to a lot more development challenges across the Pacific and Asia. The issues we are working to address are really interesting. 
How has the World Bank's program evolved in Samoa since you first started working there? 

It has grown a lot since we first set up the World Bank-ADB Liaison Office. We have diversified the sectors we engage with, moving from just the finance sector into health, agriculture, ICT and transport.  
We also work with a lot more partners now. We partnered with the United Nations Office for Project Services for the first time in April last year, working alongside the World Health Organization, and the Australian and New Zealand Governments, as part of the Health Program Advisory Committee (HPAC), to roll out a COVID-19 project. We also recently worked with the Chinese Government for the first time in the aviation sector. The World Bank financed the extension of a runway and apron while the Chinese Government financed the construction of the international airport terminal building. 

Maeva speaking at the opening of the World Bank supported Mali?oli?o Bridge and access road in Savai?i that will provide safer and more reliable access, particularly during severe weather events.
Maeva speaking at the opening of the World Bank supported Mali’oli’o Bridge and access road in Savai’i that will provide safer and more reliable access, particularly during severe weather events.

What has been your career highlight so far? 

There are a lot of highlights. A big one was establishing the in-country office, essentially from scratch. We had to establish rules to ensure the model would work and support the Government of Samoa by being more responsive to their needs.  
Since then, we’ve continued to improve how we implement and monitor our portfolio. We’ve tripled our allocation from the International Development Association (IDA), as have other countries in the Pacific. It’s a team effort – a Pacific team effort. 
What is the best career advice you have received? 

It’s all about teamwork. My mentor once told me that you don’t bring everything to the table to get the job done. Instead, you have to look at others and look for their strengths. If you're able to learn from each other and share knowledge, then you'll be able to collectively achieve whatever you're after. 
At the World Bank, we have a task team leader and a global team that brings a multitude of different experiences. That’s why I never get tired of my job. I love working with different people, with different personalities and experiences. You can’t do it alone. You have to be able to trust your team and the government to do its part. Collectively, we can achieve so much. 
What is your vision for Samoa's future? What do you think is possible? 

Anything is possible. I think the biggest thing I’d like to see is building a safe and climate-proof road network. I’d like to see that extended through the other islands.  

A bigger resilient network would be transformative for Samoa as it would connect plantations to the markets, thus enhancing agriculture development and facilitating trade. We could facilitate better trading within Samoa or internationally, using our airport and ports. Inclusive Connectivity - that’s my vision for Samoa. 


Maeva with the Samoan Minister of Finance at the launch of the Samoa 2040 development strategy
Maeva with the Samoan Minister of Finance, the Honourable Sili Epa Tuioti at the launch of the Samoa 2040 development strategy

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