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Poverty, Population and Motion

September 8, 2010

Photo Credit: Otago Daily Times

Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth Blog on The New York Times website carried an article on Tuesday morning that sought to explain the differences between the experiences of recent earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand. In short, he summarizes the major factors influencing the vastly divergent outcomes as poverty, population and motion.

New Zealand is not only a relatively well-off country, but also a fairly egalitarian one as well. Although income disparities have grown in recent decades, like elsewhere in the developed world, especially the United States, there are no great gulfs between the rich and poor. Homelessness is quite rare, health care coverage is universal, and social welfare benefits are widely available to prevent people from slipping into poverty.

Marginal tax rates are relatively high in New Zealand. A population slightly more than that of a modest U.S. state must support all of the functions of government expected of a state while also providing for national defense, foreign relations, and other central government functions.

Since the mid-1980s the country has focused on improving the efficiency and accountability of government. A currency crisis at that time forced New Zealand to pursue aggressive reforms of its public and private sectors, which resulted in a move away from policies that ensured full employment by providing a state-sector job to anyone willing and able to work. These reforms started with the privatization of most state-owned enterprises; as a result much of the country’s critical infrastructure was sold off to private investors while maintaining a regulatory role for government that emphasized risk management, fair competition and accountability to shareholders.

Besides privatization, the government engaged in wholesale reforms of the public service that reduced the government workforce dramatically while adopting a more outcome oriented approach to public management. In recent years, the government has continued reforms and organizational development efforts intended to cultivate and motivate the public service ethos among state sector employees. The reforms were accompanied by significant structural reforms of monetary and fiscal policy, which emphasized inflation control and allowed the government to maintain a free floating currency, but the nation has managed to maintain nearly full employment ever since by adopting aggressive free trade policies.

Nevertheless, the economy has remained prone to external shocks due its geographic remoteness and dependence upon agricultural and extractive industries. Yet the country has earned an enviable reputation for creativity and productivity out of scale with its small size and enjoys access to rapidly developing markets in Asia and Africa that have sustained demand for its produce despite significant exchange rate fluctuations.

The country expects a lot of its citizens. New Zealand was the first parliamentary democracy to extend the voting franchise to women. They take voting seriously (turnout in national elections is typically around 80%), and require everyone who lives in the country for more than a year to register to vote even if they are not a citizen. Local and central government legislation requires government officials to actively engage citizens in the decision-making process on important strategic and policy questions, particularly those that fall within the ambit of local government. Every primary and secondary school in the country is overseen by a locally elected board of trustees.

A unicameral legislature and a Parliamentary executive oversee the central government. The introduction of mixed-member proportional voting in 1993 has ensured widespread representation of minority parties in government. As such, coalition governments led by one of the two major parties has become the norm.

Most Americans who know enough about New Zealand not to confuse it with Australia recognize its natural beauty and the population’s dedication to its beloved All Blacks rugby team. To be sure New Zealand’s natural endowments are incredible. But the country’s commitment to protecting this heritage is one of its most impressive qualities. More than one-third of the country is protected conservation estate owned and managed by the Crown.

New Zealand’s strategic national security environment is relatively benign compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. But its military forces are first-rate, and its soldiers are well-known for their experience, skill and dedication. New Zealand forces are routinely deployed in some of the world’s hottest hot-spots in support of United Nations peacekeeping missions. New Zealand Special Air Service troops, engineers and medics continue to play key roles on the ground in Afghanistan.

What’s all this got to do with Andrew Revkin’s observations? Mainly it serves to support his observations about the factors that led to the favorable outcomes I outlined on Sunday. New Zealanders have invested not only their natural, economic and material capital but also themselves — their human, social, cultural  and political capital — in keeping the country the kind of place where they want to live. As such, it has taken on a uniquely hybrid culture that reflects its heritage as a mixture of peoples from European (English, Scottish, French and Dutch), indigenous (Maori), Polynesian (Samoan, Tongan, Nieuan, and Cook Islands), Micronesian (Fijian), and Asian (Taiwanese, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese) and refugee (Laos, Cambodia, Somalian, Ethiopia, Eritrea, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq) origins.

People who choose to live in New Zealand, starting with the indigenous Maori of Polynesian descent who settled the islands between 1000 and 1200 years ago, leave behind all that is familiar. Australia, New Zealand’s nearest neighbor, is not as close as it looks on a map. The places most Kiwis of all nationalities come from are much farther away, and until recently a trip to New Zealand was a one-way journey for most.

I can tell you with the confidence of first-hand experience that moving such a long distance away is always a risk. It involves substantial unknowns and a tolerance for ambiguity that most people find uncomfortable. Big risks involve a lot of inertia. It takes quite a bit of gumption to take them on, and once you’re committed it’s hard to stop or change course dramatically.

Kiwis are reconciled to the risks inherent in living in a place known as the Shaky Isles. They manage those risks actively by investing in decent building codes and sound insurance practices, including a fund dedicated to managing earthquake risks. These investments will play a significant role in helping those affected by Saturday’s quake and the hundreds of subsequent aftershocks put their lives back together. But it is the other investments they made in policies that prevent poverty and ensured the population was educated and engaged in its own governance that played the biggest role in mitigating the effects experienced so far.

The people of Christchurch have a lot of hard work ahead of them. Police report incidents of domestic violence have increased 53 percent since Saturday, largely as the result of the stresses on families caused by damaged homes and the continued shaking. But people are also helping one another in unprecedented ways. Student volunteers are self-organizing and engaging in “hard labor” helping people clear debris. People are taking in neighbors whose houses are no longer inhabitable. And volunteers from other parts of the country are coming into Christchurch to relieve colleagueswho have been on the go since practically non-stop since  first temblor.

If the experience in Christchurch sounds like it is worth replicating, the path is simple: reduce poverty, create an educated and engaged populace, and move people to recognize the importance of taking care of what they have beginning with the place they call home and everything that makes it special.

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