A FAIR CHANCE FOR ALL? Breaking the Disadvantage Cycle. By Jane Higgins

Kiwis value fairness. It’s commonly held that ‘a fair go’ is a core value of the Kiwi way of life, and that everyone in Aotearoa does have a fair go at getting an education, a job, an income. After all, our state schools don’t charge fees, and the job market is out there waiting. Surely, if people just work hard enough then they can achieve all that they deserve. And if they fail, maybe they didn’t try hard enough.

Some years ago, when I was a university researcher, I was involved in a research project talking to young New Zealanders about their transitions from school to their post-school lives (Nairn et al. 2012). Many of the young people we spoke to were of the opinion that ‘if I don’t succeed, well, that means I didn’t work hard enough.’ (If this sounds different from the oft-cited opinion that young people are ‘too entitled’ and not prepared to put in the hard yards, well, it is.)  The opinion they shared with us, that ‘my success in life is all just down to me,’ was, on one hand, full of hope that they could achieve all they wanted in life, but it also had the potential to become a heavy burden for their own mental wellbeing.

In reality, of course, fairness is a much more complex issue than this view suggests. It’s never just about the individual. For many years, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, government policies stridently promoted a simplistic view of fairness: if people would just take responsibility for themselves, then issues of fairness would be resolved. This amounted to a failure to recognise the systemic barriers that many people face to access education, the job market, an adequate income, and other necessities for wellbeing.

It’s encouraging, therefore, to see a real attempt to come to grips with this complexity at government level in recent times. This year and next, a project of the state agency known as the Productivity Commission aims to look in detail at fairness and disadvantage, and in particular at breaking cycles of persistent disadvantage. The Commission has just completed seeking public submissions on what the Terms of Reference for its inquiry should be, including what research should be undertaken to examine how to overcome persistent disadvantage.

Although the Commission’s main focus will be on productivity for economic development, it has nevertheless produced a really useful consultation document on fairness and persistent disadvantage. It’s called A Fair Chance for All: Breaking the Disadvantage Cycle (NZ Productivity Commission, 2021).

Even though submissions have now closed on what the Terms of Reference for this inquiry should be, the inquiry itself will be held next year, reporting in November 2022, and public input will be sought for that. You can find details at the Productivity Commission’s website www.productivity.govt.nz.

But, the reason I’m interested in looking at the consultation document here is that it describes a powerful framework for thinking about wellbeing. It’s a framework that is wholistic and intergenerational, offering both a profound way of understanding persistent disadvantage, and a strengths-based approach to addressing this. 

The framework is called He Ara Waiora, and was developed, with particular leadership from Hinerangi Raumati, by a government appointed working group looking at fairness in the tax system. The framework’s development has involved extensive engagement with Māori. For full details, take a look at the document co-authored by Sasha McMeeking in the list of references below.

Those familiar with Mason Durie’s model of Te Whare Tapa Whā will find that his model resonates well with He Ara Waiora. Instead of setting out to produce a framework that defines disadvantage, the creators of He Ara Waiora have designed an approach that describes wellbeing.  There is not space here to describe the framework but I will note some of its key elements as these relate to wellbeing and disadvantage, and I encourage readers to seek it out for themselves and give it the attention it deserves.

The Productivity Commission’s consultation document, A Fair Chance for All, highlights in particular four aspects of mana in He Ara Waiora, each of which is important in helping people to thrive.  These are (p.3):

  1. Mana tuku iho: a strong sense of identity and belonging;
  2. Mana tautuutu: people’s participation and connection within their communities including fulfilment of their rights and obligations;
  3. Mana āheinga: people’s capability to decide on their own aspirations and to realise these in their own contexts;
  4. Mana whanake: the power to grow sustainable, intergenerational prosperity, including, but not restricted to, financial resources.

A Fair Chance for All notes that in He Ara Waiora these aspects of mana are embedded within a holistic, intergenerational approach to wellbeing that centres on Wairua (spirit) as the source of wellbeing and that recognises the foundational importance of Te Taiao (the natural world) for all wellbeing.

He Ara Waiora sets out a way of looking at wellbeing through a collective lens and demonstrates the power of this approach for looking at persistent disadvantage (as the Commission’s inquiry will do). The Commission notes that (p.4): ‘the persistent loss of one factor necessary to thrive can erode other factors, trapping people and collectives in a cycle of disadvantage.’ As with the supporting structures of Te Whare Tapa Whā, the loss or diminishment of any one of these aspects of mana can profoundly damage the wellbeing of individuals and the communities in which they live.

A Fair Chance for All is definitely worth reading for those who want to begin to understand He Ara Waiora, and this includes all those interested in policy relating to poverty, inequality and disadvantage in Aotearoa. He Ara Waiora is being used in key government departments, including the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework. Those of us keen to support policies based on wellbeing have, in He Ara Waiora, a powerful tool to advocate for genuine fairness for all.

McMeeking, S., K. Kururangi, & H Kahi, (2019). He Ara Wairoa: Background paper on the development and content of He Ara Wairoa. University of Canterbury.   Available at: https://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10092/17576/FNL%20%20He%20Ara%20Waiora%20 Background%20Paper.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Nairn, K., J. Higgins, & J. Sligo, (2012) Children of Rogernomics: A neoliberal generation leaves school, Otago University Press, Dunedin, NZ.

New Zealand Productivity Commission (2021) A fair chance for all: Breaking the disadvantage cycle. Scoping the Terms of Reference for an inquiry. Available from: www.productivity.govt.nz

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