Maori, identity and socio-economic development

Maori, identity and socio-economic development

By Peter Winsley, July 2016


Maori[i] always wanted to do better economically.  Their ancestors migrated to Aoteoroa for a better life.  Their culture rapidly adapted to new technological and institutional opportunities and circumstances.  From earliest European contact Maori sought trade, technology and new institutions to deliver higher incomes, net worth and economic self-determination at the individual and whanau level.

Maori have failed to reach their full potential, partly due to their initial technological and institutional starting point, and the Crown’s failure, largely in the nineteenth century, to fully implement the Waitangi Treaty.  More recently, Maori suffered from labour market change, from policy settings that created passivity and short-termism, from negative stereotypical attitudes, and from flawed narratives and mind-sets relating to education, incomes and net worth.

For Maori to achieve their full socio-economic potential we need to drive off core time-honoured culture and kaupapa which have historically been instrumental in Maori survival.  We need to reject out-dated and self-defeating cultural behaviours, mind-sets and narratives, and foster those relevant to the modern world.  Policy and institutional settings need to support capability-based approaches to socio-economic development at the individual and whanau level.

Maori have made extraordinary socio-economic gains from early European encounters till now.  However these gains have been in absolute terms, and the relative gaps between Maori and other New Zealanders have not been closed.

Because people compare their status with others, rank status inequality has negative health[ii] and other effects, even within communities with high absolute prosperity.  Inequality and people falling short of their potential also erodes social cohesion and reduces net economic welfare.

It is in New Zealand’s wider interests to ensure Maori achieve their full potential and at as high a socio-economic level as their compatriots.

Why are Maori still disadvantaged?

The starting point for Maori was their socio-economic capabilities and institutions in pre-European times, and the culture and mind-sets that grew up around them.

Human societies evolved largely from hunter-gatherer origins through kinship-based tribalism, shaped by limited resources, technologies, and the property rights and institutions governing them.  Ideas, domesticated animals and plants and technologies moved through trade and exchange.  This was especially between east and west along the Eurasian continent, and through other trade routes[iii].  More isolated parts of the world such as the Antipodes had less access to the resources and ideas underlying higher technological levels.

Romantic images of pre-European Maori life would be ridiculed by those that had to live it.  In pre-European times Maori life was hard and short.  Maori infant mortality was around one third to one fifth, and life expectancy from childhood was around thirty.  Many died from degenerative or malnutrition-related illnesses, and from violence.

Through accidents of geography and history Maori had a stone age, oral culture lacking metallurgy, pottery, and the key domesticated crop and animal species available in more technologically-privileged societies.  Bracken fern-root, which is essentially unpalatable became a staple food for survival.  One can only marvel at Maori ingenuity in surviving with so few plant and animal resources and at low technological levels.  Maori endured, and created oral culture and artefacts that testified to their resilience, sustained them culturally, and passed on heritage to the modern world.

Maori development in the nineteenth century was impeded by the Crown failing to implement the Waitangi Treaty in a fair and timely way.  The Treaty is New Zealand’s founding document as a British colony[iv].  It has been a connecting thread within a wider Maori narrative.  This focused on economic self-determination (tino rangitiratanga) at the individual, whanau and collective level.  This involved defending property rights, while also acquiring European technology and institutions.  This concern for economic outcomes was common to all major nineteenth century Maori spiritual, cultural and political leaders.

The Treaty constitutes a Preamble and three Articles.  The Preamble expresses a need for strong government[v] and rule of law, acknowledges immigration and contemplates more.

Article One transfers sovereignty or kawanatanga[vi] (governance) to the British Crown.  Crown sovereignty is exhaustive and indivisible.

Article Two protects Maori property rights at the individual as well as collective level, effectively extending Magna Carta and English common law rights to Maori.  It limits chiefly power by referring to individuals and families, not just chiefs[vii].

Article Three extends to Maori the citizenship rights and obligations of Crown subjects.  It establishes a non-discrimination principle that implies Maori will not be subject to laws that do not apply to non-Maori, and the inverse.  This principle was often not honoured by the Crown.

The Treaty of Waitangi created an equal partnership between Maori and other New Zealanders, not an equal partnership between Maori and the Crown.  All New Zealanders were made subjects of the Crown, with equal rights and privileges.  The Treaty is therefore an open rather than a closed institution, and colour-blind in its universality.

Nineteenth century Treaty breaches largely involved the Crown not being strong enough in preventing conflict between different Maori groups[viii] and Maori not being treated the same as other British subjects.  The Crown also failed to fully enforce Article Two Magna Carta and common law rights, and it engaged in or facilitated unfair or fraudulent land confiscations and sales.

Early conflict between Maori and Pakeha reflected largely cultural and institutional differences and misunderstanding.  Racism damaged Maori from earliest times.  However, it was diluted by high inter-marriage rates, Enlightenment philosophy, education, open Christian institutions, and the gradual emergence of a shared national identity.

Nevertheless, generations of Maori had to put up with subtle or direct insults, stereotypical attitudes, neglect or suppression of culture and language, and patronising and sometimes blatantly racist attitudes.  This does not however explain enduring socio-economic under-performance.  Asian and other minorities have been subject to worse racism than Maori and yet often do better than both Maori and Pakeha.  This suggests a critical role for cultural and family mind-sets as they relate to education and to individual and family advancement.

Maori were affected negatively by some technological and labour market changes.  In the boom times from the end of World War Two to the late 1960s regulation and labour market dynamics compressed wage and salary differentials.  This was egalitarian, however it weakened incentives for higher education[ix] and reduced New Zealand’s microeconomic flexibility and therefore its productivity.

High Maori birth cohorts from the 1950s and 60s[x] meant young people entered the labour market in the 1970s and 80s as conditions were becoming unfavourable to blue collar workers in fields such as manufacturing, meat processing and transportation.  The labour market began to favour the services sector and more highly educated workers.  This made it difficult for young Maori to secure well-paid jobs, start families, and to become home owners.

The lack of male breadwinners who earned enough to support a family led to solo mothers leading households.  Social welfare created passive welfare dependency and made it financially more attractive for poorly educated females to have children supported by the state than to enter the workforce.

Maori socio-economic disadvantage reflected largely problems of social class rather than race or ethnicity.  Research[xi] suggests the mind has modules that recognise cues of possible coalitional relationships, however there are no innate mental modules for race as a discrete coalitional marker.  Race is highly visible but substantively minimal in determining meaningful differences[xii] between people or groups.  Likewise, human psychological universals overwhelm cultural differences.

However, group identity is shaped by how others react to what is visible (even if it is superficial), and how this influences self-identity.  The high salience of Maori identity and the lower salience of class disadvantage led to some diagnosing of race and ethnicity, or the stereotypical attitudes that it triggered, as being causative of poverty.  Some saw cultural revival[xiii] as a solution, some as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

From the 1980s much effort was put into cultural solutions to socio-economic problems.  This involved Maori-centred educational initiatives, devolution of services to Maori providers, Te Reo[xiv] and advocacy of biculturalism.  Such initiatives created new businesses and public service careers based on cultural service, boosted Maori pride[xv], made New Zealand more responsive to Maori, and fostered Maori institutions with deep community linkages.

However, these initiatives sat uneasily with an increasingly multi-cultural and internationalised New Zealand, and diverted resources away from employment, higher education and net worth objectives and the mind-sets needed to fulfil them.

What should we do from now on?

New Zealand has much of the conditions in place for Maori and other New Zealanders to reach their full socio-economic potential.  These include strong and inclusive government and rule of law, and a market and trade betterment-based economy.  New Zealand has effective property rights, civil and political rights, macroeconomic stability and microeconomic flexibility.  It has well-developed civil society.

Given the above, we need to:

Recognise that core Maori culture supports high socio-economic outcomes

Modern cultural-related initiatives have had mixed effects on Maori and may have kept alive tikanga and mindsets that are irrelevant[xvi] and in some cases harmful[xvii].   However, core aspects of time-honoured Maori cultural identity are consistent with the highest socio-economic outcomes and need to be affirmed.  These include:

A willingness to move to where the opportunities are

People’s destinies are shaped, though not always determined by accidents of birth. Maori ancestral migrations came through Asia and the Pacific to New Zealand, probably to escape over-population, resource scarcity and conflict.  This migration is at the heart of Maori history and identity.  Maori moved throughout New Zealand, and later on rapidly seized opportunities arising from modern technology, institutions and urbanisation.

This culture of moving to where the opportunities are predates and will outlive narrow place-based indigenous[xviii] identity, turangawaewae, mana whenua and tangata whenua concepts.  Post World War Two urbanisation dramatically improved Maori well-being through better education, housing, employment and healthcare.  In parallel there were high rates of inter-marriage.  Inter-marriage transferred new ideas, mind-sets and human capital to Maori through horizontal transmission of knowledge, and this led to dramatically improved education and economic outcomes.

Rising education and socio-economic levels came at some cost to Maori cultural identity and language.  Socio-economic advances from the 1920s on to the 1980s were strongly correlated with the decline of the Maori language and traditional culture.

People need to move to where the opportunities are rather than be confined to arbitrary place-based identities.  However, strong kinship ties can weaken social and geographic mobility.  Many Maori still live in rural and provincial areas that lack rich labour markets and higher educational institutions.  They lack visible role models who can demonstrate what is possible in life.

Narrow, place-based interventions often fail and it is better to facilitate people moving to where the educational and career opportunities are[xix].  This is mandated by Maori history, practice and narrative, and is not in conflict with it.

Cultural adaptiveness

Culture is a product of available resources, knowledge, property rights, and stages of social organisation.  It evolves to achieve practical purposes, such as resource allocation, sustainability, food safety, conflict resolution, and to maintain social harmony.  As circumstances change, culture needs to adapt.

Customs often emerge in response to observed past behaviours that are stable over time.  In tribal societies technological change is slow or non-existent, and customary practice and dependence on elders’ views is critical.  Elders may be repositories of traditional knowledge.  Deference to their memories of past food-gathering or ecological events is valuable in stable technological environments.  In a rapidly changing environment it can become maladaptive.

In pre-European times, high effort-independent variance and lack of banking and other institutions meant Maori struggled to accumulate savings.  This encouraged a culture of living for today and sharing of surpluses to create future return for remembered favours[xx].  Koha is a form of saving in that it psychologically stores claims for future reciprocity.  Kin-based sharing and reciprocal altruism leads to short-term consumption[xxi] rather than individualised and whanau-level education and investment in the future.

However, Maori adapted their culture and customs flexibly in response to the impacts of European engagement.  Maori used rahui and tapu to protect resources and restrict trade.  Cultural behaviours were therefore valued for their practical functionality, and adapted as circumstances changed.  Maori culture is therefore dynamic and adaptive not static.  It must be allowed to evolve as circumstances change.

Hunger for learning, trade, new ideas, technology and institutions

Learning and the institutions that support it can be conceived simplistically as open and horizontal, or as closed and vertical in nature.  Open institutions learn from others and are open to all.  A closed institution has exclusive membership based on discrete characteristics such as race, ethnicity or gender.

Horizontal learning is open to new ideas, pluralistic, contested, and from internationalised and non-kin sources.  Vertical learning is more closed within cultural or kin-based groups and may be narrowly transmitted through families.[xxii]

For socio-economic advancement, institutions should be open and ideas horizontal and international.  This also means intellectual and cultural heritage will be validated, passed on and enlivened, and that which is invalidated will be forgotten.

At the time of the first European encounters, Maori were behind European technological and institutional levels, which had origins in Middle Eastern, Greek, Roman and Asian knowledge communicated through trade routes across cultures and through time periods.

However Maori were thirsty for knowledge and technology and were fast learners.  Early European observers such as Marsden spoke highly of Maori intellect.  Thousands of Maori were literate as early as the 1850s, at a time when many Pakeha were illiterate.  European engagement meant that horizontal learning from international outsiders and strangers supplanted much traditional learning passed down vertically through kin.

Maori engaged with Christianity because of its openness[xxiii] to them and its association with missionary school education.  They actively competed to attract missionary stations to access European knowledge, literacy and technology.  Churches and schools became tapu and were protected even during conflicts.

Maori rapidly picked up market opportunities created by European technologies and trade contacts.  Rawiri Taiwhanga, of Nga Puhi was believed to be New Zealand’s first dairy farmer in the 1830s.  Maori adopted new ship-building techniques.  In 1848 Tamati Waka Nene ordered flour-milling machinery from Sydney – leading edge technology for the time.  Competing missionaries plying the Wanganui river were played off against each other with promises of “souls for flourmills”.

A core driver of learning was inter-marriage.  Inter-marriage created a richer set of ideas, opportunities and social mores from which Maori and part-Maori could choose[xxiv].  Learning from other cultures was the key kaupapa of top Maori leaders from early engagement.

Over time, Maori had to adapt their cultural belief systems to the European world, and decide what to retain and discard.  The Young Maori Party was established by ex-students of Te Aute college from around 1902, evolving from the Te Aute Students’ Association established in 1897.  It was made up of elite Maori who had European-style education to New Zealand’s highest standards of the time.  It included Apirana Ngata, James Carroll, Maui Pomare, Paraire Tomoana and Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck).

The Young Maori Party promoted Maori health, education and advancement.  This they saw coming mainly from western-style education and practices.  Party members supported Maori Parliamentarians such as James Carroll (Timi Kara) and Wi Pere in pushing through the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907.  However Ngata, Tomoana and others also emphasised cultural revival and Maori pride, while getting the best out of the wider world.

Strong concern with property rights

Maori always had a strong concern with private as well as collective property rights.  In pre-European times Maori property was individual (personal tools and effects), communal (a capital-intensive meeting house or large canoe) or tribal (tribal boundaries).   Property was inherited, with ohaki being a public statement of someone about to die, disposing of property.  There were associations between the ownership of things and who provided the labour input into them.

In 1847, George Grey wrote of Maori that there were no people in the world “more sensitive upon the subject of money matters, or the disposal of their property”.  Tellingly, most Treaty of Waitangi claims have been property rights disputes.

In common with other tribal societies, Maori land ownership was communal in nature.  Communal property rights develop for land where there is low value of output per unit, highly variable resources, low returns from intensive investment, and large economies of scale in use and in infrastructure.  These conditions often coincide with low technological levels, lack of accumulation and specialisation, and with tribal social organisation.

Communal rights can be economically efficient where there are resources that are difficult to individualise because of their diffuse spatial distribution, mobility, seasonality or sustainability constraints.  However, economically effective property rights require clarity of title, excludability, tradability, ability to be represented in an abstract form, and integration into a transaction cost efficient information system.

This typically means that individualised private property rights are more economically productive than communal ones.  Some Maori communal assets are now dead assets partly because they are weakly titled and so cannot be leveraged.

However, Maori historical focus on avoiding communal land alienation partly reflected the instinct that inalienable land can convey net worth, not just income, that it survives individual transience and is associated with intergenerational group identity.  Nevertheless, for Maori to fulfil their potential in today’s economic environment their property rights focus must be on individual and whanau-level net worth rather than communal property.

What is also critical for Maori is that net worth[xxv] should be transferred vertically to individuals and families and to future generations[xxvi].


In pre-European times rangitira (at the hapu and whanau level) and ariki (at the iwi level) had responsibility for governance, keeping the peace, protecting hapu or iwi property and resources, and providing social welfare functions.  Excessive accumulation was punished by muru, or pillage – a form of forced redistribution.  Chiefly power was contingent on their meeting their obligations.  Maori culture did not mandate chiefs capturing hapu or iwi assets for their own use.

Maori society was therefore deeply equalitarian, and Maori were (and still are) highly sensitive to even slight differences in rank status between individuals[xxvii].  Pakeha settlers were escaping from Britain’s class system and had a strong egalitarian ethos.  These forces have helped shape New Zealand’s deep egalitarian culture.

Egalitarianism implies minimising socio-economic differences between groups and individuals, consistent with rewards for effort that create good incentives.  It assumes that relative as well as absolute incomes and net worth matter.

Policy neutrality between Maori and other New Zealanders, or assuming that we are all just “one New Zealanders” will not close the socio-economic gaps.  Analysis of inequality in developed countries shows that when the return on capital exceeds the rate of economic growth, inequality rises[xxviii].  The low net worth of Maori individuals and households is therefore a severe disadvantage that could well be compounded in a time of declining housing affordability.

Maori relative disadvantage has been associated with, and can often be subsumed within wider sociological factors.  However, even when other variables are accounted for, Maori identity is an independent variable associated with negative outcomes such as high crime and incarceration rates.  Therefore, broad-based policies addressing socio-economic disadvantage affecting all ethnic groups will not close the gaps between Maori and their compatriots.

Closing the socio-economic gaps between Maori and others will require disproportionately large investments in capability development for Maori.  This investment would not be for Treaty of Waitangi or cultural reasons but for New Zealand’s socio-economic development and for the self-interest of New Zealanders as a whole. Given the relative youth of the Maori population, investment in education will lead to correspondingly higher returns[xxix] over the lifecycle, while enhancing egalitarianism.

Multi-generational collective identity

People seek to connect to cultural narratives involving a past, shared values, behaviours and mind-sets.  These collectively allow individuals to transcend their ephemeral existence and see themselves as part of something wider and more enduring than themselves[xxx].  Multi-generational narratives also pass on valuable heritage to future generations, for example taonga such as artworks, music and literature.

Collective narratives can be positive or negative.  They can be as toxic as Nazism or ISIS, or as rich in universal humanism and intellectual achievement as those of ancient Greece or of modern European and American Judaism.  Lack of positive cultural narratives creates vacuums that can be filled by inertia, by drugs that suppress consciousness, or by negative, identity-based in-groups hostile to out-groups.

Moreover, positive narratives can foster what people want to live for, as well as how they make a living.  Maori have a sense of belonging to something wider than the individual.  This includes recognition of inter-generational property, cultural heritage,  whakapapa, war history, patriotism, faith in the Waitangi Treaty, cultural and linguistic revival and connections with the natural environment.

Intergenerational communitarian identity can be consistent with high individualised achievement.  Minority groups such as some Jewish, Sikh, Lebanese, Chinese and Gujaratis communities have harmonised distinctive cultural identity with high intellectual, economic and business achievement valued and rewarded in open and internationalised rather than in-group environments.

Maori are increasingly achieving across more intellectual and international business fields, and weaving these new strands of achievement into their multi-generational collective narrative.

Foster a whakapapa of the mind

Without written language, oral history prevailed in traditional Maori society.  Whakapapa reflected kinship relationships and also provided a memorisation structure to transmit environmental, property rights and other knowledge.

However, there are conceptual problems with defining any group of people in bloodline whakapapa terms.  Everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and so on into deep evolutionary history.  This means every individual has over a billion ancestors, with some being ancestors several times over.  This leads to rapid dilution over the generations in the importance of any one ancestor to an individual’s genetic inheritance and identity.

Furthermore, Maori culture was never rigidly bloodline-based.  It sometimes supported meritocracy unrelated to bloodline[xxxi], reflecting at least some recognition of achieved rather than ascribed status.  In Maori culture, incapable ariki “would be set aside in practical affairs, and only called upon to perform certain religious rites”[xxxii].

In the same way that consanguinity can lead to health problems in isolated populations, inward-looking kin-based cultures can cut themselves off from new learning from others.  Kinship-based tribal identities are closed.  In their most inward-looking manifestations parents and extended family pass on narrow mind-sets to their children, rather than casting a wide intellectual net and learning internationally, from other cultures, and from universal human intellectual and cultural heritage.

The most powerful and efficient means of transmitting knowledge and culture is through the horizontal interchange of ideas and learning.  This requires connections to people who know something you don’t.  The more people you interact with and the more pluralism, ideas and perspectives, the better the outcomes[xxxiii].

Maori identity has been progressively reframed by inter-marriage and higher educational levels, and redefined for legal and statistical purposes.  Now any amount of Maori blood entitles people to “feel Maori.”  In every generation, inter-marriage enriches whakapapa links to a more open society and humanistic world.  Almost all New Zealand-born people will have some Maori blood within a few generations, as well as links to other cultures and to open society more generally.

Maori are now embracing a more internationalised rather than parochial whakapapa of the mind.  This is driven by information technology, movement of people and inter-marriage.  Maori socio-economic development now requires that a whakapapa of the mind must prevail over a bloodline whakapapa.

Foster multiple identities and matching identity to the right content

People have multiple identities[xxxiv] and different identities will prevail in different contexts.  The right identity has to be matched to the right context (a surgeon who is also a rugby player, juggler, lay preacher and jazz musician must only be a surgeon in the operating theatre).  The mix of identities an individual embodies will shape their ability to see themselves in others.  President Obama governed for all Americans, not one ethnic group.  However, his black American identity gave him affinity with minority groups, while still acting for all.

Everyone is at the centre of a unique web of valuations that does not exactly duplicate anyone else’s.  For this reason, Maori or any other specific identity can be seen as just one of many identities that overlap with others’ multiple identities.

Maori identity may be of different significance to Maori of similar bloodline ancestry, depending on relative economic and psychological incentives.  It may appear of different salience and relevance, depending on varying professional, sporting, recreational, avocational, family, religious, political and other contexts.

Understanding which of one’s multiple identities is most critical in a particular context leads to positive socio-economic and wider life outcomes[xxxv].  Some advocate a Maori-centred and closed view of identity leading to a “Maori achieving as Maori”[xxxvi] kaupapa[xxxvii].  This can build pride and be a partial defence against stereotypical threat and cultural stigmatisation.  It is consistent with multiple identities if Maori identity is matched to the right and relevant context.  However, if any one dominant group identity overrides the ability to match the right identity to the right context it can lead to bad outcomes[xxxviii].

Promote cultural narratives that support top socio-economic outcomes

Cultural identity and narrative can foster mind-sets and behaviours consistent with positive socio-economic outcomes.  Positive identity is typically not narrowly ethnic or race-based and can involve any group identity that gives people values and life directions, consistent with better socio-economic outcomes.

Some research[xxxix] suggests that, compared to non-Maori, Maori are more likely to have beliefs inconsistent with economic prosperity.  These include belief that a better life is due more to luck than hard work, that Government is doing too little, that business should not be run solely by the owners and stakeholder models are preferable, and that the environment should be given more priority over the economy.  These beliefs, together with collectivism and kinship ties are argued by some to have constrained Maori economically.

Some Maori may well have a greater propensity for non-market goods such as cultural and recreational activities.  However, this may result from social class rather than ethnicity.  An ethic of short-term sharing among kin and fatalism about the future impede Maori economic development.  However, businesses run along stakeholder lines can succeed, and sustainable development approaches can harmonise environmental and economic objectives[xl].

A positive cultural narrative must be placed within an internationalised and humanistic frame, however it can encompass the Treaty of Waitangi, nation-state identity and multi-culturalism.[xli] Patriotism does not need to be the last refuge of scoundrels.  It can reflect mutual liking between people who interact a lot, who inter-marry and share a common destiny.

A shared New Zealand national life requires more than tolerance.  It requires admiration, whether for Maori film, folksong and language, for kapa haka, the emotional power of tangi, open marae, or simply for individuals.  Maori television is widely enjoyed by non-Maori, including for its commitment to long-term cultural and historical heritages which are not supported by mainstream media.  Educated Pakeha increasingly use Maori expressions such as ‘arohanui’ and ‘kia kaha’ to express profound emotions ineffable in English.

Maori pride in artistic, musical, film-making and sporting achievement can become pride in New Zealand’s wider achievements.

Challenge damaging cultural behaviours and mind-sets

Some past cultural behaviours may now be damaging.  In early times children were adopted out to relatives (whangai) to overcome straitened whanau resources.  In modern times such extended whanau and caregiver relationships[xlii] can confuse parental accountability and make children vulnerable.  This is not a trivial matter to be glossed over to be “culturally sensitive”[xliii].  Placing vulnerable Maori children in the care of whanau or other kin can lead to higher abuse rates than those released into the care of non-kin.

The exacerbation of cultural distinctiveness can amplify the differences and mask much more significant commonalities.  It leads to issues being addressed as ethnic rather than socio-economic and humanist in nature.  This leads to cultural content as a solution to problems which are socio-economic in nature.  This however compounds closed rather than open mind-sets and institutions, reduces exposure to new ideas and learning, and exacerbates socio-economic inequality.

Different cultural groups achieve different socio-economic outcomes even when faced with the same external circumstances.  This is associated with mind-sets rather than ethnicity as such.  Low socio-economic well-being can, for example, be influenced by identity-based “cultural storylines” that poor outcomes are the result of others’ actions, not of the individuals themselves

Maori were rightly aggrieved with Treaty breaches, and the government has responded to them.  Settlement of historical Treaty claims is largely about justice, and to some extent about re-distribution.  Settlements also reduce grievances and encourage people to focus on the future.  Substantial Treaty settlements are being invested in productive enterprises and education.  They are also fostering the growth of Maori institutions that can be leveraged off.

However, some parties have an interest in perpetuating grievances and constructing new ones[xliv].  There are risks in a psychology where people feel that “others” or “history” are limiting what they can achieve.  This reduces the incentives for the education, labour market performance, asset creation and business entrepreneurship that can create new wealth, and instead focuses people on lobbying or litigation.

Cultural attitudes are changing positively.  More and more Maori want to be judged by their professional or other performance in their field, not typecast as narrowly and stereotypically “Maori”[xlv].  Many are uneasy with the faith they are asked to have in cultural identity-based solutions.  Criticism of canons of this faith can trigger hyperbolic over-reactions.  These might be triggered by concern that such criticisms can mask prejudiced attitudes.  They might also suggest there is little substance in the canon or the alleged “cultural offence” against it, and people must be discouraged from scrutinising it too closely.

Work with Maori institutions to support better outcomes

Every developed country has unique institutions that reflect historical contingencies and path dependencies rather than textbook economic models.  Maori institutions such as iwi collectives have connections with and can influence people it is hard for government to reach.  Some ban alcohol, drugs, smoking and gangs from their recreational and cultural events, and this supports positive behavioural change.

Maori collectives manage some large scale and long term investment funds.  This is important in an economy with thin capital markets and short-term investment horizons.  Some collectives promote individualised savings schemes, such as Ngai Tahu’s Whai Rawa scheme.

Other initiatives could be explored to permit individual investment aligned to collective structures.  Examples include A share and B share structures and initiatives akin to Fonterra’s Shareholder Fund.   Maori institutions can therefore be leveraged off for social and economic development, including at the individual and whanau level.

Promote Maori capability development

Tribal social organisation worked in the past, but not in modern times.  Adam Smith’s insight was that self-interest (rather than selfishness) within complex and impersonal markets leads to labour specialisation and economic growth benefiting society as a whole.  However if people’s psychology is still influenced by tribalism their self-interest may be constrained by cultural, kinship or relational loyalties.  This causes disadvantage in modern economies with different rules.

The focus for Maori development must start with the individual.  Individuals are the ultimate unit of moral concern.  They exist in a social and cultural context, but intervention must be evaluated in terms of effects on individuals.  The social group, such as the hapu and whanau cannot be the ultimate unit to engage with as it masks inequalities within these groups, for example in relation to the status of women.

Mind-sets must now turn to capability development and socio-economic outcomes at the individual and whanau level.  This must be the driving kaupapa of the Maori and the wider New Zealand narrative, however it requires supportive social and economic policy settings.

Social welfare that subsidises consumption keeps people in poverty, while investment in capability development gives them the educational and other tools to rise out of it.  Passive dependency conflicts with traditional Maori culture.  Maori proverbs and sayings valued hard workers and despised the lazy.  There was strong social stigma against infidelity, and against people not supporting their families. 

New Zealand’s existing social policy settings contrast, for example, with those of Singapore.  Singapore made individuals responsible for their own and their children’s well-being, while the state invested in capability development and net worth creation.  It invested heavily in educational, home ownership and savings-based financial asset capabilities and avoided consumption-based “welfare”.  It thereby stopped a passive underclass developing.

Singapore’s policies are paternalistic in recognizing that people’s self-regulation needs external support and “ties that bind”, such as compulsory savings.  They are supported by a culture of high savings, strong families, individual aspiration, self-regulation and respect for authority.  Such policies could take root in New Zealand if they were recast in our own cultural terms, which might include a healthy scepticism for excessively hierarchal authority.

In New Zealand today, the disadvantaged are not Maori as a whole but a subset with poor education, within certain age groups, living in certain places and with particular mind-sets.  Better data, and Maori institutions with deep community connections will increasingly enable resources to be targeted more effectively.

The key investment target must be Maori capability development through high level education focusing on career achievement, individualised incomes, ability to adapt to change, and high net worth.

Maori failure to achieve must not be misdiagnosed as a cultural malaise and be “treated” with cultural activities or sport.  We must not be confused between making people feel culturally comfortable in education (and using culture as “hooks” into education), and culture being the content of what is taught[xlvi].

What is required is not inward-looking cultural content but maths, science, advanced IT, English, and major international languages taught by open society educationalists[xlvii].

Strong affirmative investment is also needed, for example through scholarships and additional student support.  This is especially important in highly-rewarded professions, and where there is tight regulation, limited entry, and often challenges in navigating educational and professional pathways.

Such investment in education, and in wider capability development with a strong net worth focus are the only ways to achieve fairness and allow people to reach their full potential.  Maori must not be passive, and must self-author their lives in an active and self-determining way.  This will see tino rangitiratanga made manifest at the individual and household level.  It will benefit all New Zealanders over the longer term socio-economically, and through a more integrated, cohesive and open society collective narrative, with more and more authors sharing the pen.


[i] ‘Maori’ in this paper refers to those who self-identify as Maori, and to their pre-European ancestors.  ‘Maori’ historically meant ‘ordinary’ and only took on its modern meaning from the early 19th century in counterpoint to non-Maori ethnicities.  Different protocols influence who is categorised as Maori for statistical purposes.  Maori identity is also fluid and responds to economic and psychological incentives.  See Chapple, 2000.

[ii] See Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009.

[iii] See Diamond, J. 1997.

[iv] The New Zealand Constitution Act 1986 marks the point at which the Crown, after a long and incremental evolution, was finally stripped of all but a symbolic or procedural role. The Constitution Act is therefore New Zealand’s founding document as an independent parliamentary democracy.

[v] The absence of strong government underlies current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, triggering refugee crises that are challenging immigration policy frameworks in Europe and elsewhere.  The benefits of strong government are often taken for granted, until it is absent.

[vi] Kawantanga was translated as “governorship” in early Bible translations available to Maori in the late 1830s.  By 1840 hundreds of Maori had visited New South Wales and would have observed how powerful Crown governors were.  Some had also visited Britain and observed Crown power.

[vii] Rangitira were heads of households or hapu rather than powerful ariki or chiefs leading iwi.  Over 500 of them signed the Waitangi Treaty.   Tino rangitiratanga in the Treaty is about self-determination at the individual, household and hapu more than the iwi level.  Article Two protects individuals from chiefly or tribal dominance as well as from rapacious settler land buyers.  It was influenced by memories of the social devastation Scottish “chiefs” caused during the Highland enclosures.

[viii] This was a factor in the emergence of the Kingitanga movement.

[ix] Tertiary education expanded dramatically in the post-World War Two period, however most Maori at this time lacked tertiary-educated whanau and peer group role models.  Their family structures were also being disrupted by move to the cities, labour market and social change.

[x] Maori gangs emerged in the 1960s, a time of full employment and prosperity.  Their emergence suggests not poverty but absence of a positive social narrative for young Maori living in urban areas in which they felt isolated.

[xi] Kurzban et al, 2001.

[xii] It is important to acknowledge that racial classification can be important in health and medical diagnosis.  Morphology and skin colour have implications for health, and the genetics underlying some diseases and allergenic risks are disproportionately present in some racial groups.

[xiii] Many countries, ethnic and religious groups have promoted cultural revival in response to socio-economic challenges.  These range from the benevolence of the European Renaissance and the nineteenth century Danish folk high school movement to the malevolence of 1930s Germany.  The lesson may be that cultural revival is positive when it is open and humanistic and negative when it is closed and xenophobic.

[xiv] Kohanga Reo began in 1982 and Kura Kaupapa schools from 1985.

[xv] Benefits included Te Reo revival, vast historical scholarship, the revitalisation of interest in Maori poetry and song from Rihi Puhiwahine Te Rangihirawea through to modern popular music, and film-making achievement of international renown.

[xvi] Peter Drucker argued that business processes should be regularly put on “trial for their lives” to see if they are still needed.  Such an approach could well be taken with customs that no longer appear logical and relevant.

[xvii] Examples include restrictions on women speaking on some marae, and bans on women tradespeople working at night on some “culturally sensitive” buildings.

[xviii] Indigenous means “of or belonging to a place”.  There are Pakeha and Asian New Zealanders who have had multi-generational connections with, and are indigenous to specific places in New Zealand.  Conversely, there are Maori born in Australia who have never visited New Zealand.

[xix] As Gorky wrote, “people are not trees; we are not supposed to lead all our lives on the one spot”.

[xx] In contrast, small business owners in communities dominated by tribal or indigenous populations are often of minority ethnicities such as Asian.  They are free from local community demands for insecure credit, gift-giving, reciprocal altruism and other social claims inconsistent with longer term accumulation and well-being.

[xxi] Coleman et al (2005) reported nineteenth century accounts of a low thrift and savings culture among Maori.  However, this might have reflected the Crown’s depredations and the distrust it created in banks and other savings-related institutions as well as, or rather than cultural factors.  A Maori saying in the 1850s was “out of debt is out of trouble”.

[xxii] See Zakharenko, 2016.

[xxiii] Christianity began as a Jewish sect which, unlike its Jewish spiritual competitors, was open to Gentiles, women and other outsiders.  Later in its development, Augustine’s culture of openness won out over Donatist and other competing factions that were exclusive.  Christianity created a moral foundation of openness to other cultural and ethnic groups.  Europeans then promoted Christianity through exploration and colonisation.  Christianity also co-opted from other cultures, for example secular karakia became a basis for Christian prayers, reflecting two way cultural learning.

[xxiv] This suggests a hypothesis that Maori who intermarry with non-Pakeha ethnic minorities may do even better since they access and can draw the best from three different cultures: Pakeha, Maori and a third ethnicity that comes with its own knowledge base, insights and mind-sets.

[xxv] The transfers of net worth in the form of, for example, home ownership and business equity stakes to children and grandchildren is critical to breaking out of inter-generational poverty.  This has to be at the individual and whanau rather than communal level.  This is because individual rights in communal resources are diluted in every generation, and communal property rights are not geared to individual and whanau development.

[xxvi] These arguments resonate with Keynes’ view that ideas should be international and capital should be local.

[xxvii] It is possible this leads to over-stratification, and over-reaction to micro-cues of perceived status differences that are not in fact very material.

[xxviii] See Piketty, 2014.

[xxix] These returns would include higher labour market participation, economy-wide productivity gains and avoided costs through lower crime and reduced benefit dependency.

[xxx] This is associated with “terror management theory” in sociology.

[xxxi] For example, Te Rauparaha was not of the highest bloodline rank but rose to Ngati Toa leadership on his merits.

[xxxii] See Grimes et al, 2015.

[xxxiii] The Controller and Auditor-General (2016) noted that Maori school achievement was lower in schools with higher proportions of Maori students, and that smaller schools do worse for Maori.

[xxxiv] See Sen, 2006.

[xxxv] It is fine to be incompetent in juggling and excellent in the surgical theatre, but not the other way round.

[xxxvi] Top New Zealand business leaders such as Rod Drury and Rob McLeod have Maori ancestry, however they do not noticeably promote “Maori succeeding as Maori” as integral to their commercial achievements.

[xxxvii] The Controller and Auditor-General (2016) notes that achieving as Maori means different things to different people.  This does not suggest a credible kaupapa, if taken in isolation from an open society, multiple identities framework.

[xxxviii] Some cultural markers can impede the ability to match identities to different contexts.  For example, indelible and visible tattoos can be commitment devices that imply one identity dominates over others.  They can materially harm job prospects in some parts of the world.

[xxxix] Grimes et al, 2015.

[xl] See MAF, 2007.

[xli] For example, Singapore’s economy has been established largely through Chinese, Indian and Malay immigrants working within what began as a British colonial institutional framework, and with a common economic vision that has co-existed with multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism.

[xlii] It is important to acknowledge, with admiration and humility, the great love and care present in many Maori extended whanau that have taken responsibility for grandchildren, adopted children, or picked up vulnerable people who would otherwise be poorly cared for.

[xliii] Silence on some matters may be a sign not of “cultural sensitivity” but of weak character.

[xliv] Treaty processes can blame the Crown for bad outcomes that really result from factors such as poor attitudes to education.  They can also create the fiscal illusion that there is remote entity (“the Crown”) that can deliver settlements that do not impose costs on New Zealanders, such as on low income taxpayers.

[xlv] An example is Maori succeeding in highly individualistic sports, academic and professional fields, breaking down stereotypes that Maori are better at team sports and group learning.

[xlvi] Lourie & Rata, 2014 argue that the “cultural solution” is in fact a cause of Maori educational under-achievement.

[xlvii] Many of whom will have Maori among their identities.




Chapple, S. 2000: Maori socio-economic disparity. Paper for the Ministry of Social Policy. Labour Market Policy Group, Department of Labour.

Coleman, A et al 2005: Maori economic development – Glimpses from statistical sources. Motu Working Paper 05-13.  Motu Economic and Public Policy Research.

Controller and Auditor-General 2016: Education for Maori: Using information to improve Maori educational success.  Wellington, Controller and Auditor-General.

Diamond, J.1997: Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies.  Norton & Co, New York.

Grimes, A.; MacCulloch, R.; McKay, F. 2015: Indigenous Belief in a Just World: New Zealand Maori and other Ethnicities Compared. Motu Working paper 15-14. Motu Economic and Public Policy Research,

Kurzban, R.; Tooby, J.; Cosmides, L. 2001: Can race be erased?  Coalitional computation and social categorization. PNAS Vol. 98, No. 26.5387-15392.

Lourie, M.; Rata, E. 2014: A critique of the role of culture in Maori education.  British Journal of Sociology of Education.  Vol. 35, No. 1, 19-36.

MAF, 2007: Sustainable Development Framework for New Zealand Agriculture and Forestry.  Agriculture and Forestry Perspectives 1.  Wellington, MAF.

Piketty, T. 2014: Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press.

Sen A. 2006: Identity and violence.  New York, W W Norton Books.

Wilkinson, R. Pickett, K. 2009: Spirit Level.  Why more equal societies almost always do better.  London, Allen Lane.

Zakharenko, R. 2016: Mathematical Social Sciences 2016 No. 80, 58-64.




About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
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2 Responses to Maori, identity and socio-economic development

  1. David Lillis says:

    A very thoughtful piece – Peter. No easy solutions for minorities in any part of the modern world who have faced discrimination or who find themselves a disadvantaged minority in what was originally their own land. We have the same cycle of educational and economic underperformance among Australian Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, among African Americans and Hispanics in the US and, more recently, among migrants into Western Europe. In each case we have many and diverse historic, cultural, social, and economic issues that are interwoven and impossible to disentangle, except over the long term, and then only if we have the good will of all people.

    I think that you are correct to identify socio-economics as a primary agent of underperformance, both in education and in the workforce. As a statistician who once worked in education, I can conform that rudimentary studies (including my own) that relate ethnicity and socio-economic factors (on one hand) with educational performance (on the other hand) suggest that socio-economic level (rather than ethnicity per se) is the main predictor of educational performance at junior, secondary and tertiary levels. If Maori and Pacific people are over-represented in low-socio-economic strata, then lower educational outcomes for them should not be a surprise because often they lack the financial, emotional and other resources that are necessary for success. That is not to say that cultural factors do not play a part. Even a person who is not Maori or Pacific, and who cannot see the world through a Maori or Pacific lens, could imagine how people who have a strong sense of Whanau and community might find the modern, competitive working world alienating and distasteful. Of course, low educational performance of a group leads surely to low performance in the labour market – and so the cycle continues.

    Perhaps it is true that New Zealand suffers from lower levels of entrenched racism than is to be found in other countries. Tensions in other countries often are two-way and have multiple origins and causes. For example, Muslim migrants into Europe face enormous problems in integrating into societies that are alien to them, and some face genuine discrimination. But how would a generous country such as Sweden, or even Germany, accommodate, educate and provide jobs for such huge numbers of migrants at short notice? As we know, a proportion of those migrants behave in ways that stir up fear and resentment, and that reflect poorly on immigrants as a whole. Unfortunately, Europe’s present difficulties are there for the long run and it may take several generations for the current problems to be resolved. New Zealand, by comparison, is much closer to a solution. Perhaps you have identified the main steps that must be taken to enable Maori to achieve at the same levels as all New Zealanders but, in every part of the world, essential is to challenge ‘rear-vision’ mind-sets and to enable minorities to integrate successfully while retaining their own values, religious beliefs and cultures. Possibly, this is the biggest and most far-reaching challenge of the twenty-first century.

  2. Gulnara Huseynli says:

    This is a very good article. Informative and explanatory.

    From health economics perspective, the genetic factors of Maori and the BMI ( body mass index) component should be taken into account. BMI of Maori is much higher than Pakeha’s. It could negatively affect cognitive abilities, generic daily living activities and restrict capacity to outperform at school, work and etc.

    I personally believe that if the lifestyle and nutrition habit of Maori change, they would enjoy better socio-economic status.

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