Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 8, 2010

Poverty, Population and Motion

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on 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 colleagues who 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.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by John Comiskey

September 8, 2010 @ 4:42 am


New Zealand’s recent disaster and apparent self-initiated recovery captures the essence of my favorite do-it-yourselfer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Matched with Philip Palin’s resilience; self-reliance is a win-win for society and the individual.

How is it, then, that the United States self-flagellates itself 9 years after 9/11 and 5 years after Katrina? We have unsuccessfully waged a war on poverty, failed to educate all of our young and some of our adults, and failed to persuade people to do for themselves when they must. We have taken JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” into “ask and demand that your local, state, and federal government, ngo, and charity do all and ask for little or nothing in return.”

Christchurch is worth replicating and your recipe is self-evident.

Are Washington and the American people (the media too) listening!

Kudos and prayers to Christchurch!!!

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

September 8, 2010 @ 6:04 am

Nice explanation and a worthy example of resilience.

The recovery process has just begun, however; it will be interesting to see how they go about that long-term effort.

Comment by Potomac

September 8, 2010 @ 10:40 am

NZ & Chile benefited mostly from mitigation in the form of seismic protection in building codes. Haiti (and China) and other areas of the world where catastrophic quakes occurred failed to mitigate this risk (in the case of Haiti, because of poverty and governance failures, in the case of China, rapid growth and shoddy construction — kinda like the poor construction of the levees in NOLA).

The response and recovery successes and failures are deeply rooted in the governance and leadership issues. Which is why we beat ourselves up over NOLA. We expect better, and rightfully so.

As a sidebar, NZ was the model for governance reforms that were adopted during the Clinton era government “reinvention” movement.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 8, 2010 @ 11:01 am

Potomac, don’t under-estimate the contributions of culture to mitigation. The more I reflect on the situations in Chile and New Zealand, the more convinced I am that their cultures had powerful effects on their willingness to accept responsibility for the situations that confronted them.

It’s interesting to note that levels of personal preparedness are not much higher in NZ than here. But people do not lay all or most of the responsibility for effective response and recovery at the feet of government. (The fire service there, for example has 2000 paid and professional employees, but relies on 8000 volunteers. Even large cities depend heavily on unpaid community volunteers to meet their emergency response requirements.)

At the same time they accept personal responsibility for their own situation, they go a step further and accept that they have responsibilities to the wider community to pitch in and put things right after an event. Americans are still very involved in their communities, but the ways in which we define community have shifted greatly over the past four decades. As such, the people with whom we share disaster are often not the ones with whom we are closest.

Perhaps this is what still puzzles me about NOLA. New Orleanians were and still are intensely proud of their city. They hold deep cultural attachments to the place and its unique culture. But the government accepted within that culture had become increasingly defined by inefficiency, corruption and incompetence, which people seemed to have all but resigned themselves to accepting.

In the absence of effective local engagement in community governance, the federal government was (and probably still is) ill-equipped to promote an effective response much less recovery. NZ’s experiments with reinvention were not limited to central government. Much of the innovation in government before the Clinton era here in the USA was occurring at state and local levels. Hopefully, the policies coming out of Washington these days will re-energize the entrepreneurial spirit in state and local government.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 8, 2010 @ 11:22 am

So is the paradigm that certain cultures are more resilient? Or is the real paradigm that certain cultures do not hid the risks and allow private interests to profit from this non-disclosure? Over a lifetime in federal service I saw again and again Congress bow to efforts to prevent disclosure or even when in statutory mandates, the Executive Branch to somehow decide disclosure, understandable disclosure of hazards, was NOT in the public interest? Notice for example that one of the more effective programs of regulatory disclosure is the requirement that all off-site safety at nuclear power stations is and will be premised on a regulatory regime that assumes a core-melt accident as opposed to spending time analyzing the probability of such an event. Thus should we assume that volcanoes will erupt? That magma will flow? That the hydrological cycle includes floods? That humanity will continue to develop social isolates that intend to use the techology of the present to destroy innocents? Of course my answer to all of these and many others is YES. So let’s comprehensively review exactly what statutory disclosure of hazards exists, what does not exist and why?

Comment by Arnold Bogis

September 8, 2010 @ 11:54 am

I would like to point out the following sentence from the post:

“Homelessness is quite rare, health care coverage is universal, and social welfare benefits are widely available to prevent people from slipping into poverty.”

Doesn’t sound much like the U.S., does it?

I’m not suggesting that the people of New Zealand are not a self-sufficient people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But it is a lot easier to be self-sufficient or contribute to the response and recovery following a disaster when you start from an advantageous position.

Preparedness is difficult if you live from paycheck to paycheck. Recovery perilous if you lose all health benefits because your job disappears because the disaster in question destroyed (physically or economically) your place of work.

So if Washington, the American people, and the media are listening than maybe we’ll look back on the health care legislation as insufficient, the existing social net as a weak link in our disaster preparedness, and the vast income inequality that exists as a serious detriment to our future?

The point about volunteers is an interesting one, but perhaps not so enlightening in this case. How big is Christchurch? Or better yet, the population of New Zealand? Isn’t it about half the size of New York City? I would think that very large urban areas with high population densities do better with professional response organizations than relying heavily on volunteers. For example, I believe Virginia Beach is the largest U.S. city that relies primarily on volunteers for its EMS response.

That said, there is a huge community of fire and EMS volunteers in suburban, exurban, and rural areas in the U.S. And these organizations will be relied upon as mutual aid during the big disasters when the urban, professional systems are overwhelmed.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 8, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

Arnold, the notion that New Zealand was starting from an advantageous position is indeed one of the main points of my post. Successive NZ governments have made the calculation that housing, health care and income support are not only essentially moral obligations but also good public policy because they are cheaper in the long run than many of the effects that result from relying too heavily on the private sector. NZers may debate how to manage these obligations, but no one dares suggest abandoning these as essentially governmental responsibilities.

NZ is indeed a small country about half the size of NYC. But even in Christchurch, which is a relatively densely populated urban city, the paid firefighting workforce on duty at any given time is only about 42 firefighters operating from six stations; the balance of the firefighting force comes from volunteers (which are all unpaid, unlike many places in the US) and recall of paid staff. The EMS service typically only staffs four two-person ambulances at any given time.

Even Auckland, which is a city of about 2 million people, has only 26 paid fire stations and 26 volunteer stations despite a more challenging geography. The daily on-duty strength is still only about 140 personnel.

In contrast, I worked in a smaller U.S. city earlier in my career that handled about the same number of calls for service but served a population less than half that of Christchurch. We had a daily minimum fire department staffing of 125 in 15 stations in addition to maintaining six ambulances with dedicated staffing of two or three personnel each. And we still relied quite a bit on mutual aid from adjoining jurisdictions.

My point was not intended to suggest that NZ is a better place to live than the US or has solved all the big problems. Rather, I hoped to offer a contrast that would help us question some of our cherished assumptions about the the role of government, its relationship to the governed and the effects of these differences on mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

September 8, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

I learned everything I know about NZ from the Lord of the Rings trilogy….I kid.

What I got out of your deliberate provocation runs pretty much opposite to what I seem to gather is the prevailing opinion regarding resilience on this board.

It seems to me that the conversation centers around figuring out how to make the U.S. more “resilient” in the face of disaster. This infers that the role of the government in preparedness, response, and recovery is decreased and people/communities increase their self sufficiency.

Your description of NZ suggests to me that their resilience starts out from a point of much larger participation of government in private life. There is a smaller “investment” during and following a disaster because of the significant government investment well before the event occurs.

I may very well be wrong, but that seems to run counter to most resilience discussions in this nation where the goal is a general “smaller reliance on government.” Or at least beyond calls for investment in critical infrastructure, I’ve heard no calls for government spending on the type of health care and social nets found in other industrial countries as part of the overall argument for resilience.

The question of responder staffing is an interesting, if politically charged, one. Many have suggested that with the decrease in structure fires in this country due to very successful fire prevention efforts that the fire service could do with less resources. But try making the argument that cuts in professional staff can be ameliorated by an increase in volunteers around election time…

Comment by Arnold Bogis

September 8, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

This is a provocative post…

One more thought. I would have to disagree with the idea that it is reducing poverty that ultimately counts. Instead, it is the safety net.

You can reduce poverty if the entire community is doing well economically (a rising ship…), but if a net of some sort doesn’t exist then a disaster can erase all the gains made and leave the community no more resilient than before.

With the net, however, there is something to “catch” the community. In most large, industrial countries this net is government funded or backed. In smaller communities or pre-Industrial revolution, it may have been the social bonds formed in a particular area that provide the net.

By your description it seems that NZ has both. But does it scale up? And if so how? And can a large country have one without the other?

Maybe my last post should have said that the majority of the resilience conversation seems to be focused on social bonds with little discussion on increasing the role of government–albeit at a different point in the continuum.

Though given the current political atmosphere and angst generated by relatively modest health care changes and government investment, I’m not sure that is a conversation that is going to happen before the next catastrophe.

Comment by Mark Chubb

September 8, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

I think your characterization of resilience discussions in the USA as one of moving toward less reliance on government may well be right, but that has never been my avenue of approach. For me the question has always been one of what we expect of government rather than how much we expect. That said, I welcome economies and accountability.

Robert Wuthnow’s recent book, Be Very Afraid (Oxford University Press, 2010), traces the cultural roots of our current reliance on organizations and institutions to manage the complex threats we face today. Putting his argument in the context of some of our recent discussions would suggest that we have confused complicated with complex (see Cynefin Framework). As such, we often find our efforts compromised by their tendency instill anxiety even as they attempt to allay fears.

I should note that my approach to resilience does not assume that self-reliance is the ideal either. We live in communities. Communities enable cooperation and specialization, which allows us to make choices about how we organize and exchange our labor and other resources. Inevitably, this involves decisions about how we should govern ourselves, and in so doing how we should manage our obligations to one another.

If resilience is a question of how individuals and communities cope and adapt, it is also a question of the orientation from which they approach the threats and opportunities they confront. In this sense, I would characterize the NZ approach as more horizontal and the US approach as more vertical. This shapes the what the expect of government as an extension of what they expect of one another.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>