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Getting Beyond Mantras and Scarcity Models

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The other day I found myself listening to a Talk Back Radio conversation on the employment of ‘migrant workers’ in New Zealand. Faced with job cut-backs as the economy slows down, unions are urging the government to “tighten borders” against immigrants, and for companies to fire migrant workers before they fire New Zealanders (Press, 17 March 2009). A Talk-back caller described how she currently employed ‘foreign workers,’ mainly Indians, but she was clear that if she had a choice, she would rather not employ them and went on to describe why, in very uncomplimentary terms.

I turned the radio off feeling disturbed by an unproductive impasse that the country is reaching. On one hand there is much rhetoric about diversity bringing many benefits, including prosperity, and on the other, many seem to be saying that they are not experiencing these benefits, especially as the recession bites.

Yesterday (19 March, 2009) I attended a symposium held to mark the opening of the South Asia Centre at the University of Canterbury.

I am very pleased that the University of Canterbury has decided to establish this centre. I think it shows much-needed vision.

I was looking forward to hearing more about the South Asian region and understanding some of the issues which would be researched. Would its research programmes, for instance, throw light on how to break through the impasse I was vexed about?

The main points raised by speakers at the symposium and the official launch were that India’s economic growth was impressive and New Zealand would benefit from a proposed free trade agreement with it, and that because South Asia accounted for around one quarter of the world’s population it was important for New Zealand to understand the area, in particular its diversities.

I came home feeling hopeful that the centre would succeed, but I also had some concerns – a sense of déjà vu. I have heard similar rhetoric from politicians, business leaders and academics before. Narratives of “prosperity to come,” and the need to build understandings of and relationships with the diverse parts of the world  have been reiterated each time New Zealand has signed a trade deal with this or that, usually richer, part of the world.

However, this repeated rhetoric of the economic benefits of such deals has been accompanied by ever increasing balance of payments deficits with the rest of the world. New Zealand’s indebtedness has now risen to being second only to that of Iceland.

At a time of global economic turbulence and uncertainty, increased conflict over resources and military, including nuclear build up (especially and including in the South Asian region), and the ecological crisis, the theme of the symposium and launch, like that of the prime minister John Key, appears to be business as usual. New Zealand is today in a good position. It can connect with diversity. It has food resources and people need food. It can also do other things well, such as making popular films like Lord of the Rings.

New Zealand had one of the highest standards of living in the world until 1973 as a bulk commodity “food basket” for Britain. The implication – and the repeated narrative of ‘prosperity to come’ is that this kind of prosperity can be retrieved again by massive production of food for places like Asia, seemingly no matter the cost to our increasingly stretched and straining ecological systems.

These old narratives continue to dominate, as if all is business as usual, as if we can all keep producing in the same way, when obviously it is no longer business as usual.

We know we need new thinking and new narratives and more effective models of communication and connection, especially around how to meet needs in a demographically exploding and ecologically stressed world.

So, instead of repeating the simplistic benefits of diversity mantra, which in practice does little more than leave one lot to struggle with the other over increasingly diminishing resources, why not make a space for thinking about new practical approaches? The important question is how to creatively and pragmatically combine our diverse qualities to better meet our needs and enrich all of our lives to take us beyond scarcity models?

At a recent Employment Summit, New Zealand’s Minister of Finance, Bill English stressed how he and the government are, and need to be, open to new ideas, including ideas that

“. . .the government hasn’t thought of, that we don’t really quite understand …  I think that’s the way we’re going to have to operate in the next couple of years… 5 or 6 out of 10 ideas might be a bit crazy but 3 or 4 are going to work. We need an environment in which people can hopefully put their head up … and have some say…”
(interview with Shaun Plunket on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report, 27-2-09)

Let’s create real hope based on learning how to build real, sustainably productive connections. What do you think? Is anyone else concerned about business as usual not producing the results it might once have? Could the university possibly take a lead?  And local communities?

Refer to Brokering Solutions: Smart universities and localities for smarter intercultural collaborations

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1 Comment

  1. Bindy says:

    This site is starting to cook!