Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Offshore? Does NZ Inc. need Maori trade diplomacy?

The recent resignation of the entire China Beachhead Advisory Board shows how fragile our overseas ventures can be. For all the research, political commentary and public angst, New Zealand’s economic decline continues. For Māori, this underperformance of ‘NZ Inc.’ exacerbates economic vulnerability while compounding the challenges of utilising land and resources in the volatile economic spaces of contemporary globalisation. Management of such resources is contested between cultural logics that oblige owners to protect the environment and intergenerational wealth on the one hand and profit-driven financial accounting on the other.

In this, Māori are not alone as Indigenous communities worldwide draw on whatever capital they have, including social capital comprising the networks of trust and understanding and, perhaps defining this development, cultural capital. A variety of institutions that are based on but not restricted to tradition, now promote Indigenous development while maintaining an awareness of economic bottom-lines. Therefore it can be said that the global challenge of addressing sustainable resource-use in accordance with passionately expressed, locally-generated, and culturally-attuned goals is encapsulated within contemporary Māori and Indigenous economies.

New Zealand has proven adept at past trade negotiations, and many of the predominantly Pākeha players have come from the ‘backblocks’ of New Zealand to take privileged seats at the world’s most powerful meetings. But recent negative publicity on an important delegation to the Middle East, contestation of domestic laws by foreign companies, declining ecological resilience, struggling innovation, and polarising political movements describe a cultural distance that exacerbates this country’s physical distance from the people we need to buy our produce. A racist view positions Māori at the very start of these extended supply chains: low-skilled labourers in a fast-moving world. But trade policy is no longer the exclusive club of politicians, officials, and lawyers. Various social movements now forcefully express alternative perspectives, domestically and offshore. Furthermore, new ‘players’ (coming from what are still labelled Third World or ‘developing’ nations, and potentially representing billions of people) enter the global game as the old Imperial economies struggle with many of the issues New Zealand is confronting. To be Indigenous, of ‘mixed’ descent, or an immigrant is no longer a bad thing and may actually enable previously unrealisable advantages.

While the diplomatic club is no longer exclusively white it is still predominantly masculine, further complicating Māori diplomacy by a sexism that diminishes the significant role of Indigenous women. As with their Pākeha counterparts, wāhine Māori have struggled to gain senior roles in public and private sectors while suffering (along with their children and grandchildren) the worst effects of economic marginalisation. Yet so much community resilience is reliant upon the empowered participation of women! In Aotearoa/New Zealand, if Māori-centric approaches frame how a significant component of the future economy will operate, and women are key decision-makers, then these networks operate in a vacuum of understanding by Māori and non-Māori, men and women.

The insertion of Indigenous discourse is an ineradicable moral, philosophical, legal, and practical challenge to several of the world’s economies, and particularly to those which New Zealand is historically and geopolitically linked. While Indigenous Peoples have achieved remarkable high-level formal recognition of their rights, resilience remains tenuous for many communities. Future trade negotiations involving Indigenous groups, currently in their infancy, are at risk of being opaque or even unintelligible to key participants.


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