illustration: Tina Tiller
illustration: Tina Tiller

BusinessAugust 10, 2021

Team of 6 million: How NZ can harness the power of Kiwis living overseas

illustration: Tina Tiller
illustration: Tina Tiller

As the government gears up to make major border announcements, a new report has identified a range of opportunities presented by those New Zealanders still living overseas, reports Laura Walters.

Over the past 18 months, the New Zealand diaspora has likely felt more alienated from their homeland than at any other time in history.

The New Zealand government’s strict border policies have meant the so-called team of 5 million has been protected from the ravages of Covid-19. But the country’s isolationist approach and broken MIQ system have left many overseas Kiwis feeling locked out and disconnected.

Anti-expat sentiment within New Zealand reached crisis point just as overseas New Zealanders weathered the deadly second wave of the pandemic during the Christmas/New Year period. And more than 18 months after the pandemic began, New Zealand is still having a conversation about who deserves to come home, and who should be prioritised.

As prime minister Jacinda Ardern prepares to set out the government’s future approach to the border and public health measures, and release the advice from experts on how to open the border safely, a new report highlights the opportunities presented by New Zealand’s diaspora community.

As part of its WSP-supported post-pandemic future series, the Helen Clark Foundation’s Nau Mai: Welcome Home research report argues now is a crucial moment for New Zealand to meet the needs of its diaspora community.

New Zealand has one of the largest proportional diaspora populations in the OECD, behind Luxembourg and Ireland. While a lack of tracking means there is no exact figure, best guesses put the number of overseas citizens and their children at one million. Most of them live in Australia or other English-speaking countries, and tend to be highly educated, with the potential to bring value to New Zealand, both by returning to live, and by maintaining strong economic, social and cultural connections to home.

Graph: Nau Mai – Welcome Home research report, Helen Clark Foundation, August 2021

Awareness of the New Zealand diaspora has increased during the pandemic. The spotlight has been put on lack of access to welfare and support for New Zealanders overseas, as well as the emotional toll of being far from loved ones, and the logistical difficulties of getting home.

Throughout the coverage has been an implication that the pandemic has led to more people coming home to the relative safety of New Zealand. There is the assumption that Covid-19 has turned the oft-referenced brain drain into a brain gain.

Early predictions that Kiwis would flock home seemed to be supported by stories about New Zealand being used as a bolthole paradise, and of Google searches on moving back to Aotearoa reaching an all-time high. A survey from expat organisation Kea found 31% of offshore Kiwis were planning to return, and more than half of those expected to return within two years.

But so far, this expected brain gain has not been borne out by the numbers. While migration figures do show a net gain of more than 16,000 (the first net migration gain in four decades) Kiwis during the first year of the pandemic, this was primarily caused by fewer New Zealanders leaving, rather than more people coming home.

Meanwhile, a survey of those in MIQ found that 24% planned to leave New Zealand, should the global situation improve.

But the pause provided by Covid-19, and by Kiwis’ divided intentions, suggest now is a crucial moment in harnessing the potential of global New Zealanders.

Helen Clark Foundation deputy director and report author Holly Walker said New Zealand now had the opportunity to rewrite the story of its diaspora.

But in order to do that, the country and the government needed to better understand the diaspora community, put in place a comprehensive diaspora strategy, help support and welcome those returning home, and develop world-class cities where people wanted to live.

New Zealanders living overseas had valuable skills, experiences and expertise to share either by moving home, or by staying overseas but keeping closely connected to home, Walker said.

“There is much more we could do to help New Zealanders overseas forge economic connections to home, stay connected to their heritage, and welcome home the increasing number who want to return.”

In the five-part podcast Coming Home, Duncan Greive and Jane Yee meet some of the highly skilled New Zealanders who’ve moved home in 2020, hear their stories, and explore what their return means for all of us

Governments from both sides of the political spectrum have long recognised that retaining and attracting back talented and highly skilled New Zealanders can contribute to economic growth, creative innovation, cultural diversity, and social wellbeing, and strengthen international networks and connections, the report said.

But translating this into a strategic policy approach to the diaspora proved challenging. This was where the report recommends the government start.

Comprehensive strategy of inclusion

The report recommends the government develop an Aotearoa New Zealand Diaspora Strategy, and create a ministerial portfolio with responsibility for ensuring its implementation.

As part of the strategy, New Zealand needed to gain a better understanding of who was part of the community.

This information should be used to connect with those overseas, and leverage their connections and expertise to achieve trade and enterprise goals, enhance people-to-people links, and spread New Zealand values and culture.

The strategy would also apply to returning New Zealanders. The foundation’s report recommends local and central governments make it as easy as possible for people to come home, with information, resources and removal of barriers to entering work, education, and housing.

The assumption that the pandemic would lead to more people coming home to the relative safety of New Zealand has not been borne out by the numbers (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

While this might sound like an ambitious plan, New Zealand doesn’t need to start from scratch.

Ireland has one of the largest diaspora communities, with about 8 million people living inside the country’s borders, and about 70 million counted as part of its diaspora community.

In recent years, the country has undertaken a lengthy and expensive diaspora consultation in order to develop a clear and comprehensive diaspora strategy. Ireland now has a dedicated minister, who works across different government agencies, to leverage opportunities in the area of people, prosperity, culture, values and influence.

Irish ambassador to New Zealand Peter Ryan said the work started with mapping the country’s overseas community, and redefining what it means to be part of a diaspora. For Ireland, this includes those with Irish heritage, those who have previously lived in the country, or those with connections to the culture.

“We seek to include people in our diaspora, rather than exclude,” Ryan said.

This meant during Covid-19, the Irish government was able to financially support and mobilise diaspora organisations to support their communities around the world.

Ryan said this diaspora work has opened up connections and lines of communication in global business and diplomacy, and helped improve understanding of different cultures and values.

“It’s probably the greatest gift that we have from our troubled history, is our diaspora. And we treasure them,” he said.

Graph: Nau Mai – Welcome Home research report, Helen Clark Foundation, August 2021

Economic benefits

The economic benefits of connecting with the diaspora community is twofold. Returning New Zealanders bring skills, knowledge and expertise that can be used to help innovate and improve business profitability. At the same time, those staying overseas provide connections for trade and enterprise in the global market.

Infometrics principal economist Brad Olsen said the returning Kiwis had huge potential to add back to the country, but too often that contribution was actively resisted. This created a barrier to importing new and innovative business strategies.

That thinking needed to change if New Zealand wanted to capitalise on the value of returning Kiwis, he said.

But firstly, New Zealand needed to entice people home.

Olsen said that meant tending to issues like housing and infrastructure. Designing connected, liveable global cities to help entice Kiwis home was also one of the key recommendations from the foundation’s report.

“I think we have to provide a real concrete reason for people to take that plunge.”

In terms of those still living overseas, the person-to-person links and understanding of different markets would be invaluable as New Zealand diversified its trading market, and moved into more services-based trade.

“Overseas New Zealanders are the country’s best cheerleaders, and that is a really important potential avenue of ensuring the New Zealand brand remains strong overseas.”

Cultural connections

The historical context is worth bearing in mind when talking about the New Zealand diaspora. Māori, as tangata whenua, are the only population who can claim Aotearoa as their traditional, geographical homeland. Most New Zealanders are tauiwi/tangata Tiriti, whether recently arrived or descended from migrant families going back several generations.

The report points out that for historical and cultural reasons, it can mean something different for Māori to live away from Aotearoa than for tauiwi, and it’s important to be careful about grouping the experiences of all New Zealanders overseas into one category.

Kerrin Leoni (Ngaitakoto, Ngāti Kuri, Ngāti Paoa) said during her 10 years in the UK, being part of a kapa haka group and Ngāti Ranana in London was invaluable.

Living away from home could be lonely at times, but having a strong connection to te ao Māori helped.

“It’s like having a family away from home,” she said.

Leoni said those connections needed to continue when people returned to Aotearoa.

Maintaining connections formed overseas, and creating new cultural connections upon return, helped people transition back into life at home – especially for those struggling to reconnect.

Leoni – like the others who spoke to The Spinoff – said an important part of achieving this sense of belonging and a smooth transition was to create a clear diaspora strategy which included clear pathways back home, and a warm welcome.

In the five-part podcast Coming Home, Duncan Greive and Jane Yee meet some of the highly skilled New Zealanders who’ve moved home in 2020, hear their stories, and explore what their return means for all of us. Listen on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever you usually get your podcasts. Brought to you by The Spinoff and Kiwibank.

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