Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Living in one of the most equal countries in the world

In New Zealand the issue of ‘inequality’ has become an increasingly common point of conversation and concern as the rich just keep getting richer and the poor survive on a subconscious awareness of how much ‘less’ they are. It’s an ugly problem with downright evil consequences for communities, both communities of rich, and communities of poor – for they barely ever exist in the one place anymore in New Zealand.

Tokelau by contrast is from my reckoning probably the most (materially, economically and income) equal country in the world. Admittedly it is the world’s smallest economy, and it’s also a very small place with a total population of less than 1,500 people in all three atolls, making it the third least populated country in the world (after Pitcairn and Vatican City).
There’s also no doubt that inequality exists in Tokelau and has grown over the last 30 years as it has everywhere, but because of some of the closely held cultural practises and values of Tokelau culture it’s been kept very much in check – such that for the most part people’s economic wellbeing remains very much equal compared to the extremes of inequality emerging almost everywhere else in the world.

Interestingly (and tellingly) it’s not possible to buy and sell land or property in Tokelau. Land is held in perpetuity by family group. As a result, it’s not possible for any one person to accumulate greater and greater portions of property in Tokelau, limited as they are by what has always for generations been held in the kaiga (extended family groupings that make up the whole). One of the striking things about Tokelau from my palagi perspective is just how simple all the homes are. There’s no way to tell from looking at the various homes – who is wealthy and who is not. Almost all of them are small, open, minimally furnished lack the abundance of possessions and consumables that are normal in a kiwi household. I was profoundly struck by this one day when we were unloading the ship from Apia of all the goods that had arrived. On that day one of the more unusual pieces of cargo were a couple of 2 seater sofas. They were very modest cloth and foam based things such that even lower income people like us might look past them in favour of something else – but still something not really seen in Tokelau from my limited experience. It turned out that they were a new acquisition of the recently appointed Ulu – the Head of Tokelau. These sofas were loaded onto the truck and we took them through the village to the Ulu’s home. Two things were particularly striking about this experience for me. One was the realisation that I could never have guessed that one of Tokelau’s most important figures lived in this house as distinct from any other house in the village – in fact at only one story high and painted bright pink it looks even plainer than some of the other homes. In my Kiwi/palagi shaped view where someone’s home generally amounts to something of a status symbol this unexpectedly unpretentious home stuck out to me. The experience was further underlined by observing an amusing interaction, which being spoken in Tokeluan I understood none of the words exchanged, but perhaps the message was communicated all the more explicitly. As the Ulu’s daughter came to the front door of the house looking perplexed, even exasperated at the new household furniture, as if to say “What on earth are we going to do with those, and where on earth are we going to put them???!!!” With some toing and froing of conversation and chuckles from my fellow delivery men – the sofas were squeezed through the narrow front door and into the pretty much one room house.

Another feature of the equality landscape of Tokelau is that of income distribution. Firstly one of the wonderful things about Tokelau is that unlike most other Pacific nations, people here are blessed with what effectively amounts to a universal citizen payment, where an income is received both by men and women, which is supplemented with child payments according to the number of children. I use the term citizen payment, because it’s not an unemployment benefit of any kind, and it comes with significant “citizen”/cultural expectations including various types of men’s and women’s work such that pretty much everyone has a role in the community. This means that combined with the abundance of fish and coconut as staple foods that are freely accessible to anyone – no one is ever faced with hunger in Tokelau, something which sadly is all too common in our own neighbourhoods in NZ and similar countries around the world that also have significantly more economic wealth than Tokelau. There are also minority of people in Fakaofo who have a specific job title for which they are additionally remunerated. In relative terms the incomes are very modest and not so significantly larger than the base income. In the village context the effect of this additional income is also significantly dissipated by the deeply ingrained practises of generosity and caring for one and other. This happens both in very direct ways where those with more disposable income pay directly for things for others, and also where their valued resources such as vehicles or tools etc, effectively become village resources, available for all manner of uses, simply by asking the owner. On top of this there are additional ‘circuit breakers’ in the system to help keep things equal. Probably most important is Inati which I’ve previously blogged about. But there are many smaller examples, such as the fact that every person is allocated only 5 litres of petrol per month. When I asked why this was, I was informed that it was because some people have more money, so this is the way it stays fair. Similarly when the prized boxes of apples and oranges arrive on a shipment from Apia – families can only buy a maximum of 10 pieces of each – again so that it remains fair.

Finally and perhaps most importantly is something that is both a contributor to creating an equal society as well as a consequence of the existence equality which is the way that life is shared together in every way. Perhaps the most striking example of this in my mind is the way that strawberry or grape Tang (the local form of Raro cordial) is served and consumed to everyone in disposable plastic cups no matter who they are. The elders, the workers, the Pulenuku (Mayor) and Ulu (Head of Tokelau), everyone joins together for this very modest drink – and all the while I’m trying to imagine John Key or other leaders or important people in my country ever drinking grape flavoured cordial! I must say, I don’t like grape cordial, but I do love the way that everyone joins in and drinks from the same large cooler. It strongly represents the closeness and inter-connectedness of people here.

I totally recognise that the absence of significant inequality in Tokelau is something that is primarily enabled by how small this place is. However that definitely doesn’t make it any less precious and worth fiercely protecting. I would also posture that we in New Zealand and other western countries have something to learn from and emulate in these three characteristics of Tokelau.
  1. Fostering policies and practises that ensure our homes and housing are not characterised by such extremes both in terms of unequal ownership share and also the immense chasm between poor and rich houses (for example our houses in Cannons Creek versus the large modern homes in the new nearby suburb of Aotea)
  2. Creating circuit breakers in our economic and consumption system that support fair access – especially to scarce or essential resources.
  3.  And finally and most importantly - continually looking for ways to make sure that our Prime minister and richest people in our society regularly share “Grape Tang” with the very least and overlooked in our society.

I wonder what effect these three things could have in New Zealand. I’m certainly grateful for the opportunity to spend this time in Tokelau where we have observed a different way at close quarters.


  1. This can be done, and makes total sense. What a great insight living and breathing it!

  2. This can be done, and makes total sense. What a great insight living and breathing it!

  3. Hey guys thanks for sharing this interesting reflection, and I love your three-point life-application summary! To probe further: How is 'wealth' created in Tokelau? Or perhaps to put it another way: What activities do people engage in to make life easier in future for themselves or others? How would you describe 'economic growth' here (if any)? Or, Is life here easier or harder than 30 years ago, or 30 years in future? (And how would you measure that? And does it even matter?) Genuine questions, not loaded. I don't really understand economics, but a very small country like this makes some of these ideas easier to apprehend. Love to you all!

    1. Good questions Manu - which I think hit to some of the biggest challenges being faced by Tokelau. There are very limited opportunities to create economic sustainability here and the country is heavily reliant on NZ aid. The atolls themselves are only really able to sustain a very basic subsistence existence, so most things are imported. As to whether life is harder or not, it probably depends on your perspective of hard. There's greater access to material resources, to communication and connection with the outside world - but in so many ways these things make life harder, more complicated, more unhealthy and stressful. In relative terms this community is in the early stages of dealing with a global economy and is insulated by extreme isolation. But there are nearly audible groaning pains of this happening at all levels of life here. I certainly couldn't claim to have a detailed understanding of the issues with my limited experience. I don't think Tokelau is a model for other communities, more that, like you say, the smallness and strength of culture bring some things into greater clarity - and we can learn a lot from these things. As to 30 years in the future - there are very serious threats from Climate Change to Tokelau's very existence - in 30 years these will be having very serious affects on life here! Love to chat more another time about it.