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Howard's End: UN Goals Apply To NZ Rural Poor

UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, is concerned that rural poverty threatens the UN's commitments and is calling for a greater effort particularly over disadvantages stemming from remoteness, insecure and unproductive jobs, and lack of high quality education and health care. John Howard writes.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development report, launched by Mr Annan earlier this week, says stalled progress in reducing rural poverty is threatening the UN commitment to halve world poverty by 2015.

Mr Annan said that most of the world's poor live in rural areas.

Although New Zealanders would never see themselves as being part of a poor country, what is striking from the report is that many of the goals of the UN for reducing world poverty could equally apply to existing concerns about rural New Zealand.

Remoteness, insecure and unproductive jobs, lack of legally secure entitlement to assets, lack of high quality health care and education facilities, poor access to technology, poor access to markets, unlevel playing-fields and lack of micro-finance.

The UN report is addressing world poverty but it can be placed in a New Zealand context because the problems, focus and targets are essentially the same. It also says policies to address these issues promote rural economic growth and also help alleviate urban poverty with greater effectiveness. The report recommends a pro-poor policy environment and a greater volume of resources targeted to the poor.

New Zealand politicians would likely be loath to admit that there is anything but a level-playing field here or that we are poor.

However, Government's one-size-fits-all tax policies, for example, are the same whether you live in a large booming city or a struggling isolated rural town. The same applies for bank interest rates. A booming city coupled with a deregulated free market can drive interest rates to an unaffordable level for many rural people trying to start a new business.

Couple that with lack of infrastructure, high transport costs and small markets and that is a recipe for disaster for the rural areas - or, at least, an exodus of young people to the cities.

There is not a level playing field in New Zealand but that doesn't appear to have become ingrained into the bureaucratic psyche. Bringing in 10,000 new migrants with IT skills is specifically directed at helping companies in the short term, but it can never be a long-term answer. Moreover, the new migrants are likely to go to companies in the cities where the majority of skills shortages exist.

So how can we solve the problems of rural New Zealand?

In my column earlier this week I suggested that we follow many other countries and create Special Economic Zones for under-developed areas. Although not a new idea I can report that it is starting to receive some traction particularly in local government circles. And after all, they represent each local community and they must be listened to by central government and the bureaucrats.

I also want to suggest that many of the government departments can physically be moved back to rural areas. With communications technology of today only the chief executive and a few support staff need to be located in a city. And won't the cost of building accommodation for a department be cheaper for the tax payer in the rural areas?

We don't want reasons why it can't work - we want reasons why it can!

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