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The Brain Drain Is Finally In Reverse

For the first time in 20 years the much-lamented ‘brain-drain’ is beginning to reverse.

Research for Nau Mai | Welcome Home, the latest report from The Helen Clark Foundation and WSP, revealed a net gain of New Zealand citizens since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more set to return from overseas.

“In the first year of the pandemic, the numbers of New Zealanders leaving the country and returning to live were down on both fronts, leading to a net gain of 16,100 New Zealand citizens,” report author and Helen Clark Foundation deputy director Holly Walker said.

“This represents the first net gain of New Zealand citizens for more than two decades. The Covid-19 pandemic has given us an opportunity to rewrite the story of our diaspora,” Walker said.

“There are up to a million New Zealanders living overseas with valuable skills, experiences and expertise to share either by moving home, or by staying overseas but keeping closely connected to home.

“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.

“One important way we can do this is to make sure we have world-class cities and towns where people want to live.”

Ian Blair, Managing Director WSP New Zealand, says, “When we think about the sorts of world-class cities and towns that would entice the diaspora, we’re talking about those with enough affordable, accessible and healthy homes for everyone; with rapid, reliable and affordable public transport; with green transport infrastructure that reduces congestion and encourages active modes; with plentiful green space and urban design that encourages connected communities.”

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The concept of the 20-minute city is explored in the report, where a city or neighbourhood enables residents to access most of the activities needed for good living within a 20-minute walk, cycle, or public transport trip from their homes.

“We must also encourage decision makers to take a holistic approach to planning future infrastructure investments to make sure that we are planning for our population and demographic make-up not for today, but for 20, 30 and 40 years from now”, says Blair.

While the initial net gain in New Zealand citizens during the last 12 months has been relatively small, the flow of returning Kiwis is expected to increase as borders open and the potential inflow is significant.

“Early on in the pandemic, there was speculation that New Zealanders overseas would flock home in large numbers. While some have returned, the numbers haven’t been huge, likely due to the difficulties of global travel and quarantine restrictions,” Walker said.

“However, as these restrictions begin to ease, we could see more New Zealanders coming home for good.”

Expat organisation Kea’s “Future Aspirations” survey of offshore New Zealanders revealed 31 per cent are planning to return and more than half of those expected to return within two years.

Of those who remained offshore, more than half were looking for ways to maintain a strong connection to New Zealand.

Nau Mai | Welcome Home considers what we know about the New Zealand diaspora and makes recommendations for how we can forge connections with overseas New Zealanders, attract some of them home, and prepare for trends in the post-pandemic future. It makes three overarching recommendations for the Government to consider:

1. Understand and tap into the potential of the offshore diaspora. This includes adopting a diaspora strategy and gaining a better understanding of how many, where, and who our overseas New Zealanders are.

2. Roll out the welcome mat to those who wish to return. This means making it as easy as possible to come home with information, resources, and the removal of barriers.

3. Develop world-class cities and towns where people want to live. This means investing in better urban infrastructure, improving public and active transport, and ensuring there is affordable, accessible housing for everyone so we can accommodate those who return.

Nau Mai | Welcome Home is the fourth report produced in partnership between WSP and The Helen Clark Foundation and the final report in the Foundation’s ‘Post-pandemic Futures’ series.

The full report is available here. The other reports in the post pandemic futures series are available here. They cover loneliness, inclusive economic recovery and sustainable cities.

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