From in­va­sion to study­ing life on the mar­gins

A child­hood dis­rupted by war helped set econ­o­mist on her cho­sen path,

Weekend Herald - - The Interview - writes Liam Dann

Gail Pacheco was just 15 when Iraqi troops in­vaded her home coun­try of Kuwait. The AUT pro­fes­sor still re­calls gun-tot­ing sol­diers in her liv­ing room, telling her to play the pi­ano for their en­ter­tain­ment.

Pacheco, who this week re­ceived AUT’s top award, the Univer­sity Medal, has built a ca­reer on re­search­ing is­sues such as the min­i­mum wage, the gen­der pay gap and map­ping New Zealand’s poor­est and most tran­sient com­mu­ni­ties.

She says the trauma of the 1990 Iraq at­tack and sub­se­quent es­cape with her fam­ily con­trib­uted to a pas­sion for ap­ply­ing her eco­nomic re­search to the lives of the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

Pacheco now heads AUT’s NZ Work Re­search In­sti­tute and this year joined the Gov­ern­ment’s Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion.

A win­ner of the NZIER Eco­nomics Award, she is play­ing an in­creas­ingly in­flu­en­tial role in putting some hard data be­hind the na­tion’s so­cial pol­icy.

Grow­ing up in up in Kuwait, Pacheco de­scribes her child­hood as rel­a­tively nor­mal.

But that all changed in Au­gust 1990. “For peo­ple in Kuwait [the in­va­sion] was com­pletely out of the blue,” she says.

In prac­ti­cal terms, the in­va­sion of Kuwait by Sad­dam Hus­sein’s elite Repub­li­can Guard took lit­tle more than a day. The dis­rup­tion and trauma for the Kuwaiti peo­ple would last much longer.

“In a mat­ter of hours they took over the coun­try,” she says. “I still re­call the sur­prise, on that day we re­ceived a shock phone call from my dad’s busi­ness col­league in Ja­pan, who said ‘con­do­lences on the in­va­sion of you coun­try’.”

The fam­ily tried to wait it out but con­di­tions quickly de­te­ri­o­rated.

“We waited and waited. We didn’t go to school, there were no schools open,” Pacheco says.

Get­ting food be­came more dif­fi­cult and the mil­i­tary pres­ence more in­va­sive.

“We were in­creas­ingly vis­ited by Iraqi mil­i­tary who would check our house to see if we were har­bour­ing any US or Bri­tish in­di­vid­u­als,” she says.

“I still re­call vividly a group of Iraqi sol­diers in our liv­ing room, ask­ing us ques­tions and one ask­ing me to play the pi­ano for them.”

The fam­ily stuck it out for months but even­tu­ally, when they heard that the last refugee ship was leav­ing they de­cided to take a chance.

“We de­cided we can’t wait any longer. We left all our be­long­ings and took the ship from Iraq to In­dia.”

In In­dia they stayed with fam­ily and she at­tended board­ing school.

Life still wasn’t easy be­cause all the fam­ily’s as­sets were frozen by the UN.

Even­tu­ally, though, the US in­vaded, the war ended and they re­turned home.

“As the Iraqis were pushed out they left over 600 oil fires . . . and it meant that the skies were black­ened for months,” she says. “We stayed in Kuwait for an­other cou­ple of years and I fin­ished high school but we knew Kuwait would never be the same again and so we de­cided to get as far away as pos­si­ble.”

On a hol­i­day to New Zealand, the fam­ily found the peo­ple wel­com­ing, de­cided this was the place and mi­grated here in 1994.

Pacheco be­gan study­ing eco­nomics at

When you reach the end of a re­search paper, peo­ple should be able to say: ‘So what?’ . . . And you should be able to give a clear an­swer. Gail Pacheco

Auck­land Univer­sity, with a view to ap­ply­ing the sci­ence to the study of marginalis­ed com­mu­ni­ties.

“I think be­cause of those big changes, the ge­o­graphic dis­lo­ca­tion, the eco­nomic dis­rup­tion and the cul­tural im­po­si­tion, it meant I cared a lot more about pre­car­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties,” she says.

“So while we don’t have that case in New Zealand — where we are vul­ner­a­ble to a sud­den war — we still have com­mu­ni­ties that are vul­ner­a­ble to dis­rup­tion be­cause of their eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity.

“So if there is a sud­den health event, or change in fam­ily cir­cum­stances they are vul­ner­a­ble in other ways.”

In 2018 Pacheco co-au­thored a study to quan­tify the scale of tran­sience in New Zealand, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on those con­sid­ered to be “vul­ner­a­ble tran­sient”.

The re­search found that 5.6 per cent of New Zealan­ders moved three or more times dur­ing the three years stud­ied.

Most of those peo­ple were clas­si­fied as be­ing vul­ner­a­ble tran­sient. They had ex­pe­ri­enced at least three moves in three years, with at least one of these moves to­wards or within the most de­prived neigh­bour­hoods in New Zealand.

Ma¯ori were twice as likely as other groups to be vul­ner­a­ble tran­sient and women were also over-rep­re­sented.

The re­port found ap­prox­i­mately 150,000 peo­ple, equiv­a­lent to the pop­u­la­tion of Tau­ranga, fell into the vul­ner­a­ble tran­sient cat­e­gory.

Putting hard data be­hind so­cial pol­icy de­ci­sions is im­por­tant be­cause it can cut through ide­o­log­i­cally driven think­ing, Pacheco says.

The re­sults of her re­search don’t al­ways match up with the views of those in po­si­tions of power.

For ex­am­ple, her work on min­i­mum wages found that the most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers can be harmed by man­dated min­i­mum wage poli­cies.

In her the­sis, Min­i­mum Wages in New Zealand: An Em­pir­i­cal In­quiry, Pacheco found that a rise in the min­i­mum wage meant un­skilled and young work­ers, es­pe­cially be­tween the ages of 16 and 19, could be dis­placed.

Pacheco is un­fazed by the ide­o­log­i­cal as­pects of pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

With a small sigh, she de­scribes the pol­i­tics as “hu­man na­ture”.

She says her re­search about the gen­der pay gap is of­ten over-in­ter­preted by many peo­ple look­ing to at­tribute blame.

The data showed that just 20 per cent of the pay gap can be at­trib­uted to ex­plain­able rea­sons.

“The me­dia as­sumed that the un­ex­plained 80 per cent was dis­crim­i­na­tion,” she says. “It’s much more com­plex than that. We just don’t know what that un­ex­plained is. I could spec­u­late on a list of things that it could be but I can’t defini­tively say.”

Her job is to stay fo­cused on pre­sent­ing the data as it falls.

“I’ve worked enough over two decades with a range of agen­cies that I now see a lot of dif­fer­ent view­points,” she says.

“I grew up in Kuwait where there are ex­tremes, and as I grew up, I thought that was the norm.

“So I think that’s why, de­spite what­ever the ob­sta­cles are in deal­ing with po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy and those sys­tems here, at least there is the op­por­tu­nity to deal with those things and make an im­pact,” she says. “The same couldn’t be said about Kuwait when I was grow­ing up.”

The so­cial is­sues are all com­plex, she says. “Home­less­ness, is­sues like child poverty, eth­nic dis­par­i­ties, par­tic­u­larly for health and ed­u­ca­tion.”

They form the “bedrock for a lot of other life out­comes”.

In July this year Pacheco was ap­pointed to the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion and now plays a key role in the Gov­ern­ment’s mis­sion to boost wealth by lift­ing wages and busi­ness per­for­mance.

New Zealand’s rel­a­tively poor pro­duc­tiv­ity has been well doc­u­mented.

Fix­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity here needs more un­der­stand­ing and more re­search, she says.

The re­search done at the com­mis­sion shows that most of New Zealand’s pro­duc­tiv­ity in­creases come from hav­ing more peo­ple, rather than im­prov­ing in­di­vid­ual out­put.

“So it’s like get­ting more peo­ple to push the car in­stead of fix­ing the en­gine.

“Re­search has shown that there are fac­tors like busi­ness in­vest­ment and fail­ure to adopt new tech­nolo­gies,” she says. “Part of that is re­lated to the fact that we’re a small pop­u­la­tion and we are far away.”

Un­for­tu­nately, a num­ber of New Zealand busi­nesses are be­hind the curve, says Pacheco.

Some­how they man­age to un­der­per­form over a long pe­riod.

“Maybe in larger, more com­pet­i­tive economies they wouldn’t sur­vive. In short, I think there’s too many of these small, old and rel­a­tively un­pro­duc­tive firms that nei­ther grow rapidly nor exit the mar­ket.”

It’s a blunt as­sess­ment, but one that sug­gests we can ex­pect Pacheco to de­liver hard truths to pol­i­cy­mak­ers whether they like them or not.

“When you reach the end of a re­search paper, peo­ple should be able to say: ‘so what?’” she says. “And you should be able to give a clear an­swer. There has to be a pur­pose to the re­search.”

Photo / Dean Pur­cell

Is­sues such as child poverty and dis­par­i­ties in health and ed­u­ca­tion form “the bedrock for a lot of other life out­comes”, says Gail Pacheco.

Photo / Getty Im­ages

In Au­gust 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City.

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