From invasion to studying life on the margins
A childhood disrupted by war helped set economist on her chosen path,
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.”
Issues such as child poverty and disparities in health and education form “the bedrock for a lot of other life outcomes”, says Gail Pacheco.
In August 1990, Iraqi tanks rolled into Kuwait City.