Outside of Vatican City, Niue is the world’s least populous country, a self-governing Pacific nation with a headcount comparable to that of a large high school. Home to only 1,400 of the world’s 50,000 ethnic Niueans, the island has suffered a debilitating exodus in recent decades as locals have sought to escape their homeland’s poor soil, lack of natural resources and bloated public sector, which provides a member of parliament for every 30 voters.
Once a colony of New Zealand, Niue voted in 1974 to self-govern “in free association” with its former colonial master, which maintains a high level of involvement in its affairs (Niueans are automatically granted New Zealand citizenship, and 20,000 now live there). New Zealand accepts its tiny Polynesian neighbour will never be a viable economic entity but has a novel suggestion for how it might do better: by turning the island into a retirement village for Australasian pensioners.
The proposal comes in a new report by the New Zealand parliament’s foreign relations committee, which proposes a radical reconfiguration of the country’s engagement with the Pacific. “The experiment of the past 40 years has not worked,” it says of the exercises in self-government in many Pacific islands. “A new direction… should be a matter of the highest priority.”
Niue is singled out as one of the most dysfunctional examples, with misspent foreign aid (New Zealand stumps up NZ$18,000/€10,000 for every Niuean every year) resulting in an overgrown and ineffectual cadre of 400 public servants, and a virtually non-existent private sector. “Whatever direction Niue takes it needs to be driven by entrepreneurs, not public servants,” concludes the report, advocating that New Zealand scale down its aid contributions in Asia and Africa in favour of redoubling its efforts in its own backyard, with an emphasis on stimulating the private sector.
Committee chairman John Hayes, an MP and former high commissioner to Papua New Guinea, says Niue’s lack of beaches and other natural attractions – locals know it as “The Rock” – make it unlikely to succeed as a conventional tourist destination. “So you rack your brain and think: ‘What might work?’” His committee’s suggestion is to renovate the island’s stock of unused 1960s-era government buildings to accomodate retirees drawn to sunnier climes. The island has a decent hospital which could meet their medical needs, and good fishing opportunities, he says; attracting more people to the island would help ensure its survival, by making local businesses more viable, imported goods more affordable, and providing work for locals.
The proposal has raised eyebrows, but Hayes makes no apology for floating unconventional ideas if they might turn things around. His report already has strong political backing. “Some things will work, some things won’t,” he says. “But more of the same is not going to change things.”