Carrie Stoddart-Smith, Ellipsister, Whanau Ora, New Zealand

Carrie Stoddart-Smith on the pros & cons of Whānau Ora

Whanau Ora has always been in the hissing pit when it comes to NZ politics. Another example of Maori ‘special privilege’. Every jibe simply an attempt by the sneerer to reinforce their assimilationist predisposition and/or self-importance. Much of the criticism is misplaced or exaggerated. And it can be quite distressing seeing Maori internalise that lack of faith in Maori systems. The programme’s implementation is by no means perfect, and sure there are certainly areas requiring vast improvement, but there is no denying it has helped thousands of families in the four years it has been in operation as a matter of government policy.

Two days ago, the Auditor General released a report on Whanau Ora. While it has been depicted in the media as a damning indictment, the report simply sought to clarify what Whanau Ora is, [how the funding has been spent] and what Whanau Ora has achieved after four years. The Auditor General appraises Whanau Ora as “an example of innovation and new thinking in service delivery”. She also states that it provides “an opportunity for providers of health and social services in the community to operate differently and to support families in deciding their best way forward”.

Many people have commented that they are not quite sure what Whanau Ora is or does. I’m not convinced that’s due to a lack of information. Arguably – in many cases at least – it is misunderstood as a result of passive ignorance.

What is Whanau Ora?

Whanau Ora is not a new concept. Like many concepts in Te Ao Māori, no group or individual can determine for others what it means. What can be generally agreed is that from a policy perspective it is an “inclusive and culturally anchored approach based on a Māori view of health that assumes changes in an individual’s wellbeing can be brought about by focusing on the family collective” rather than “focusing separately on individual family members and their problems”. In practice then it requires “multiple government agencies to work together with families rather than separately with individual relatives”.

Three key principles 

Professor Mason Durie emphasises that Whanau Ora is built on three key principles:

Integrated solutions

    The idea is that “no single sector or discipline has all the answers” to meeting the holistic needs of whanau. This means that a Whanau Ora approach is “cross sectoral, inter-disciplinary, Whanau centred”.

Durie writes:

An integrated approach recognises that economic, social, cultural and environmental dimensions are inter-related and one cannot be adequately progressed without the others.

Distinctive pathways

  • Whanau Ora recognises that “cultural worldviews are important to health”. As well as building on “Māori world views, language [and] culture, networks, [and] leadership”, Whanau Ora reaches out to cultures in all their diversity. The objective is to provide a framework within which all whanau can define their own distinctive pathways in accordance with their cultural practices and values to improve whanau outcomes.

Goals that empower

  • Whanau Ora values “human dignity, positive relationships, self-management and self-determination”.
  • It is about “addressing the impacts of whānau disadvantage as well as assisting families to be strong, capable, resilient and self-managing”. The goal then is not only providing services that address existing disparities, but to unlock potential to help whānau access opportunities and navigate their own futures with the tools they need to improve their whanau outcomes.

In a nutshell, [New Zealand politician] Dame Tariana Turia explains that Whanau Ora is about:

…restoring to ourselves, our confidence in our own capacity to provide for our own – to take collective responsibility to support those who need it most.

See also Te Puni Kokiri Fact Sheet.


Following the report, Whanau Ora and in particular, Te Puni Kokiri has come under attack from opposition MPs. The Iwi Leaders Group (ILG) have criticised the way that some politicians have bought into the “beat-up by politically motivated tirades which do nothing but bring this kaupapa into disrepute”. The ILG argue that as Maori we need to have faith in our own answers and be proud of the progress that has been made to enable whanau to date. The group asks:

Why would we turn the spotlight on ourselves, and expect an initiative which is still evolving to rectify generations of neglect or indifference from the state?

Critique is to be welcomed. Evaluations ensure transparency and accountability. The Minister of Maori Development Te Ururoa Flavell appreciated the report, claiming it affirms “the value of taking an innovative public policy approach to supporting families in need.” He considers that the report provides valuable lessons for “Ministers, government departments, commissioning agencies and providers”. Flavell highlights that:

Since Whanau Ora began in 2010, around 9,400 families have benefitted from whanau-centred service delivery which includes almost 50,000 people.

The problem with exaggerating the shortcomings identified in the report, as the ILG point out, is that it risks hurting whanau who have or could benefit from Whanau Ora services. The reason being that if the public perceive the services to be performing poorly, or at least buy into the misplaced criticism by opposition MPs, it provides grounds for the government to withdraw funding despite the gains made to date and the future potential of the approach.

The main criticism refers to the amount of funding spent by Te Puni Kokiri on administration, based on the Auditor General’s observation that:

…delays in spending the available budgets meant that some of the funds intended for whanau and providers did not reach them as originally planned. In our view, better planning and financial management were needed.

Te Puni Kōkiri

Te Puni Kokiri is the government organisation tasked with “carrying out the Initiatives, for giving the Government policy advice about the Initiatives, and for assessing and reporting on the Initiatives’ effectiveness”.

The funding made available for their use was administrative “to implement, develop, and evaluate the whānau ora service delivery approach” in the 2010/2011 period and “to implement, develop, and evaluate the whānau ora commissioning approach” in the 2013/2014 period.

The total amount spent was $137.6 million, which was made up of:

$20.8 million (15% of the total) spent through the WIIE fund which “made funds available to whanau through some form of legal entity to enable them to prepare plans to improve their lives”

$67.9 million (49% of the total) spent through the Service Delivery Capability fund which “made funds available to providers, who used it to build their capability to deliver whanau-centred services”

$6.6 million (5% of the total) spent through the funds for commissioning agencies; and

$42.3 million (31% of the total) spent on administration (including research and evaluation).

In response to this criticism, Te Puni Kokiri’s CEO, Michelle Hippolite, has responded that she can account for where all the funds clustered for administration are currently allocated and asserts that no funds have been misspent. Minister Flavell acknowledges that there were issues “of design, development, and implementation” and that money was allocated to “research, evaluation, and leadership programmes” to assist to that end, without which “the administration spending would have been at a normal level for a Government programme”.


There is certainly good reason for being concerned that funding appears to have centralised in administration and bureaucracy. This is especially so when providers are always in need of additional funding to meet the needs of whanau. Former Minister Tariana Turia criticised this last October* when she questioned why there was an underspend on Whanau Ora and sought answers to where the money had been allocated as she believed that more funding should have been directed to frontline services.

The report most likely answers her question: much was tied up in administration. The challenge going forward will be finding more efficient administration systems to ensure more funding finds its way to service providers and navigators.

The benefit of the report is that it provides clear observations and recommendations that highlight for Te Puni Kokiri in particular where it needs to improve its effectiveness. After all, Whanau Ora is about being whanau-centric, so any costings and financial planning must always be mindful of how whānau are centred in those plans.

However, Whanau Ora cannot resolve the effects of almost 200 years of colonisation in four years. This seems to be the crux of much of the criticism in an attempt to disband Whanau Ora and force a return to the shabby state services that have been in place for decades and have not been able to change outcomes for a large proportion of Maori. It is an undeniably unrealistic expectation to suggest that Whanau Ora would magically solve intergenerational disparity in under half a decade.

In saying that, Whanau Ora has helped numerous families to date. And that success should be celebrated. Although it is currently geared toward Maori and Pasifika whanau to address the history of disparity in Aotearoa, the approach itself is applicable to all whānau and has the capacity to provide a new way of delivering health and social services to all whanau to improve outcomes and finds solutions for whanau self-determination.

*See also Turia’s comments on the long term goals of Whanau Ora.

Carrie Stoddart-Smith is an Auckland-based indigenous researcher, policymaker and writer. She is currently running as a 2017 general election candidate for the Māori Party. Read more by Carrie.

This piece was republished via her blog, Ellipsister.