The Royal Society Te Apārangi has given Dr Mohi Rua the 2018 Te Kōpūnui Māori Research Award. It marks his innovative research on poverty, homelessness and Māori men's health which challenges the relevance of mainstream Anglo-American psychology in responding to the needs of Maōri and other indigenous peoples. It is a new award, recognising innovative Māori research by promising early career researchers. Dr Rua is the co-Director, alongside Dr Bridgette Masters-Awatere, of the Māori & Psychology Research Unit (FASS) and co-leader with Prof Papaarangi Reid (Auckland University) of Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga’s Mauri Ora (Human Flourishing) theme.
Dr Rua’s earlier work on Māori men’s health was strengths based, and considered the positive contributions Māori men make to their whanau, communities and society more broadly. He says this focus challenges psychology’s individualised deficit orientation with Māori men. “Although we cannot hide from the health disparities that exist between Māori and Pākeha, we need to also consider such disparities within the context of colonialism, racism and discrimination that have prevented Māori from flourishing.”
Moving on from Dr Rua’s work in Māori men’s health, he believes his recent research on Precarious Māori Households is particularly important. Along with colleagues from the Māori & Psychology Research Unit and Massey University, he took on the project in 2016. Dr Rua says there was a significant increase in poverty and homelessness. “But the Government of the time downplayed the extent of the situation, despite the evidence. So the Precarious Māori Households project was about countering that discourse and producing more nuanced evidence that takes account of the historical, cultural and societal contexts of people living in hardship.”
At the end of 2017 when Labour came into government, Dr Rua says there was an immediate acknowledgement of poverty, housing crisis and homelessness, and a willingness to search for solutions. Given this change in the political landscape, the Precarious Māori Households project had to shift its focus to finding solutions. The research team’s focus is aligned with objectives of groups like the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which is tasked with overhauling the welfare system. According to the Dr Rua and his research team there is now widespread concern that the welfare system has become increasingly punitive. “Where beneficiaries are punished, penalized and sanctioned, and have their rightful entitlement to their benefits reduced. We have a society that punishes people for being poor as if being poor is immoral. Neoliberal economics can do this to us, as those in need are categorised as undeserving and their lower status is a result of individual character flaws with little regard to the more significant structural issues that trap people in poverty.”
Although the extent of poverty and homelessness in Aotearoa is a recent phenomenon, Dr Rua and his research group have highlighted that Māori have been suffering from poverty and precarity since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Dr Rua says their research is about responding to the structural nature of poverty and the systemic marginalization of those in precarious livelihoods. “So we need to view such issues within a historical context, particularly for Māori. Our research team is clear we have an unwell society and we need a paradigm shift in how society can become healthy for all. We can start with redesigning the welfare system to ensure those in need can live with respect and dignity. Here we can draw on for example, Māori notions of manaakitanga (caring relationships), aroha ki te tangata (compassion), and whakaiti (humility and service to others) as core values to underpin a new and improved Welfare system that future policies can be measured against. So if a policy is developed to punish people, then we can ask how that policy is consistent with the notion of ‘manaakitanga’ or ‘aroha ki te tangata’. If it’s incompatible, then it shouldn’t be implemented.”