There are countries that punch above their weight. They stand out because they either grow fast, do things differently or earn respect and admiration.
Despite many examples across history, there is no “how to” book on punching up. You would think that there were some prerequisites – like valuable natural resources, defensible borders or comfortable climates. But it seems that small countries really only need one thing to achieve greatness: political courage.
Take, for instance, those countries that hit rock-bottom and rise. By 1953, South Korea had suffered almost a million civilian casualties and had an economy on par with sub-Saharan Africa. The Forgotten War was brutal. Lacking natural resources, the nation relied on a frankly schizophrenic mix of economic policies to recover. These were often at odds with the doctrines of the day and even each other.
World-leading R&D investment (at around 4% of GDP) was dished out by a government that also blatantly picked winners – giving preferential treatment to the often-inefficient mega national businesses called Chaebols (Samsung being the most recognisable of these).
There was a massive education drive, but few provisions for worker rights or social safety nets. A focus on exports alongside deep protectionism for the Chaebols. Post-war South Korea didn’t have the luxury of ideological consistency. Free-market capitalism, centrally-planned socialism, dictatorial powers – it didn’t matter. They just needed stuff to work. And work it did. Their transformation from utter destruction to regional powerhouse in just a few decades is nothing short of a miracle.
Existential crisis is an incredible national motivator, but it isn’t a prerequisite for punching-up. Bold strategy works too. Estonia is now the third-fastest growing tech centre in the world. This is by design – the result of a 30-year digitisation strategy to build e-Estonia. Think of it as an online society. Through the digital platform, citizens can vote, learn, pay tax or start businesses. A paramedic can access your medical records instantly. Birth and child benefits are registered automatically. Parliament runs an e-cabinet meeting system to cut out bureaucracy. Anyone, anywhere in the world can become an e-resident of Estonia – thus the influx of tech entrepreneurs. This is what punching above your weight through digital transformation looks like.
A country can even punch above its weight by just being the first to do the right thing. Costa Rica is considered a world leader in the green transition. By pioneering an ecosystem services scheme that pays farmers to protect watersheds, conserve biodiversity or capture carbon, it became the first tropical country to reverse deforestation. Today, more than a third of its land is permanent, regenerating forest – protected by the 18,000 farming families who participate in the scheme.
Costa Rica’s commitment to its natural world has opened up new opportunities in eco-tourism (now 8% of GDP) and emerging carbon and ecosystem services global capital markets. It even developed a debt-for-nature swap – agreeing with intentional lenders to re-direct their debts to nature conservation with third-party oversight. It pays to be the first mover.
Does New Zealand punch above its weight? There are many things we do well and should be proud of – kicking a rugby ball and stunning landscapes notwithstanding. The world saw leadership in our health- and people-first covid response. It sees inspiration in our race relations. It admired our commitment to justice in the nuclear-free and anti-apartheid eras. It learns from Te ao Māori’s relationship with nature and our mission to be predator free by 20250. It likes the low key form of soft power that is uniquely us – that mix of John Key self-deprecating confidence, Jacinda Ardern assertive kindness, Sir Ed humble courage, Lorde creativity and Taiki Waititi offbeat humour. We’re known around the world for great farming and nourishing food.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re playing our excellent hand pretty safe. For a nation with a great climate, well-educated people, geopolitical safety, a stable government and strong social cohesion, we lack the political courage and vision to do the truly extraordinary.
The world didn’t admire John F Kennedy because of his focus on trimming government spending and tax cuts. We remember him because he asked his countrymen to do the impossible and go to the moon. His challenge kicked off the kind of mass government investment and picking of winners (made possible by a top income tax rate of 91%) that would give today’s neo-liberal politicians a heart attack. The economic rewards for that vision are still being reaped today and the moon landing stands as one of humanity’s greatest achievements.
In the interest of providing solutions, here are a few great missions NZ could pathfind for humanity. A nature-positive economy. Eliminating diet and lifestyle health conditions. Achieving genuine equity for indigenous citizens. Pioneering democracy 2.0 reforms like citizen assemblies. A zero-waste economy. Universal access to mental health services. Mainstream ecology and farming in the school curriculum. Building more soil than we lose.
As a blessed nation, I think we have a responsibility to take some risks – to set seemingly impossible goals, and galvanise our people to find the way for the world can follow.