But the benefits aren't reaching many New Caledonians; in particular, young indigenous Kanaks, among whom unemployment is 38 per cent.
Presenter: Geraldine Coutts
Speaker: Professor Catherine Ris, University of New Caledonia
RIS: New Caledonia is a quite rich country, especially compared to other countries in the Pacific Islands, but it's a very unequal country. Income distribution, experience, [there are] big, huge disparities. Even people, even different ethnic groups and also between areas even, if you are living in the south of New Caledonia you are not living in the same conditions than if you are living in the north, or in the islands province. And one of the reasons for that is the school achievement already defers according to ethnicity. School achievement, if we split the population between Kanaks - that's the indigenous people of New Caledonia - and non-Kanak people, we see for example that only three per cent of Kanak people graduate from higher education, compared to 23 per cent from non-Kanak people. And this disparity in school achievement also implies of course disparities in access to employment, labour market outcomes and to income distribution.
COUTTS: And part of that will be migration, I suppose. A better-educated Kanak or person from one of the ethnicities won't stay in the local communities, they move on, and that's why they improve their standards.
RIS: Eh, yeah. It really depends. You often see some well-qualified Kanak people that are working in the city during the week and go back to the village during the weekend, and they still live in their community and are very active in that. You also have some young Kanak people who go to school but they fail, so they stop school with no qualifications and they don't really have a village where they can go and so they stay in the city, and that involves very high unemployment for young, unqualified Kanak people in the city.
COUTTS: But it's a significant skew. The unemployment rate among young Kanaks is four times greater. That's a significant skew. Why is it so large?
RIS: There are many reasons for that. The first one is, as I said, the level of qualifications and that is much higher for non-Kanak people than for Kanak people. There are also some other reasons. There's a social network. Non-Kanak people benefit from better social networking to find a job and to find a good job. One other reason can be information for the job, when you are living far away from the city or from the economic activity you have no information of jobs available so you cannot apply for them. Another reason is also that there are very few Kanak people in managerial or higher positions in the labour market so there is no really representation for young Kanak people to say I can do that, I can reach this position. So that's really encourage active action, affirmative action to promote young Kanak people that will be a model for the rest of the community. And of course one reason is also discrimination against Kanak people, because most, I would say something like 85 per cent of employers in New Caledonia are non-Kanak, so it's been shown in some sociological studies that there is also discrimination in employing Kanak people.
COUTTS: Now there have been attempts to address the imbalance, starting around 1998 with better educational opportunities and vocational training opportunities as you have mentioned already. But it's 14 years on, why hasn't it worked?
RIS: Actually it works. I won't say it didn't work because inequality has really decreased during the last 20 years. Twenty years ago no Kanaks graduated from higher education, so now there are not a lot, but compared to what we had 20 years before it's still an improvement. And we even see that the improvement is much better in school achievement than in labour market outcomes, meaning that now people get more and more qualified and I guess it will need time that they get access to the labour market.
COUTTS: Have the authorities in New Caledonia - the government and the unions - expressed much interest in your research? Are they open to suggestion and prepared to tackle the situation?
RIS: Yeah, that's quite interesting for people in New Caledonia, but not for everybody as in my studies I'm using what we call ethnic data, meaning that we identify people according to their ethnic group or to their community, and that's possible through censuses in New Caledonia because censuses identify ethnicity. But for the French Republic it's very, how to say, its very sensitive. In the French Republic you are not allowed to use ethnic statistic. In the French census, there is no ethnic statistic because the main argument for that is saying that classifying people according to their ethnicity will lead to stigmatising them and that's really not the French way of looking at things. And even in New Caledonia if their ethnicity if recognised and we know that we need ethnic data to know how far we are with the different communities, it's very difficult to speak about it, it's still very sensitive.
COUTTS: Should there be a program of positive discrimination? Should there be laws that say that employers must have a certain percentage of Kanak and ethnic groupings in their employment?
RIS: I think, but before that maybe putting more affirmative action in education and there is until now only one program for affirmative action in education for Kanak people, and there should be more. If we are able to get good school achievement for Kanak people they will better insert into the labour market. So for me the most [important] point is really school achievement.
COUTTS: But your question for your paper at the seminar was does school achievement improve labour market positions for indigenous New Caledonians, basically what your saying the answer so far is no?
RIS: No, not yet, I would say not yet.