Community Scoop

Secrets Darwin could share

Tara D'SousaTara D’Sousa
National Manager, Social Service Providers Aotearoa Inc.

I am halfway through the fascinating David Quammen biography of Charles Darwin “The Kiwi’s Egg”, and given the antipodean reference in its title, I cannot but help reflect on its narrative in a way wholly unexpected by its subject, transposing a natural-history theme or two to the contemporary New Zealand social context.

Darwin’s single underlying theme in his Origin of Species is the unity of all life, reflecting the process of evolution. His biggest idea was what he called “natural selection”, which Quammen likens to the kiwi’s egg: a metaphor for the extraordinary weight of Darwin’s theory which was likely to (and did) disrupt the current thinking about creation. The kiwi’s egg constitutes 20% of the total weight of the kiwi female[1], and in the same way as she takes a good long twenty four days to nurture it, Darwin’s theory was in gestation for over fifteen years before he published it in 1859.

Where am I going with this? The social sector in New Zealand has been disrupted by many “new” ideas over the past few years – perhaps not quite as revolutionary as Darwin’s; and the period of gestation and nurturing, unlike for Darwin and our own brown kiwi, perhaps not as long as it took to produce the single unifying theory, the fabulous six-times-larger than expected kiwi egg.

Earlier this week I received a cohort of senior Executives from Queensland on a New Zealand Study Tour. They were from the Queensland Council of Social Services[2], the Social Policy Department of Premier and Cabinet, Regional Department of Communities and Queensland Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak. The visit purpose was to meet with a number of New Zealand social service commentators, practitioners and decision-makers at all levels to understand the “new” ideas of social investment, collection of data and predictive analytics, and place-based services to address intractable social issues.

I confused myself and the group in my effort to explain the timeline and rationale for Contracting for Outcomes, Social Investment, Social Sector Trials, Children’s Action Plan, Whānau Ora, Community Investment Strategy, External Advisory Panel’s report on Child Youth and Family, Productivity Commission’s report on More Effective Social Services and Treasury’s Data Analytics to Understand Risk and Vulnerability.

I hadn’t got to the various cross-sector boards, commissioning agencies, Ministries and sub-sets of Ministries involved or the key recommendations of the various reports before I was struck by the electrifying revelation that in a context of high complexity we are facing a preponderance of “great ideas” and are operating in an environment of normalised incoherence. I challenged myself to join the dots, make connections and pull out the single unifying theory, but in the slightly bemused, glazed-over look of my audience I became aware of my failure to deliver.

To the questions about intersectionality and relationship I was unable to provide a coherent answer. Here is a group of government and NGO representatives demonstrating their commitment to work together, visiting overseas to learn from other collaborative work, sharing openly the good and not-so-good results of co-design efforts, and here am I somewhat embarrassed, painting our sector’s picture of good collaboration with the caveat “in pockets”.

What truths I was able to share with confidence is that the community and voluntary sector welcomes disruption because it forces us to innovate and adapt; we have driven the dialogue on outcomes having been driven to distraction by reports that seek accountability of widgets; we value working together and some key examples of collaboration have been cited by government officials in their reports and recommendations.

Darwin’s tip: Those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.[3] We do have to now make more sense of this proliferation of new initiatives and ideas, this disruption of the social service landscape of extraordinary proportions, and do so with more than the most simplistic of solutions. After all, the human development story is even more complex, the true impact of change will be realised and aggregated more than fifteen years down the track: like Darwin’s theory, like the kiwi’s egg.

Note that we do not see dots being connected by central government; here is where we lead. Charles Darwin didn’t say that only the strong survive. What he said was that those who survive are the ones who most accurately perceive their environment and successfully adapt to it[4].

[1] A female brown kiwi weighs less than five pounds. Her egg weighs almost a pound…”The Kiwi’s Egg: David Quammen, 2007


[3] The Descent of Man: Charles Darwin, 1871

[4] Lessons from Europe for American Business: Leon C. Megginson,  1963



  1. David Hanna, 5. November 2015, 15:14

    Thank you Tara – so helpful to read. As one also ‘swimming’ in the ocean of new approaches / reports / reviews all promising new innovative results it is very hard to see the land (what land?). Merely reflecting back to me the reality we are in hopefully helps us all to ‘perceive our environment and successfully adapt’ (or failing this … at least have a good laugh at it all).

  2. Jan Hinde, 5. November 2015, 18:22

    ”Darwin’s tip: Those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” – that’s a great reminder..

  3. Maggy Tai Rakena, 5. November 2015, 20:47

    Great article Tara.
    I am reminded that essentially…’there is nothing new under the sun’… ideas/initiatives are usually reframed old wisdoms just seen with ‘new eyes’.
    Hopefully we don’t all drown in the plethora of ‘new’ approaches and manage to steadfastly serve our communities with ancient love, care and unconditional positive regard as without these any ‘new’ idea is doomed.