In Hawaii, A Holistic Approach to Treat a Broken Economy

Ho‘owaiwai—genuine wealth—was mentioned last month as wealth that was beyond financial; wealth that included our relationships with our family, our friends, and the environment around us. Yet what does that mean as applied to our economy?

Looking at the root of the word “economics,” the Greek term oikonomia means “management of the household.” 

Imagine if we viewed economics as not just the exchange of money and financial resources, but a holistic picture of the family unit that emphasizes its self-sufficiency. Imagine if the focus on the household unit was instilled in our social fabric and government operations. 

Currently, the County of Hawai‘i Department of Planning is looking at the implications of viewing economics from the perspective of the family unit and the household as applied to local community development plans (CDPs).  
The draft CDP for the rural area of Ka‘ū approaches planning first from the vision and values of the community and incorporates the work of renowned Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukuʻi to create a foundation grounded in the family unit, or ‘ohana as:

  • A cohesive force tied by ancestry, birth, and sentiment to a particular locality or ‘āina.
  • A mutual benefit association that “manifests genuine community spirit.”
  • An economic community where relationships regulate personal, social, and economic intercourse.
  • An internal system that includes voluntary giving of food, utilitarian articles, and services as well as communal labor for large-scale projects.

Consequently, underlying the ‘ohana system—the ‘ohana economy if you will—is the concept of reciprocity and the importance of cultural practices that perpetuated the exchange between:

  • Families through the sharing of food;
  • Communities through the sharing of resources; and
  • The environment through the mutual care.

Yet the plan recognizes that while the ‘ohana system sustained generations of families in Hawai‘i, the introduction of private land ownership and wage labor transformed the social system and disconnected families from the ‘āina—the land and the relationship which fed families—as well as one another.

Stepping back, however, one can see that this experience as well as the above concepts are not unique to families in Hawai‘i. The concepts of reciprocity and sharing are embodied in cultures across the world.

Today, with the help of technological advances, these concepts have gained credibility and widespread acceptance within the current economic frame through a variety of organizations and platforms such as Wikipedia, Zipcar, and AirBnB and broader concepts such as co-work spaces, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding due to the huge value added to our communities—largely through the creation of community.

Perhaps a continued effort to incorporate the concepts of reciprocity and sharing within our work, as the County of Hawai‘i is doing already, will push towards a clearer picture of the ‘ohana economy—economics as the management of the household, as building genuine wealth for our families—and in the process, strengthen our communities.

Mahalo (thank you) to Ron Whitmore, Long Range Planner, Hawai‘i County Planning Department for his input on this blog.  For more information on the County's process to the update the Ka‘ū CDP, please click here.

(Photo by Craig James CC BY-NC)

Brent Kakesako is the executive director for the Hawai’i Alliance for Community-Based Economic Development (HACBED), a nonprofit intermediary that works to build the capacity of families and communities in Hawai’i and provide ongoing support so that they have choice and control to push for economic, environmental, and social justice.


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