The Government's flagship welfare policy for Maori, Whanau Ora - worth $40 million this year - is designed to lift families out of poverty and dysfunction, but it has been criticised as a waste of money and an opportunity for some to rort the system. In a four-part investigation reporter Yvonne Tahana and Simon Collins speaks to those at Whanau Ora's frontline.

Whanau Ora carries the hopes of a generation of Maori leaders but its wide scope also makes it loose and open to abuse.

Whanau Ora Minister Tariana Turia sees it as a circuit-breaker for Maori.

"Whanau Ora is about empowering whanau to take control of their lives. What we want for whanau is to be self-determining, to be living healthy lifestyles, to be participating fully in society and to be economically secure," she has said.


Sir Mason Durie, who led the taskforce charged with putting this vision into practice, said the goal was to "enable whanau to realise their full potential and give effect to their collective aspirations".

He identified six broad whanau goals: self-management (non-dependency); healthy lifestyles; full participation in society; confident participation in the Maori world; economic security; and whanau cohesion.

The practical vehicle that emerged from the National-led Government is in two parts. First, $33 million for 34 regional collectives to integrate their services and employ whanau "navigators".

This is what Sir Mason - a retired professor of psychiatry - sees as the "targeted" part of the scheme.

The second part of the scheme, "the universal dimension", is a fund worth $6 million this year that is open for any family to get up to $5000 to develop a "whanau plan". The only constraint is that they must have a legal entity, such as a family trust, and in practice most recipients are agencies working with families.

Not everyone gets $5000 but many do, and one regional leadership group member expressed concern about "ticking off applications to five family members sitting round a table and giving them $5000, and then ticking off one to a whanau of 200 members and giving them $5000".

Yet this "universal dimension" is central to the Whanau Ora philosophy. It is explicitly not about tackling particular problems, such as addictions or other health issues, which agencies already exist for.

It is about empowering families to dream, to set long-term goals, and then to overcome any barriers to achieving them.

The eight whanau featured in this series have all found the scheme useful. It has lifted their eyes from their immediate problems, given them space to dream, and helped them to deal with health problems, find better housing, get into training courses and rearrange their working lives to spend more time with their children.

Te Puni Kokiri, the Maori development ministry, says the scheme will be tightened. Under the Maori Party's coalition deal with National, the Government is also due to make progress this year on creating "a stand-alone commissioning agency" which could help to cement Whanau Ora for the long term.

But Sir Mason said the scheme's future would hang on its results.

Te Puni Kokiri has received an initial evaluation but has not yet released it, and Sir Mason said it was too soon to see clear outcomes. "I think it's working," he said.

But asked if he could provide evidence yet, he said: "No, I don't think I can."

Whanau Ora (Well Families) is a Government welfare policy initiated by the Maori Party. It is open for everyone but its focus is on Maori families.

Social agencies work with whanau to help identify and improve problem issues such as poor housing, health, education and legal problems. They also ask the family to plan a future which moves them from state dependency to become financially independent and healthy participants in their community.

It is funded in two parts:
* $33.2m this year for agencies to form consortiums to work together with whanau to improve all elements of their wellbeing.

* $6.4m this year directly for whanau to form their own plans to improve their wellbeing.

We have travelled to four of the areas where the services are most in demand.
Monday: Tai Tokerau (Northland)
* Urgent review follows abuse of scheme
* Disabled uncle has new hope after 14 years on benefit
Doors open to decent housing and a better lifestyle
* More cash the key to better lives, says CEO
Today: Waikato-Tainui
* Dream of life in Oz unites family
* Children put first with help of family plan
* Engagement and support replace expulsion at school
* Tainui seeks investors to help build $20m centre
Today: Te Arawa (Rotorua)
Thursday: Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland)

Email: Whanau Ora
Visit: Te Puni Kokiri