We are developing an evidence base of what works to mobilise and effect positive change.

Changing the lens – positive developments from New Zealand was written by Dr Julia Carr and Harry Tam and published in the International Association of Youth and Family Judges and Magistrates Chronicle. The article describes social and historical drivers of gang growth in New Zealand, an approach to intervention and examples of successful mediation and pro-social change.

We have worked closely with Police and other agencies. The following reference from Rotorua police area commander Inspector Phil Taikato demonstrates Police support for our work and the need for a long-term approach to influence pro-social change.


We also work with universities and research organisations to better understand the theory behind our work with hard to reach communities. Reference from Sarah Monod de Froideville, Lecturer, School of Social and Cultural Studies, regarding a guest lecture about gangs delivered by Harry Tam.

The following sections describe why we utilise the ‘hard to reach’ definition and our framework for engaging hard to reach communities to assist individuals and organisations to develop an understanding of how to work effectively with and for hard to reach communities.

Definition of gangs

Defining what a gang is can be problematic and there is no consistent definition amongst international gang researchers.[1] This can largely be attributed to the term gang often being used emotively to describe a marginalised group and or delinquent group behaviour. Nearly all definitions of a gang include two components:

  • that it is a group; and
  • the group’s delinquent behaviour

Defining what a gang is has become even more confusing as governments have linked gangs with organised crime. This link has distorted the reality of the indigenous ethnic gang and youth gang situation in New Zealand as there is no clear evidence that indigenous ethnic gangs and youth gangs have been intricately linked to organised crime.

Definition of ‘Hard to Reach’

Hard to Reach is a term that is often used in social marketing.[2] Social marketing is a consumer focussed approach that is premised on the belief that nobody is impossible to reach; it just depends on the approach taken and it may require extra effort and creativity to reach these groups.[3]

From a health perspective, Hard to Reach commonly means those who do not access health services. It can be viewed negatively – that it is the individuals or groups who are the ‘problem’. There is a growing understanding, however, that there are provider, programme, and social factors affecting access and engagement of hard-to-reach groups.

Hard to Reach populations can be identified by demographic or social characteristics and may include:

  • drug users
  • people living with HIV
  • people from sexual minority communities
  • asylum seekers
  • refugees
  • people from ethnic minority communities
  • homeless people
  • gang members

However, just being a member of the demographic group doesn’t mean they are Hard to Reach. Rather it is the attitudinal characteristics that contribute to the “Hard to Reach” definition. For example, people could be “Hard to Reach” because they think that government doesn’t want to listen to them or doesn’t care about them or, in extreme situations, legislate against them. Some people don’t want to be reached because they may be carrying out illegal activities or they are drug abusers. Consequently, they avoid authorities like Police and Ministry for Children, etc.

The Hard to Reach population is not homogenous, and context matters. Some are Hard to Reach in some situations but not in others. However, Hard to Reach also reflects on those wishing to make contact and signals the need to overcome barriers and prejudices.

Why use the Hard to Reach definition?

The Hard to Reach definition is preferred because it describes Māori communities that are socially excluded – some, for instance, from government service entitlement by definition. Through this social exclusion process[4] communities of people lose some of their rights and privileges as citizens because of their appearance and/or affiliation.   Gang members and their whānau fit this definition.

The hard to reach term is an appropriate definition because it also recognises that members of these communities are citizens, are community members, and they have and are part of whānau. The Hard to Reach definition allows interventions to tackle the behaviours of those that are gang members, or at risk of becoming gang members, without exacerbating the problem through further marginalisation.

Using the hard to reach definition challenges the people with the power to reach rather than to marginalise. Reaching hard to reach communities is premised on the need to penetrate and to engage with marginalised communities.We believe that no one is hard to reach if we really want to reach them. It depends on whether we intend to reach them and whether we are prepared to do things differently. 

Characteristics that initiatives should be focussed on

International developmental research[5] has identified four characteristics that young people need to ensure that they are resilient to adverse conditions and to thrive. The four characteristics are:

  • a sense of industry and competency[6],[7] – developing a sense of self belief in their own abilities through succeeding in engaged activities and obtaining recognition for productivity. This can be achieved through activities such as sports, hobbies, school or employment;
  • a feeling of connectedness to others and to society[8] – building empathy with others by knowing that others care for them. This can be achieved by increasing the positive connections with community, government and business networks through pro social activities;
  • a sense of control over one’s fate in life[9] – a person who has a sense of control over their fate in life believes that they can affect their future. This can be achieved through being engaged in interactions in which they can successfully predict the outcomes of their actions; and
  • a stable identity[10] – the development of a stable identity is associated with positive interpersonal relationships, psychological and behavioural stability, and productive adulthood. This can be achieved by strengthening cultural identity and connectedness.

These four characteristics are consistent with an approach which recognises Māori as:

  • a diverse population;
  • culturally distinct; and
  • aspirational people who are capable of leading their own solutions.

This approach also recognises the need for a strengths-based focus on whānau as the core unit of Maori society.

H2R proposed approach to arresting gang violence

H2R’s proposed approach to reduce gang disorders and criminal behaviour is underpinned by the following principles:

  • Focus on the behaviours rather than on appearance or affiliation– the delivery of interventions and social services should be focussed on changing behaviours rather than focussing on what the recipient looks like or who they are affiliated to;[11]
  • Remove the labels – there is a propensity to label youth groups as youth gangs without recognising that young people need their peer support as part of a natural youth development process. Labelling theorists[12] argue that labelling can create a self fulfilling prophecy situation where the young people’s behaviours will be influenced by the label;
  • Recognise that there is good in all whānau and communities – regardless of how alienated or dysfunctional a whānau or community may be, there will always be some good within it – identify the good and tap into it to start the change process;
  • Recognise leadership diversity – Māori are not a homogenous group and a whānau has its own leadership that agencies need to accept and work through;
  • Engage whānau and community – recognise whānau and community are not passive recipients but are aspirational and are capable of designing, developing and delivering their own interventions and services that will factor in their whānau and community realities. People who have common experiences with hard to reach populations are the most appropriate people to design and deliver interventions projects because they can share their experiences of what has led them to make positive life choices;[13]
  • Build capability and capacity – recognise whānau and community leaders are often people with instinctive leadership qualities and may need support to develop their formal leadership acumen;
  • Mobilise whānau and community – changing criminal behaviours effectively requires the whānau and community acceptance for the need to change; and
  • Support and resource whānau and community initiatives – ensure Maori designed, developed and delivered bottom-up initiatives are adequately supported and evaluated by government Iwi and community agencies.

Gang Liaison and Mediation

Gang liaison is a process that has been utilized in New Zealand since the mid 1970’s, as a means of penetrating gang groups to assist them to undertake pro-social community development. Through this process outreach workers are used to identify causes of conflict and implement a gang mediation process as a means of resolving inter-gang disputes. In 1976, the Detached Youth Workers Scheme was established to enable outreach youth workers to work with gang groups. In 1982, the Group Employment Liaison Scheme (GELS) was established as it was recognized that there needed to be points of contact within the bureaucracy for gang work trusts and other community employment groups. GELS was designed to assist the various groups to negotiate a system of employment, training, or education.[14] A small number of GELS field officers were gang members, or gang associates, and were occasionally involved in mediating gang disputes.

The gang mediation process was so successful that it was utilized to mediate gang disputes in a number of prisons, including Mt Eden prison and Pāremoremo maximum security prison.[15] Following the 1989 Ministerial Review of the prison system, the official Department of Justice policy for the management of gangs in prison was not to accord any recognition to gangs or gang leadership within the prison environment.[16] However, due to the high levels of gang confrontations in the prison,[17] the gang liaison approach was re-deployed as a way to mediate between the gangs. Gang leaders such as Roy Dunn were utilized in the mediation process.

Gang mediation is a specialized field and can be dangerous for people who are not familiar with gang sub-culture and dynamics. Furthermore, unless the mediator has credibility with the gang community, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to penetrate gang groups.

Gang mediation practices in New Zealand have utilized gang leaders or people with close connections with gang communities as mediators. The advantage of this process is that the mediators are familiar with gang culture and protocols and are therefore able to communicate with the various gangs and their members. A suitable mediator is often a leader who is highly respected within the wider gang community.

Currently gang mediation has not reached its full potential and is often utilized as an afterthought, or after several violent incidents has already taken place. In many cases the gang mediation process is not completed and looses its effectiveness over time and violence reoccurs.

The under utilization of gang mediation can be attributed to:

  • the lack of desire to participate by the parties involved – one group may be seeking dominance over the other or one group is seeking revenge, thus their lack of desire to take part in a mediation process;
  • there is no previous relationship established by the mediators with the parties or one of the parties in dispute; and
  • gang mediation is not generally supported by the police, community leaders or officials.

Whenever gang mediation is utilized, it appears to be promising however its true effectiveness is unknown as it has never been evaluated in New Zealand. However, mediation is considered to be an effective dispute resolution tool and it is utilized in many different forms i.e industrial mediation, tenancy mediation, relationship mediation, etc. For gang mediation to be fully effective it needs to be part of a broader strategy to manage gang behaviors.


Arresting youth and gang related violence requires a multi-dimensional long term response. H2R promotes the need for a social inclusion approach. This differs from government agency views on a preferred government response to youth gangs, which predominantly focus on preventing young people joining gangs.

H2R’s approach begins by redefining gangs as Hard to Reach because this term recognizes that gang community dynamics have changed significantly from first generation indigenous ethnic gang members[18] to second and third generation gang membership. This definition recognizes the need to engage the whole whānau and the need for whānau to recognize their behaviors are damaging to themselves and to others. To achieve this, the H2R’s approach recognizes the need to work with pro-social hard to reach whānau leaders to champion change within their whānau and community.

H2R’s experiences have confirmed that such leaders exist and are effective in mobilizing their whānau and community to begin an effective pro-social change process. However, such an approach is not without risk. Not all whānau leaders are ready to lead pro-social developments. It requires a high level of commitment and a lifestyle change to lead Hard to Reach whānau. Despite these risks and the challenges, the returns could be huge in terms of reducing negative social costs. To minimize the risks, the selection of whānau leaders requires sound judgment based on good community intelligence.

The greatest frustration currently for those involved in these initiatives, is accessing sustainable government and community agency resources and support for Hard to Reach initiatives. The issue of funding and resourcing will inevitably arise out of any discussions with Iwi and Hard to Reach leaders. To maximise the effectiveness of any initiative it should be part of a wider approach that includes:

  • field workers;
  • infrastructure support;
  • training and development;
  • national co-ordiation;
  • administrative support;
  • policy capability; and
  • funding support for programmes and initiatives.


[1] Green.J. and Pranis.K., (2007) “Gang Wars – The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies”, Justice Policy Institute. http://www.justicepolicy.org.

[2] Beder, HW (1980) ‘Reaching the hard to reach adult through effective marketing’ , New Directions for Continuing Education, 8: 11-26.

[3] Wilson, D (2001) Consulting Hard to Reach Groups, Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association (LARIA) SEMINAR, 15 November. http://www.laria.gov.uk/content/features/68/feat1.htm.

[4] http://www.escwa.un.org/information/publications/edit/upload/sdd-07-WP4-e.pdf.

[5]. Understanding Youth Development: Promoting Positive Pathways of Growth was developed by CSR, Incorporated, for the Family and Youth Services Bureau; Administration on Children, Youth and Families; Administration for Children and Families; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[6]. Erikson, E. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[7]. Erikson, E. 1963. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[8]. Gottfredson, M.R., and Hirschi, T. 1994. “A General Theory of Adolescent Problem Behavior.” In Ketterlinus, R.D., and Lamb, M., eds. Adolescent Problem Behaviors: Issues and Research. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 41-56.

[9]. Patterson, G., and Dishion, T. 1985. “Contributions of Families and Peers to Delinquency.” Criminology 23:63-79.

[10]. Grotevant, H.D. 1996. “Adolescent Development in Family Contexts.” In Damon, W., and Eisenberg, N., eds. Handbook of Child Psychology. Vol. 3, Social, Emotional and Personality Development, 5th ed. New York: Wiley.

[11] Green.J. and Pranis.K., (2007) “Gang Wars – The Failure of Enforcement Tactics and the Need for Effective Public Safety Strategies”, Justice Policy Institute. http://www.justicepolicy.org.

[12]. Originating in sociology and criminology, labelling theory (also known as social reaction theory) was developed by sociologist Howard Becker. It focuses on the linguistic tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms. The theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping. Unwanted descriptors or categorizations (including terms related to deviance, disability or a diagnosis of mental illness) may be rejected on the basis that they are merely “labels”, often with attempts to adopt a more constructive language in its place. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labeling_theory.

[13]. Spee.K. (2008) Investments in Effective Interventions Programme of Action for Māori initiatives Evaluation of the ‘Hard to Reach Youth’ project: Evaluation Report Te Puni Kōkiri. Unpublished.

[14]. The Committee on Gangs. (1981) Report of the Committee on Gang. Government Printers, Wellington..

[15]. Meek, J (1992) Gangs in New Zealand Prison.s Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology.

[16]. Roper, C (Sir) (1989) The Ministerial Review of the Prison System. Department of Justice, Wellington.

[17]. Particularly between Black Power and the Mongrel Mob.

[18] 1960’s – 1970’s

Hard to reach in the literature

The ‘term hard to reach’ has been used in a number of different contexts around the world. Here are some useful reports and articles which describe some of the ways hard to reach has been been conceptualised.

Brackertz, N (2007) Who is hard to reach and why? ISR working paper, Australia.

Cortis, N., Katz, I. & Patulny, R. (2009) Engaging hard-to-reach families and children. Stronger families and communities strategy 2004-2009. National Evaluation Consortium, Australia.

Jones, T & Newburn, T (2001) Widening access: Improving police relations with hard to reach groups. Policing and reducing crime unit, England.

Doherty, P., Hall, M., & Kinder, K., (2003) On-track thematic report: assessment, referral and hard-to-reach groups. National foundation for educational research, Wales.