With social and economic indicators showing that Government spending is doing little to assist Aboriginal Australians, Mission Australia CEO and CSI Blog Contributor Toby Hall asks if a new approach is needed. This article is taken from the CSI Blog.
It’s perhaps the most commonly asked question I hear – “what can be done to help Aboriginal Australians?” And as we all know, there’s no easy answer. I think, like Noel Pearson, the solution is in increased self-determination for Aboriginal communities.
Everyone wants to do the right thing – governments, community agencies, businesses – but if anything we’re going backwards. As evidence, a recent Department of Finance Strategic Review of Indigenous Expenditure
provides depressing reading. It said that despite the Australian Government spending $3.5 billion on programs designed to assist Aboriginal Australians each year it had resulted in “dismally poor returns.” It also states that across a host of key social and economic indicators Aboriginal Australians were in no better position than they were in 1970. Forty years, tens of billions of dollars later, and little or no progress to report.
Australia grew on the back of smart communities that identified their own needs and objectives and then set out to achieve them. They didn’t wait for government. They got together and built the church, the school, the clinic. They planned and delivered on creating a community. Self-determination at its best.
Aboriginal communities survived pretty well on their own for tens of thousands of years using the same thought processes. However, in many Aboriginal communities the freedoms and opportunities associated with self-determination have been deferred to government over decades. And yet governments have, on the whole, failed miserably in managing these responsibilities.
So how do we give power back to these communities that have been starved of the opportunity to set their own course and where the individual skills needed to lead people in these endeavours have been blunted by years of welfare dependency? New Zealand might give us some ideas on how to achieve it.
The NZ Local Government Act of 2002 introduced a series of reforms to bring more community consultation and input into local decision-making. Communities were engaged in prioritising local needs and the actions required to address them. Slowly but surely the Act’s reforms – including the development of Long-Term Council Community Plans with input from local individuals and organisations – is giving people back their voice.
The same community development model is used by most NGOs. When they enter a community, agencies first seek to learn about local issues before helping people start on a journey of self-determination. This always starts with an end goal for which the community has responsibility for over the long-term.
If we want to see change in Aboriginal communities we need to create a model that is guided by sound community development principles, including:
Understanding the community;
Taking the community through a process to determine its future;
Helping the community fund and deliver that future; and
Handing total authority back to the community.
This approach will need long-term funding commitments – funding of programs for 15-20 years, not the one to three year contracts we currently see in place. With long-term government funding, corporate investment will follow.
In some places I suggest what’s needed is little other than government getting out of people’s way. But in other places there’s no question more significant support is needed.
Organisations like Mission Australia, World Vision, Oxfam, Plan International, Anglicare and Uniting Care – along with Indigenous agencies – are well placed to provide that support.
We cannot provide the answers. But what we can do is guide communities in finding the answers to their problems. Our job is to provide the catalyst for change and help deliver self determination through good governance and long-term planning. That planning must include NGOs getting out of the way when our job is done, not putting down roots and assuming the ‘dead hand’ role that governments and bureaucracies currently play.
Every dollar that is spent on delivering programs in Aboriginal communities should be directed by them, not governments. But to achieve this, radical change is needed. The various failed approaches to Aboriginal welfare and development that governments have taken for more than 40 years must be jettisoned for policies that champion communities and which return decision-making to their ranks.
The Centre for Social Impact (CSI) at the University of New South Wales brings together the business, government, philanthropic and third (Not for Profit) sectors, in a collaborative effort to build community capacity and facilitate social innovation.
The CSI blog aims to provide a forum for discussion and debate on topics related to social impact. The blog features regular posts by CSI staff, as well as pieces by guest bloggers. Selected blog posts are re-published by Pro Bono Australia News – to visit the CSI blog visit www.csi.edu.au/site/Home/Blog.aspx