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Is There a Better Approach to Remote Aboriginal Communities?

24 October 2011 at 11:40 am
Staff Reporter
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.

Staff Reporter | 24 October 2011 at 11:40 am


Is There a Better Approach to Remote Aboriginal Communities?
24 October 2011 at 11:40 am

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.
Jesus wept.
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

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  • Dale Campbell says:

    Toby, firstly it's good to see this blog and MA addressing the issues in remote communities. I work in a Darwin based NGO and have also lived on the Tiwi Islands and Jabiru. I've been involved in service delivery to remote communities for three years in the NT and three years in NSW.

    I'd agree with much of what you have said and challenge some others. One of the problems with assessing the performance of service delivery in remote communities is what we might call the "scorecard approach" – "we've spent $X and 'aboriginal people' are worse off". In some ways I'd agree with this statement but the big problem with it is that the "performance" of indigenous communities varies wildly. Jabiru and Gunbalanya, for example, are 40 minutes apart by road and light years by outcome: in Jabiru school attendance and health outcomes are positive and substance abuse is under control, in Gunbalanya they are all off the dial. There are dozens of others of which you could say the same.

    I'd also agree with the idea that sustainable solutions must be driven by the communities but I'd challenge the idea that self determination is absent from contemporary models. The most significant corporate entities in most communities are regional local councils, local stores and clubs, and land councils. All of these, in fact, are run by either locally elected councillors, traditional owners, or community appointed members. NT remote communities also have "Community Boards" to input into local decision making and they are generally used as "training grounds" for future community leaders. All have authority over significant amounts of program funding, land use and royalties, and other community initiatives. None of this is new, so why do the problems persist ? "Self determination" is not a cure all, Jabiru and Gunbalanya both fall under the same Council, all of the Councillors are elected by the residents, and at least for the last few years all are indigenous with historic links to the community.  Not surprisingly the same variances in governance quality exist between communities: in my experience the councillors, elders and traditional owners on the Tiwis were outstanding, they had a genuine desire to work for the betterment of their communities; in some other communities, however, that wasn't the case. In some cases there can be a thin line between self determination and self interest.

    Part of the ongoing challenge for indigenous communities is to find that delicate balance between self determination and accountability.This is not to safeguard some esoteric policy "purity" for the bureaucrats in Canberra, it's to protect the interests of those people for whom the service is delivered ! Those who ultimately pay the cost of corruption or incompetence are the people within the communities. All stakeholders need to work towards the development of a governance culture. Training, accreditation, consultation all have a role to play as does effective oversight mechanisms.

    There are many good things happening in remote communities, in many cases they are a product of the strategic partnership between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Obviously, governments have a key role to play because they control the resources. I'd agree with you that they need to create the framework within which a "return" can be realised on the (substantial) investment in remote communities. Personally, I remain hopeful it can be achieved but it needs commitment, persistence and insightful solutions from all stakeholders.


    Thanks for the blog 

  • Lodgej says:

    Having worked in the Indigenous sector (NGOs) in the Kimberley for the past 20 years, it’s great to see a reiteration of what most of us here know to be the only way ahead. Why can’t the governments (state and federal) see this, take advice and act on it so that Aboriginal communities have charge of their own destinies.

  • Anonymous says:

    the first thing that needs to do is change the “we know whats best for you” attitude that has almost a 100% failure rate, thats a failure of the governments, when you take the decision making away from people you must also take responsability, we need to stop blaming Aboriginals when they have little to no imput in these programs, second im not sure they want to be like europeans, a culture thats opposite to their belief system, capitalism based on greed, money and power, I dont think that makes them backwards at all to avoid a unsustainable system that cant last, and third, its not in the governments intrest for the problems to get better, we have an Aboriginal industry thats keeping thousands of non Aborignals employed,we would have an unemployment crisis if their problems got better, its not as simple as Aboriginal self drive, so many road blocks are put up, like the Australia day protest, most aussies say they dont need to go to that extreme, well im open to suggestions as to how they could better gain some attention, for over two hundred years successive governments have denied them the chance to sit down and talk, when the leader of your nation refuses to even talk to you Im not sure what options are left, please tell me how they could make their leaders listen? Its 2012 and only now they are taking about the need for fresh food in the outback, very slow to act i think, this has all came about because of successive governemts denying the rights of Aboriginals and now we look like a backwards nation (for good reason), we need to take the first steps before we can deal with step 10 and forcing people to conform makes us a dictatorship not a free country, under international law it is considered genocide to force assimilation so its stand as logical you would include Aboriginals and their opinions or we are a dictator nation trying to force assimilation (genocide)

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