It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight and tragedy of the raw statistics confirming the poor state of Indigenous Australia, more so during NAIDOC “celebrations” last week.
The Productivity Commission reported recently that Indigenous children are six times more likely to suffer abuse than other Australian children. Cases of child abuse or neglect in Indigenous communities have more than doubled in less than decade despite recent efforts to tackle the problem.
Indigenous adults are 13 times more likely as non-Indigenous adults to be imprisoned, a rate worse than at the start of the decade.
Across virtually all the indicators in the report there are wide gaps in outcomes between non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous. Many areas are getting worse. That these disparities have existed for generations is shameful.
However, we can take heart that every government and many non-government agencies now recognise the condition of Indigenous Australians and the enormous challenge it poses. There is sustained urgency across the political divide.
Even better news is that many Indigenous communities recognise their internal problems and are fighting back. They know the solution is not merely about throwing more money at concerns but about building capacity, which is harder to do and requires genuine partnerships. If money was the solution, then the problems of disadvantage would have been solved a long time ago.
A well known and major cause of health and violence problems in Indigenous communities is excessive consumption of alcohol. Many communities have gained support for prohibition but now need support to enforce those rules and new more creative alternative solutions such as taxation.
Each week Indigenous Community Volunteers (ICV) is commissioned by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, organisations and communities to help them find skilled volunteers to work on development projects that they want to see happen, from constructing a shed to reducing the incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and rhematic heart disease.
Once upon a time development work was merely the domain of developing countries. The problems were overseas and volunteers were recruited to travel to far-flung places to enable people to overcome wretched situations.
Now, Australians are enlisting to do the same here. Hundreds of people of good-will and diverse life experience are putting their hands up to participate, no matter how big or small the project. They are part of a growing army that’s putting reconciliation into action. The key difference is that they are on location by the invitation of communities.
Development is as much to do with Aboriginal peoples’ needs for control and decision-making power as it is with accessing and participating in the market economy. Pathways to greater autonomy and wellbeing begin with conversations at the grass-roots about development possibilities. Indigenous Australians are no different from much of the rest of Australians: they want economic security and a better way of life for their children, although the complexities of collectivism, tradition and past policy failure make the journey more challenging.
Australia’s well-regarded international aid organisation, AusAID now partners with ICV to deliver human and community development domestically. The initial pilot programs are about providing a framework for those development conversations to scope what is possible, community by community. AusAID’s contribution represents a fundamental shift in thinking.