Development trumps welfare for Indigenous communities

“Welfare dependency is a serious impediment to communities engaging in their own development,” says Liz Mackinlay, director of World Vision’s Australia Program.

“Communities need to be empowered to make the choices themselves about how to tackle welfare dependency, and that is a significant element of the development approach that World Vision is advocating for.”

In May 1967, Australia voted to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census, allowing the Commonwealth to create specific laws and policies that could be beneficial for Indigenous Australians. Considered a landmark moment in Aboriginal affairs, it allowed government to address Indigenous disadvantage in new ways. However, more than four decades on, the lasting achievements of that moment are tempered by the fact that for many Indigenous Australians, particularly those in remote communities, their quality of life remains well below acceptable standards.

Consequently Indigenous policies continue to come under scrutiny. Researchers, academics, politicians and community leaders across political divides argue that an approach that continues the ongoing reliance on welfare does little to improve Indigenous quality of life. It fails to engender pride in community and culture and has the potential to paralyse community incentive for Indigenous people to drive their own economic growth and development.

Today World Vision is offering a fresh perspective on the welfare debate.

“Our work with Indigenous communities favours a development and capability-building approach,” says Mackinlay. “It’s a model that emphasises self dependency over welfare, and importantly, focuses on building the capability of the community to seek their independence.”

World Vision’s programs illustrate ways in which improved early childhood outcomes, better school attendance, economic opportunities and community leadership can be achieved through encouraging community autonomy, self dependence and drawing on the benefits of strong culture and knowledge.

“Communities are supported by World Vision to build on the positive things in community and to address the things they have identified as contributing to disadvantage in their own lives,” said Mackinlay.

“Adults being in productive work, kids getting an education, communities being safe, these are critical for any community to prosper and develop,” says Mackinlay. “But remote Indigenous communities experience additional challenges to overcome a reliance on welfare such as remoteness, limited access to essential services and entrenched disadvantage caused by historical policies such as the forced removal of children.

“Indigenous people need to be supported to make choices for themselves about what they need in their future and to work out what strategies they’re going to use to get there.

“World Vision is supportive of anything that works towards improving child wellbeing in communities that is sustainable and owned by the community members. It takes time and effort, it takes collaboration and partnership to get there, but we’ve seen internationally that it is how you get communities to be strong and able to make the positive changes which they’ve defined.”

World Vision’s approach to working with Indigenous communities draws on international and domestic evidence, and their own experience and knowledge from other programs. Partnerships with governments and Indigenous and other community groups allows them to combine the community development model with some elements of service delivery, particularly in early childhood development and care.

“We don’t say we have all the answers,” says Mackinlay, “we are looking at all of the different pieces of information that help shape this issue. But we are certainly seeing positive outcomes when we commit the time to making sure strong relationships are in place and when we work alongside communities to help them achieve their own goals.

“In terms of being better than what has gone before, I think it’s generally understood that we are all trying to ‘close the gap’ but we have not yet made the progress that everyone would hope for.

Locally driven development is not an alternative to other policies, it’s a complementary approach. There is no silver bullet, but when a community is able to drive their own development, we are more likely to see the multitude of approaches supporting Aboriginal people work – and this includes allowing individuals to make the choices about the lives they want to lead.”