• File image of Adam Giles, Sammy Wilson, Nigel Scullion and Heidi Williams at Mutitjulu community discussing housing services. (AAP)Source: AAP
COMMENT | Indigenous affairs is a highly crowded institutional space. With more than 80 programs in communities of 1000 people, the sheer ratio of programs to people is unprecedented.
Mark Moran

8 Jul 2016 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2016 - 2:44 PM

Imagine how it looks to a 15-year old “disengaged youth”, as ten different programs jostle for your attention.

Each of these programs has its own accountability measures.  But as they typically neither collaborate nor consider the effects of other programs, what they measure is of highly questionable accuracy.  

The mismatch is clearly evident in the gap between the measurements collected by individual programs and the limited progress under Closing the Gap measures.  We have to question the effectiveness of the whole delivery system across Indigenous affairs.

Earlier this year, I called for bottom-up local innovation as a driver for reform, rather than waiting for the next elusive policy solution. 

What is desperately needed is broad institutional reform, which consolidates the different programs (or at least so they wait their turn), measures collective impact and, importantly, brings Indigenous leaders and organisations to the table.

A broad coalition of Indigenous leaders, including Sean Gordon, have banded together to form the Empowered Communities initiative, proposing such major reforms.

While the different organisations have been funded, the proposed structural and policy reforms have largely been overlooked.  

According to Sean Gordon, this partial support is akin to being “reduced to one arm in the battle”, and that they will once again “carry the blame” on its failure.

I am continually bewildered by how we ignore accepted wisdoms from international development assistance. Why is it that there so little effort to apply the policy thinking and processes of international development to Indigenous affairs, when both are so focused on achieving developmental outcomes?  Contexts do differ, but the same public finance rules apply.

More than 130 countries, including Australia, adhere to the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness.  The declaration gives a practical, action-oriented roadmap to improve the quality of aid and its impact on development.

It outlines the following five fundamental principles for making aid more effective.  

1 developing countries retain ownership, setting their own strategies for poverty reduction and to improve their institutions.  

2 donor countries then align behind these strategies and use local systems.

3 they coordinate, simplify procedures and share information to avoid duplication.

 4 developing countries and donors focus on development results and results get measured.  

5 donors and partners are then mutually accountable for achieving results.

These core principles recognise that partnerships for development will only succeed if developing countries lead decision-making in relation to their own development.

Effectiveness is recognised as being tied to local ownership, alignment, coordination, results and mutual accountability.

Where are the equivalent structures and processes in Indigenous affairs?  

The Empowered Communities report highlighted these problems and put forward a model that would allow Indigenous people at the regional and local levels to take ownership and to lead their own development. It also demands improvements in transparency about funding flows and mutual accountability for outcomes at the local and regional level.

The Empowered Communities leaders have declared that they wish to be held to account for achieving better results—they propose the Indigenous Policy Productivity Council (IPPC) be established to independently scrutinise budgets, policies projects and progress on both the government and Indigenous side of a new equal partnership.

These institutional reforms are in line with the assembled knowledge of aid effectiveness in international development and they should not be dismissed lightly.

The National Indigenous leadership, including Marcia Langton, lamented the silence on Indigenous issues during the election campaign.  There was no serious debate on reforming the ‘machinery of government’ of Indigenous affairs, including those recommended in the Empowered Communities initiative.

We must make a start on creating the structures and processes that are plainly needed to guarantee real change for Indigenous peoples.

Mark Moran is the author of Serious Whitefella Stuff: When solutions became the problem in Indigenous affairs, which is out now.