For the billions of dollars spent on indigenous programs, the $99 question is how much goes on administering them and how much is spent on the ground in remote communities.
“No one has the answer to that,” says Professor Mark Moran, of Queensland University’s Institute for Social Science Research. “It’s incredible that we don’t.”
It is time that policymakers and practitioners took a fresh look at not just what they are doing, but what effect it is having, he says.
Earlier this year he wrote about his experience of working in Indigenous communities in his book Serious Whitefella Stuff, which was the subject of a panel discussion at Gleebooks in Sydney this week. The title refers to how Indigenous people describe a proliferation of development programs and white Land Cruisers in their communities.
He cites the example of one disaffected youth having to cope with six different “help” programs in a fortnight.
“We just don’t know what the combined effect of all these programs are having because the research hasn’t been done,” he says. “It’s like the pharmaceutical industry. If you blend a bunch of different drugs together it will have an effect … and it may not always be a good one.
“We don’t know the combined effect in the case of all these programs. Perhaps people aren’t getting anything out of taking them. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. We just don’t know.”
Many attempts have been made to coordinate the plethora of development programs but without success, as vested interests retreat to their silos and continue to meet their own “KPIs” (key performance indicators) and suck up resources.
A community of 1000 can have more than 80 different programs with 200-300 different service providers visiting over a 12-month period,” says Professor Moran. “It’s an exhausting business getting your head around it. How can we understand the outputs when we don’t understand the inputs.”
He said some Indigenous communities were doing well, such as Torres Strait, where strong governance had avoided program overload and reached a broad consensus on what was needed.
“There is a clear opportunity here for more block funding arrangements to capable Indigenous organisations,” he says.
He is seeking to undertake research into the outcomes of the different programs in communities.
“It will cost about $100,000 and that’s not a huge investment to investigate the effect of what we are spending now.”
He believes a five-prong approach to development programs needs to be considered:
- Stability: avoiding quick switches between different programs
- Special courses to train frontline workers in the skills needed
- Programs which are not-preconceived but developed in the context of the community
- Working through local leaders
- Exchanging knowledge between programs.
“We’ve got to get to a level of collaboration and take the wind out of the sails of people who think their programs are working,” he says.