• The Lancet and Lowitja Institute study is a world-first. (AAP)Source: AAP
Health experts have called for global action after a landmark report revealed poorer health outcomes for Indigenous peoples around the world.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
21 Apr 2016 - 3:32 PM  UPDATED 21 Apr 2016 - 3:32 PM

Key points

  • Indigenous populations record poorer outcomes regardless of country's wealth
  • Calls for greater collaboration between global Indigenous communities
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lag behind in all key measures
  • Some Indigenous peoples bucking the trend, outperforming wider population

The report, commissioned by Australia's Lowitja Institute, examined the health and wellbeing of more than 154 million Indigenous and tribal peoples from 23 countries - more than half of the world's native populations. 

Published today in UK medical journal The Lancet, the report found health outcomes were poorer for Indigenous peoples in the majority of countries, irrespective of the country's wealth. 

Lowitja Institute CEO Romlie Mokak says the findings demand global action. 

"We want the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to really seriously take account of the situation of the Indigenous peoples of the world," he says. 

"Getting Indigenous peoples to the table, strengthening those global networks, designing what's going to happen going forward, is all essential."

Mr Mokak says Indigenous communities across the world should work together to tackle health and social inequality.

"If there's anything we can do for our cousins across the seas then we're up for it," he says.

The report's lead author, Professor Ian Anderson, says a network exists between Indigenous Australians, Americans, New Zealanders and Canadians, but rarely extends beyond those regions. 

"I think there's significantly more potential if we reach out across the Pacific into South America, into south east Asia and Africa. It gives us the opportunity to learn from each other," says the Palawa man. 

How does Australia compare?

Due to inconsistencies in international data collection, it's difficult to compare one country's outcomes to another, says Prof Anderson.

"But for all the measures that we could get data on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fared worse than non-Indigenous Australians," he says.

A key area of disparity in Australia is education, with findings showing that 58.5% of Indigenous people aged 20-24 had attained they Year 12 certificate, compared with 86.1% of the wider population. 

Additionally, more than half of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren't earning the minimum wage, in contrast with 37.8% of the the non-Indigenous population.

Wealthy countries, poor outcomes

Prof Anderson says it was interesting to note that wealthy countries didn't necessarily record better outcomes for their Indigenous peoples, particularly in terms of life expectancy gaps.

The widest gap was recorded for the Baka people in Cameroon, who have a life expectancy of 35 years - about 21 years less than the wider population.

In Australia, a high-income country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are expected to live until 71, but the gap remains at 10 years less than the non-Indigenous population. 

"Life expectancy tends to improve in the more wealthy countries, but what's important is the size of the gap - that's the critical issue," Prof Anderson says.  

"The size of the gap doesn't seem to be related to the income status of the country.

"What that tells us is that a country's overall wealth is one factor that impacts on health, but also what happens internally within that country is significant in relation to Indigenous health outcomes." 

Some Indigenous outcomes better than wider population

Indigenous populations in some countries bucked the trend, recording better outcomes in key areas than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Myanmar and Nigeria's Indigenous peoples had slightly better incomes, with 42% of the Ijaw people in Nigeria living below the national poverty line compared to 54% of the broader community.

In Myanmar's 16.3% of the Mon people live below the national poverty line, well behind the national benchmark of 25.6%.

The Mon people also had higher secondary school enrolment rates than the wider population - 63.4% compared to 52.5%. 

Prof Anderson says the reasons for these outcomes aren't explored in the report. 

"It's the next bit of work that we encourage in terms of this report, a more closer analysis of what's happening in each country," he says.

"It's very important to realise that even though in general terms social inequalities will be driving health inequalities, actual history, political relationships, economic opportunities and educational opportunities vary considerably or have a different pattern in each country." 

Lowitja Institute CEO Romlie Mokak says the findings show "we don't have to be fatalistic about Indigenous peoples always being behind the eight ball". 

"We need to investigate some of the reasons why in some areas Indigenous peoples are actually doing a bit better," he says.

Indigenous people often 'invisible' in global health data

Another key finding of the report was a lack of reliable data on the health of global Indigenous populations, making it difficult to compare outcomes across countries. 

Mr Mokak says there's an "invisibility" of Indigenous people in some countries. 

"There's some countries where it's legislated that ethnicity or Indigeneity in this context is prohibited, so the Scandinavian countries for example don't count their indigenous people," he says.

"If we're not serious about knowing the numbers and how we're doing, we're continuing to allow any number of things to be ignored for our people. 

"If we set targets to improve health, then we've got to know how we're tracking against those targets... and that then drives any number of things, like policy and program responses."