THE PLIGHT OF ABORIGINAL, Torres Strait Islander and other people living in remote Australia is a “global shame”, warned Dr Tom Calma in November 2014. Calma is Chair of Ninti One, the not-for-profit organisation that manages the CRC for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP).
More than half a million Australians live in remote areas. Occupying a wide range of climate zones across 80% of our landmass, these regions encompass diverse and rich cultures and unique landscapes. This poses big research challenges for the CRCs working there – primarily the CRC-REP and the Lowitja Institute.
Headquartered in Alice Springs, Ninti One has delivered $239 million in social and economic benefits to remote Australia since its inception in 2003. The research is mostly concerned with social good, rather than commercial outcomes, which can make the impact hard to gauge, says Calma. “Research is imperative in order to properly understand and improve the lives of people living in remote Australia,” he says.
Calma is a distinguished Aboriginal leader and elder of the Kungarakan people in the Northern Territory. He cites feral camel management as an example of economic good delivered by Ninti One: 500 rangers were trained to control camel populations and map and maintain waterholes, preventing more than $3 million a year in damage to fences, bores and waterholes in pastoral properties and local communities.
Ninti One has invested $1 million in their Pastoral Precision Project, which uses spatial data to match livestock performance to environmental conditions. The product is now ready for market and is expected to benefit many farmers.
To assist researchers working on these kinds of projects in remote Australia, Ninti One has produced guidelines in conjunction with community members with protocols around confidentiality, for example. “Sometimes researchers need to understand that they cannot write down all the stories,” says Calma. These also advise where research information and recordings should be kept.
Ninti One has trained 90 Aboriginal Community Researchers who live in remote communities to undertake research and surveys in the community.
“They have the capacity to understand the language of the community, as well as all the nuances of behaviours within the community,” says Calma. “In working with a client, they can come up with a good survey tool, apply it and then report back on it. This is integral to getting good information.”
Calma is a critic of what he calls “fly-in, fly-out bureaucrats” who spend a day or two in a community, speak to a few select people and then leave thinking they have an understanding of the region’s issues.
“Our research shows that non-Indigenous or even Indigenous bureaucrats without an understanding of a particular community will come in with preconceived ideas,” he says, adding that this can lead them to frame their questions to get a pre-determined outcome. Aboriginal people then tell bureaucrats what they think they want to hear, or the bureaucrats mistake silence for agreement, Calma explains.
The CRC Program is the only Commonwealth initiative providing a link between industry, academia, government and the communities of remote regions, Calma says.
“We know from past, bitter experience the policies imposed from on high and afar seldom work well in remote Australia. Only when you truly engage the people who live there do you get results.
“At the moment there is evidence that the wellbeing of remote Australians is at increasing risk, and urgent action is needed to reverse this trend and to begin building a more optimistic, prosperous and equitable future for them.”
When the CRC analysed employment across remote Australia, they found that a large percentage of jobs were held by non-Indigenous people with a Year 10 or less level of education, despite “more than adequate numbers of Aboriginal people with Year 10 and above qualifications,” says Rod Reeve, Ninti One’s Managing Director.
Another significant project, led by Professor John Guenther from Flinders University, aims to identify how education can improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote areas. For the Anangu people in Central Australia, Guenther proposed an academy built around a “red dirt” curriculum covering rural economics, local histories, digital literacies and grammar.
The principle behind the academy comes from other projects Ninti One has facilitated, where local and non-local knowledge is shared, and both knowledge systems are treated with equal weight and respect.
“We try to look at an issue from many different directions,” Calma says.
Calma was formerly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, which he points out has some aspects in common with Ninti One.
“A human rights-based approach and a community development approach are very similar. They are both about making people the centre of what you do, and we recognise that all our activities are for the constituency of remote Australians.”
THE HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL Lowitja Institute, established in 2010 as the national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research, garnered an additional five years of funding in July 2014. The Institute was built on 14 years of CRCs, beginning with the CRC for Aboriginal and Tropical Health in 1997.
This CRC introduced a new roundtable process, which set research priorities involving the community as well as researchers and policy-makers – changing the way research into Indigenous health took place.
Pat Anderson, Chair of the Lowitja Institute, says the process instituted a new way of commissioning projects, with community leaders at the centre of decision-making. The Institute works collaboratively with stakeholders, building up the research skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people along the way.
“Our guiding principle has always been that, in order to improve our health, we need to create our own solutions rather than have them imposed upon us,” Anderson said at the opening of the Institute’s new offices in October 2014.
Preventative health is high on the agenda. The CRC recently evaluated Deadly Choices – a program encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in southern Queensland to make healthy choices around nutrition, physical activity, smoking and use of harmful substances. The seven-week school and community-based chronic disease prevention and education initiative has grown to encompass at least 1000 children from more than 100 schools and community health programs.
While substantial progress has been made in Indigenous people having a greater stake in health service delivery, research and policymaking, Anderson points out there’s a long way to go.
“With life expectancy for Australia’s First Peoples still languishing 11 years behind our fellow countrymen and women, we clearly have our work cut out for us.”