Predatory systems maintaining Indigenous disadvantage: Some examples

Sharky-systems. Photo by lumix2004

In the previous article ‘Understanding Indigenous Poverty: making it “history”‘, we proposed that Indigenous “poverty” in remote communities was similar to ‘conventional’ poverty, in that people experience an oppression or lack of control in their lives, that comes about and is maintained through two features;

  • Limitations or Limit conditions:
    • Underlying conditions or sets of situations that cause or initiate the cycle of “poverty”, marginalisation oppression or dependency.
  • Predatory systems:
    • These are systems that are perpetuating the oppression cycle by taking advantage of the limitations people experience. These systems need to be identified and negated to free people from the cycle.

As discussed in the previous article Cultural Spaces (An example of the Limit Conditions the people face), one of the limit conditions that create Indigenous “poverty” is that Aboriginal people must engage in foreign cultural spaces, that are controlled by the Dominant Culture.  These spaces marginalise Indigenous groups and they struggle to access the necessary information they need to make choices, find solutions, or communicate their needs.

However this does not explain the factors that keep people from conquering the strange cultural spaces of the “white man’s” world.  In the article on Indigenous poverty we called these factors predatory systems.  In this article I put forward some suggestions as to what specific predatory systems maintain this situation.  These are:

Explaining myself

Now before I get to that I must point out that this is an extremely complex topic, and that it is very difficult to simplify things as I have.  The mechanisms that maintain the marginalisation of Indigenous  groups are very very complex and subtle.  While there are individuals who take advantage of people’s marginalisation consciously – the chaos of remote communities encourages corruption – most Dominant culture (DC) systems are not consciously designed to oppress people.  But, because I attempt to identify the advantages the Dominant culture might be getting from maintaining Indigenous marginalisation, what I write will be controversial to some, or many.   So please give me some credit that I am not intending to blame anyone and I know I am over simplifying.  But people have been asking for me to write about this, and I would like to start the discussion. So here are my flawed ideas of what are some of the predatory mechanisms maintaining Indigenous disadvantage (please comment on these, I would like others opinions).

I have grouped the predatory mechanism under headings describing the limit conditions they prey on.

Language barriers

The  Convenience of Maintaining English Dominance

Mechanism: English only speakers working in Indigenous communities unknowingly create an advantage to themselves by maintaining an English only environment, by using English as the dominant language or the only language in the work place and at meetings. In this way they empower themselves at the expense of the people, because they prevent people from easily getting the information they require to escape their dependency on these English first language workers.

Advantage: Why does this happen? This system of marginalisation is maintained largely because it is easier for DC workers to use their own native language “English” than working with the difficulty of learning and  utilising local languages.

Negotiating in English controlled environments

Mechanism: Similarly Government and NGOs, by ignoring Indigenous languages, are better able to control the conditions and outcomes of negotiations, surveys, consultations and even education, because in the English speaking environment they create, they limit peoples ability to compete and challenge government workers policies, views and arguments.

Advantage: Government, NGOs and other entities benefit by being able to more easily control, influence  and dominate negotiations.  They can even subconsciously utilise misinformation to get the result they want.

Discouraging the development and use of Local Languages

Mechanism:Government and NGOs working in Aboriginal remote communities, refuse to require or adequately support the training of staff in local Indigenous languages.  Everyone believes that it is too hard.  If they ensured staff developed local language skills this would make the interaction between Indigenous people and the DC an exchange of information between equal parties, rather then all the effort to overcome the language gap being forced on the Indigenous people. Furthermore, DC departments and NGOs do not encourage the production of resources, training, or even dictionaries in Indigenous languages. Their excuse for this is the that people need to just learn English. Only English cannot be learnt well (to a professional level) without utilising Indigenous languages to teach new complex ideas or without access to cross language dictionaries for professional reference. It takes many many years of effective exchange of information between two cultures to effectively chart complex terminology within each language – so that rich meanings can be exchanged. The DC refuses to start this journey in a serious way.

Advantage: The advantage for the system in doing nothing, is that Government and organisations don’t have to put in the money or the effort to change the way they do things. The short term financial gains on sticking with English only win over long term empowerment of Indigenous people.  A case in point is the NT Government’s recent introduction of an English only policy for remote community schools (2009-2010), which strips resources for local language training and utilisation out of remote schools. They did this because of a poorly researched belief that ignoring local languages will some how teach English more effectively. The international evidence shows that ESL kids who learn how to read and write in their own language first are more easily able to learn English, and learn it better than English only speakers.   But for the NT Education department system the savings in money and organisational complexity is clear, they can discard the hippy language experts and even the local Indigenous Teachers, who now have little purpose for being there. In this way the system favours the status quo, English language deficiency in Indigenous communities.

Lack of understanding about Dominant culture systems and knowledge.

Low expectations for engaging with Indigenous knowledge and systems

Mechanism: The imposition of Western culture and ways keeps Dominant Culture (DC) workers comfortable while dis-empowering local Indigenous people, because Indigenous people in remote communities have very little knowledge of how the Western world works (and vice versa). DC workers are not required to truly participate in or learn Indigenous ways of doing things. So they do not learn the difficulties Indigenous people face nor how to use local knowledge to help the people learn DC knowledge.  And the lack of engagement in understanding Indigneous systems prevents DC systems such as policing and education from fitting in with Indigenous systems that would give people more control.

Advantage: Low expectations in this area makes it easier for Government and other organisation to recruit workers even though they are less effective. By ignoring cultural issues, Indigenous understandings, and local Aboriginal systems, short term targets are sometimes met (ie you can get things done quickly), but long term achievements are undermined.

Instability of Personnel and Relationships with the non-indigenous world.

Accepting short term personnel turn over.

Mechanism: There is constant replacement and change in DC personnel in Remote Aboriginal Communities. Most stay 6 months to 2 years. Short term contracts are the accepted norm and there are few services to support personnel to stay in communities long term.  The constant change of personnel in communities undermines stability, relationships, and the creation of useful corporate knowledge/history.  The result is that organisations never learn from their mistakes and continue to push ideas that are based on old assumptions and continue to have negative impacts.

Advantage: This at first glance would not seem to benefit the Australian system because it is costly and ineffective. But it does allow feel good benefits to the Australian mainstream and the Individuals invoved.  I believe this is significant enough to maintain this kind of inefficiency. Going and working in Arnhem Land or other remote communities for a short stint, alleviates our sense of guilt about the Indigenous “problem” in Australia. This is a hard thing to say, but most if not all people (including ourselves at times) tend to feel a sense of “well I’ve done something to help the Indigenous people.” This helps us in the mainstream individually and collectively to feel good about our efforts for Indigenous people and even justifies a subtle blaming of the people themselves. The Australian Mainstream can still effectively say, “Look we are trying to help Indigenous people but its not working, they are not doing enough themselves.” So this “Instability Shark” works in this way; the DC gets the benefits of feeling like it is doing something, without the very difficult task of creating, and supporting long term stability in the remote work force (See our article on Supporting Dominant Culture Personnel to explore how this might be overcome).

Lack of dependence on local workforce.

Mechanism: Indigenous communities are driven by a false economy. Government grants, funds and welfare are the main sources of income, both personal and for businesses, in remote towns.  And alot of this money actually goes to pay income for DC personnel who have come from outside the community.  This situation never improves because the availability of  Government monies, and the tight DC time frames, make it more convenient to simply import new DC personnel when a job needs to be done, rather than train Indigenous people.  Training of local personnel is a lower priority than getting program outcomes.  This is partly because most Government departments consider it someone elses job to do the training.  But the simple fact is the DC simply does not need the local people. In a sense the locals get in the way of building infrastructure, acculturating (…oops, I mean educating), developing industries and running shire council services. This is the despite the fact that these things are suppose to be of benefit to the locals.  Contrast this with 40 years ago when the Christian missions in North East Arnhem had to run everything without masses of funding and access to fly in personnel. They, by simple need, were dependent on training Yolŋu (as there was no one else to do the work that needed to be done) and as a result by 1978 the local people were doing almost everything in the community, including teams of locals building houses, and local bookkeepers.

Advantage: There is of course a huge financial benefit for most personnel who take positions in remote Aboriginal communities, that may play some role in perpetuating the situation.  Like mine workers it is often convenient to stay a while, save your dough and take your cash back south to buy a house.  Plus it is simply easier, and it has become part of the DC way in the “Indigenous Industry”, to rely on enticing contractors and ready trained personnel, with big pay packets, than to deal with the challenges of training Indigenous people.  But the primarily benefit is that the DC (and the Government is a big part of this) is more focused on outcomes than people.  They get more done, much quicker,  if they are not dependent on local labour.  Importing workers ensures jobs get done quickly, statistics get filled, grants get acquitted, and politicians get re-elected.  The alternative, relying on the local workforce is the more difficult and slower path.  The time spent training, upskilling, and letting the people gain experience, slows progress in measurable outcomes – at first.  The hump of getting the first set of locals trained and then relying on them in their inexperience in the next round of work, with the inevitable media outrage at things undone (eg. houses un-built)  is just too much for the DC to take.

Difficulty communicating to Dominant Culture systems.

Systematic favouring of short term outcomes over effective communication.

Mechanism: The Indigenous “Industry” in the NT is a money spinner for the NT government and economy. Solving the problems through better communication might actually reduce the amount of money spent by the Federal Government on communities. While I doubt most in the NT Government actually plan to negate outcomes (some in the private sector definitely take advantage), the drive to be truly cost effective and therefore locally effective in the long term is just not there. Rather the focus seems to be on short term outcomes, or band aid measures.

Advantage: This benefits bureaucrat portfolios, while giving only lip service to long term goals. We all know of the shonky tradesmen in the private sector that will do a dodgy job to save money, well government funding budgets work the other way around. Do a job inefficiently and spend more of your budget may just get you a bigger budget next time round, resulting in more jobs for inefficient buddies (Again I’m not saying this is intentional – but correct me if I am wrong).

Reporting of false positives.

Mechanism: It is easy to create false positives by using poor communication. Even if you genuinely want to be honest, it is all too easy to use good processes and investigate clearly positive comments and communications, while paying limited attention to negative comments and results. Additionally, emphasising the outcomes one is looking for, results in a failure to communicate problems and allow reflection on how people are not being served.

Advantage: False positives (saying something had fantastic outcomes when it really did not)  when reporting on outcomes in Indigenous communities help governments, NGOS and privates businesses working in the “Indigenous industry” presents a good picture to their funders and their voters (who are usually not Indigenous).


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  5. Tim Trudgen

    Hi Christine,
    That is a difficult question and may yet become an article in itself. But I have taken some time to think about your question and I think that disadvantage is best define in terms of the human experience.

    Before defining disadvantage I think that it must be understood that disadvantage can not be defined base on statistical stasus indicators such as poor health, education or incarceration rates. These things are indicators that there is something wrong and that disadvantage may exist. By defining these outward signs as the disadvantage we may inadvertantly excuse the personnal behaviours that contribute to them. In the same way the values we uphold must not lead to principles that define the rights of the disadvantaged in terms of the outward signs. Good health and edcuation for example must never be made ‘rights’ that others must or should recieve. These things can only ever be privelleges offered and recieved as gifts. If we start to consider them as things that we deserve we can no longer truly value the gift that they are, and in our experience, they can become despised things that we believe are forced on us. The defning of such outcomes as ‘rights’ is an ideological problem that can be seen as contributing to failures in Indigenous communities, where the more we force education and health services on people in order to give them their ‘rights’ the more they resist utilising these services (they may even stop valuing good health and begin to expect poor health as a result of this exchange). So the definition is important for underpining out ideology and then the way we act towards the disadvantaged.

    I define disadvantage as a state of existence were ones full human potential is significantly restricted so that as individuals, or collectively as a group, people experience a dehumanisation of their existance, and they are unable to compete, relative to more the more advantaged (not because of any reduction in their real potenital), in any one or more of the disciplines of life, economic, social, political, religious and intellectual. Thus the values that underpin the assesment of disadvantage are those that allow us to see the others as humans, as deep, as beautiful and as broken as ourselves, and to listen and hear their experience. These values include Love, Humility, Compassion, honesty and patience. While you might have expected values more like “equality” and “justice” these in my view are principles that arise out of these valuse that we cultivate within ourselve in order to see others. These kind of values must become the foundation of the Rights and Justice principles we up hold in amining to free people from disadvantage.

  6. Christine May

    Hello Timothy,
    How would you define disdavantage from a universal point of view? What values underpin the assessment of disadvantgae?
    Thanks for your help.