The economics of remote Aboriginal communities (3)

Tim Trudgen

Manna Matters December 2012

Moving beyond dependency

The following article has been reproduced from the ‘Why Warriors’ blog and is the third part in a series of articles. Manna Matters will run the full series over coming editions.


In the previous articles (see Manna Matters May 2012 and September 2012) we saw that while is it wrong to say that Indigenous people make no contribution to their local economy, the monetary economy of remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory today is a false economy, almost entirely dependent on the injection of government monies. So, how can real jobs and a real sustainable economy be re-established in these regions (remembering that indigenous people had an extensive trade system pre-colonisation)? On the basis of nine years of work in business development with indigenous families, I think there are four main points that need to be considered:

  1. A local economy grows from personal motivation and energy, it cannot be built from outside.
  2. Human support is required to overcome cultural and bureaucratic barriers where motivation exists.
  3. Primary production, the basis of any real economy is driven by local ownership.
  4. Flexibility is needed, appropriate for the pioneering and unique circumstances of remote communities.
  5. Subsidies are the best mechanisms of financial aid to support fledgling enterprises.

In this article I will discuss the first two points of this list: motivation and support for motivation.

1. Motivation

 The basis of our whole economic system is not money, but labour. Value in the economy is created only through sweat and hard work. In any community where people live in a state of welfare dependency, people believe that their effort is irrelevant. Instead, they believe that finding the secret “open sesame” results in money and riches. Money is seen as giving access to labour and not the other way around.

 In fact, sometimes the Government seems to believe this too – that money can be used as a carrot and stick to create a labour force. The recent economic focus on remote Aboriginal communities has the Government and others looking at ways to bring big business into communities, believing that this will create job opportunities and that such opportunity will create local participation. But others could also argue that importing industry would exploit the cheap labour potential in these communities. Pure capitalists probably wouldn’t see the problem with that; such a method would create the “necessary” economic growth. But this approach ignores the social impact of big business take-overs on local morale and the existing problems of economic dependency. This same “job opportunity” approach is seen in current policy, and programs that are geared to teaching ‘work readiness’; that is, teaching people to believe in the sale of their labour. The current expression of this in CDEP (Community Development Employment Project) and Work for the Dole is enculturating people into a 9 to 5, ‘work while you’re being watched’ mindset. So, what is the problem?

 The problem with these models is that dependency is maintained, dole workers are dependent on the lure of money and a ‘big brother is watching’ incentive to work is developed. People are being taught to be dependent on the carrot and stick – a reward and punishment, in order to participate. This assumes and maintains a situation where there is no trust in people’s independence. The result is that people will not lift a finger outside of what they absolutely have to do to get paid. This spreads to family, clan and home life. Males are particularly susceptible to this Western enculturation, believing that having done their hours, they can slack off for the rest of their lives and leave it to their wives. Sounds familiar? The modern economy encourages this compartmentalisation of life in us all – but multiply it by five or ten for people who have grown up with government handouts, and have been given no other way to understand that wealth comes from productivity, which comes from labour. And labour in both its quality and quantity is a result of personal motivation.

 When reward and punishment is used to motivate people, they do only as much as they must, and resist increasing labour input. To put it another way, they resist productivity and growth. But when people choose to do something out of their own values system, they are internally driven and will increase labour to reach their goals. This internal motivation is at its peak when people are driven by a passion for the work itself or for a dream they believe in. This is what I call a ‘creative calling’ (or purpose), which has more productive potential than other internal motivations, such as, “I want my kids to be well off”, or “it’s good to be productive”. Whatever the internal driving value, without motivation coming from within the person, there is no incentive for growth, innovation, or independence. But it is these very factors that drive entrepreneurism and market diversity – particularly in primary and secondary production. Personal motivation is the only place from which people will draw forth the effort required to kickstart and maintain new enterprises and the new economy that is required in places such as Arnhem Land. Once people start working out of a sense of purpose, goal, dreams and passion – rather than simply believing in the power of money – they begin to believe in their own power in themselves and others. This becomes the place from which economic development is achieved in a way that will move beyond government support.

 Some people ask if there is really anyone with motivation in indigenous communities. Yes, despite the disempowerment suffered, there are many amazing individuals who continue to dream and believe that they can create economic and social independence for themselves, their families and their clans. These are the people we work to support through the AHED project, which is now supporting a dozen or more endeavours in one remote community at any one time.

Timothy Demala

Timothy Demala celebrates his first crop of bananas after his garden burnt down.

2. Supporting motivation

 Passion and motivation die hard. We came to Galiwin’ku to support motivated individuals and groups 18 months ago. In that time, more than 18 different people and groups have engaged with us in enterprises they are actively developing, based on their own internal motivation and effort. This is despite 30-40 years of crisis, demoralisation and welfare disincentives in their community.

 But without support, people give up. Motivated individuals must be supported to overcome all the barriers involved in participating in the economy and running an enterprise. They need help to find resources, supplies and the practical things that come with managing money, staff and analysing business decisions etc. This is not much different to the needs of mainstream entrepreneurs. However, for many remote Aboriginal people, support must also include learning the “white man’s” rules about how to start and run a corporate structure, such as understanding the taxation system and the function of a corporation. They also need help overcoming cultural barriers. As many remote locals have English as a second language, they cannot communicate well with the mainstream and don’t know where to start to find even basic information about their needs. Without support in these areas, they find themselves in the dark and isolated; unable to succeed and not knowing why. This turns motivation into depression and other mental disorders.

 Motivation cannot be created by outside influence. Real, empowering education gives people the ability to find their vision, but passion is birthed within the person by their own soul. No one can insert it. This makes it a valuable commodity indeed. So when it blossoms, it must be supported.

 Surprisingly, in 2008 we found that very few (almost no) services existed to provide such support to economic visionaries in Arnhem Land remote Aboriginal communities. Programs were designed to help write business plans, and get loans or even small business grants, but mostly there was nothing designed to give no-strings-attached help to the everyday learning, information and resourcing needs of Indigenous people with big ideas. This support to local visionaries is the second key to successful and sustainable economic development, because it enables those with the passion and internal motivation to overcome barriers to create new productive nodes in the local economy.

 Let’s look at an example. One of our clients many years ago was sucessfully running a lush tropical market garden, using treated effluent from the local sewage farm. The effluent was being pumped onto his land, but he did not know that he could not use it under Balanda (Australian) law without a special license. His access was shut off. At this point no one offered to help him get the right licenses or teach him how to use the water safely. Even while the local community garden in town failed time and time again, no one asked how can we provide long-term help to allow this visionary to maintain his once flourishing garden. He got help here and there, but when he came to us shortly after we started the AHED project in his community, he was successfully growing sugar cane, but his bananas were still failing for lack of nutrients. He was also an old man now so he needed workers to help in the garden. Thus supporting his motivation meant finding and importing a sugar cane juicer he could afford, helping him learn to run a market stall for his juice, bringing in expert advice on how to get nutrients with his low income, looking into the law on sewage reuse and working towards a reuse license, helping him find strategies to save for vehicles and equipment, and helping him find and motivate a workforce. Despite some set-backs his garden is gradually improving without the nutrients from the effluent and we are working toward him getting his license. Despite his age and the barriers he has faced, his motivation and activity in his enterprise has increased.

 Supporting visionaries in their passion unfortunately is not as simple as diving in and helping everyone with anything they want. If the support person ends up running around doing everything for the visionary, this is not empowerment, but rather, leads back to an unhealthy dependency and can undermine a person’s drive. The visionary will likely creep into laziness at the hands of an overzealous program or supporter. The supporter can also get into the danger of managing the client and their vision, which strips their sense of control from the client and also ruins motivation. So, support must focus on keeping the visionary informed, educated, and the principal party in all decisions. We must focus on supporting a person’s motivation by removing the real barriers they face and leaving the barriers that they have the ability to change themselves. By this process the short-term success will not be shown in statistical outcomes, but in the direct effort the local visionary puts in, and this effort should well exceed that of the dominant culture supporters. In the example above, our gardener today proves to have as much or more motivation in his enterprise than when he started, even though his workforce failed him many times and his garden was lost to a bush fire on one occasion. Still, his motivation is demonstrated by his increasing commitment to put in hours and effort every day to improving his garden.

 To support motivation for economic growth in indigenous communities, we must do so through mechanisms that allow the entrepreneur to do the hard yards – to allow them to fail and get back up. Motivation can only be supported if the models for economic and enterprise development value the person and human process over the economic outcomes their enterprise might achieve. The result is not rapid economic growth and the sudden rescuing of these Aboriginal economies (a dangerous hope), but it is gradual, sustainable growth, with the potential for the exponential expansion of these economies in the long term as people’s hopes and hearts turn mistakes into learnings – and finally success.

Tim Trudgen is the Managing Director of Why Warriors Pty Ltd. He has worked closely with Indigenous people from North-East Arnhem Land (Yolŋu), Northern Territory Australia, since 2001. Today he works as a cross-cultural educator, and as an Enterprise Faciliator to help Yolŋu develop their economic and social endevours.