The myth of 'over-funded' Indigenous communities

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The reality of remote Indigenous communities is a 40% poverty rate —"over-funding" is just spin, writes Gerry Georgatos.

WE OFTEN HEAR the claim that there are scores of services, many that duplicate what others do, in remote and regional Aboriginal communities.

This reinforces the myth that some communities are "over-funded".

For instance, Sara Hudson’s research from the Centre for Independent Studies argues there are 67 services and 400 programmes in Roebourne for less than 1,200 residents. I know Roebourne pretty much inside out and I do not know where these 67 services are located. Certainly, there aren’t 67 services on Scholl Street. 

Yes, there are some services that provide similar programmes and this is often suggested as the duplication. However, Roebourne is predominantly impoverished and languishes in significant unmet need in primary and secondary health, and misses out on quality education. Roebourne and surrounding towns soak up inequalities, missing out on an equal serve of infrastructure and social assets compared to predominantly non-Aboriginal towns.

The reality is that it is wrong to describe a single staff operation as a "service". It is stretching the imagination in imputing some casual, irregular pro rata "programme" or workshop as some fully fledged programme. I once coordinated a project with 100 "programmes" but, like the majority of programmes, they were not full-time and were limited to prescribed numbers of participants contingent on staffing levels.

The 67 services need to be described and detailed and let us then establish judgment calls. The 400 programmes need to be described and detailed rather than thrown at us reductionist statements and, hence, limited to cheap minimalist speculation.

Roebourne does not receive the funding commitments that it should be entitled to and this is why the majority of its residents remain impoverished. Yes, there is misspending and ill-directed funding and there are the soft monies too — the unjustifiable consultation and contractor hits. Roebourne is not alone, it’s the whole nation — et voila, all of a sudden you understand that the $30 billion "Indigenous spend", well the majority of it, does not reach the people and does not hit the ground. Yet the majority of Australians have soaked up the hogwash that billions of dollars reach communities.

According to the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Index, Australia ranks second in the world for public and social health, but if we disaggregate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to stand alone, they would rank 132nd. Despite the fact more Australians are proudly ticking the box that they have Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage – and subsequently skewing the data, skewing the medians and averages and masking data – nevertheless 40% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are living below the poverty line. This figure was 90% of the total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, some five decades ago.

The Black Revolution that is believed to comprise those living above the poverty line is made up of the majorly of Australians ticking the box as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but whose families have lived mainstream, generation after generation. Yes, there are many who have risen from abject poverty, but the majority who have always lived Black, whose families were on the missions and reserves, segregated, corralled on the pastoral estates, they still remain living half-lives below the poverty line.

More than 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are from within the 40% living below the poverty line. Similarly, more than 90% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are in gaol are from within the 40% living below the poverty line. We need a triage based approach, with the majority of available funding targeted to and reaching the 40%.

Collectivised data discriminates — without data disaggregation we leave people behind. We are making them invisible. Where they do become visible, because of the skewed data, there have arisen misunderstandings, mistruths, muddle-minded speculation and a narrative of blame.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher at the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights and a member of several national suicide prevention projects. You can also follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos

Independent Australia subscribers can listen to Gerry speak to managing editor David Donovan on one of IA's exclusive podcasts here

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