Recent research has identified several good practice principles that can be utilized by development
practitioners and government agencies when considering program design and project methodologies for
development projects in remote Indigenous communities. These principles also fill an intellectual and
contextual gap within the literature in relation to equitable economic development in remote Indigenous
communities. Furthermore, the ideas and principles within this article aim to contribute towards the
building of a framework to support sustainable development in remote Aboriginal communities within Australia.
The notion of participatory development underpins an approach to development whereby Indigenous people
are directly involved in the decision making process, and the community retains ownership over the project(s)
after the project initiators have left. Our research and analysis has found that approaches should not
only be appreciative of local circumstances, but also integrate the aspirations of the Indigenous people
who are the focus of any economic development or poverty alleviation initiative.
There are however, specific structural and contextual limitations to residents of remote Indigenous
communities gaining and retaining employment. These limitations span the economic, environmental,
cultural and social dimensions of life and are entrenched within a political system which has historically
limited funding to remote Indigenous communities. For example, lack of education, poor health, and
violence all contribute to low levels of economic development and limited employment opportunities in
such communities. To adequately respond, initiatives, programs and projects should be holistic in nature
in order to adequately address the host of socio-economic and environmental problems that affect many
remote Indigenous communities. Further, an innovative and long-term approach in facilitating economic
development and employment outcomes for Indigenous people is required.
Conventional thinking on new enterprise development within Indigenous communities generally promotes
several ways in which to facilitate early growth, including:
1. Investment attraction processes;
2. Government in partnership with communities;
3. Clearing away investment barriers;
4. Getting community investment ready; and
5. Attracting and matching proponents with suitable investments.
However these recommendations are of limited applicability or even unreasonable in many remote
Indigenous communities, largely due to the nascent economic structures that exist in remote areas.
That is, many remote communities are unable to sustain themselves financially within a formal market-based
system without significant government assistance. The distinctiveness of the economic structures in remote
communities therefore requires a broad approach when considering ways in which to involve Indigenous
people in a market-based form of development.
The challenge is to promote new patterns of economic growth and enterprise development that
simultaneously sustain cultural heritage values and deliver social and economic justice to people living in
remote areas. SGS research suggests that it is productive to consider two philosophies of approach stemming
from international development literature: poverty reduction and economic development.
The differences and nuances of these approaches need to be acknowledged. While poverty reduction
projects are ultimately geared towards "building infrastructure, improving health care, basic education and
drinking water, and providing safety nets for vulnerable groups", economic growth projects attempt to rectify
macroeconomic imbalances by "promoting trade openness, reducing the cost of doing business and minimising
rent seeking in order to create an enabling environment for private investment, production and exchange". (2)
Economic growth and poverty reduction projects therefore have a symbiotic relationship.They rely on each
other for their existence and together can provide a catalytic environment for sustained development and
Such transformation of a poor or underdeveloped region with a low or zero growth rate into one capable of
adequate, sustained growth is the essence of the development problem. Faster growth requires an improvement
in the skills of a region's labour force, a growth in its capital stock, substantial changes in the composition of
output and accompanying changes in attitudes and institutions. In poor remote communities, where the
private sector in still ‘nascent' and its entrepreneurial capacity is weak, it will take more than an enabling
environment to propel the community's economy and industry forward. Thus, if a development project is to
be considered pro-poor and simultaneously encompassed within the economic growth paradigm, it must be
designed to stimulate growth in those areas where the poor are earning their wages. Poverty therefore has
to be overcome through an appropriate development strategy embedded in a pro-poor growth process.
SGS analysis and field experience has revealed several fundamental aspects to implementing economic
development projects or initiatives in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. These aspects
epitomise ‘good practice' and promote development of a ‘hybrid' economy in which both economic development
strategies and poverty alleviation strategies are implemented. The ‘hybrid' approach further recognises the
need to acknowledge and appreciate cultural dimensions of development. In particular, the disparities between
conventional economic development paradigms and Indigenous held views of development.
Accordingly, the following principles would form the basis of good practice when applying a participatory
approach to sustainable Indigenous enterprise development:
• Identify and work with local aspirations.
• Work within local capacity.
• Work with what's already working rather than displacing it.
• Encourage and support local decision making.
• Provide on-going capacity building, initially to plug gaps in capacity, but seeking to also develop capacity
rather than usurp it.
To sustain a participatory development and good practice approach within government policy, another group
of principles could be applied to future development work. These principles differ from those outlined above in that
they would apply specifically to employment generating projects. These projects can be considered to be ‘economic
development' projects as defined within international development literature. The additional principles include:
• Respond to an individual's goals for economic and social development;
• Provide for the development of a person's capacity to set, implement and achieve their own development goals;
• Utilize to the fullest extent possible that person's existing assets and capabilities;
• Build relationships within the relevant industry sector as well as locally;
• Provide ongoing support at various levels and at various times to assist that person to achieve their
personal development goals;
• Provide a pathway which is about people development as much as it is about business development, and
which should, as a minimum, include:
• On-going job based training;
• Holistic family support; and
• Personal development support.
Additionally, economic development strategies should be viewed as processes that might enhance and
integrate Indigenous participation with local, regional and national economies.
Initiatives aimed at fostering local economic development in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities have to be embedded in a pro-poor growth process and have to be accompanied with a
commitment to the long haul. In isolated and remote communities, the challenges are at least twofold. Not
only is the local regional economy frail or almost non-existent, but the capacity of the local population to
pursue economic development opportunities requires a comprehensive range of structural and human supports. The
achievement of this goal can be realised through several avenues, but is most perceivable in the implementation
of on-the-ground development projects which are multifaceted in design and promote the idea of a hybrid economy.
Overlooking these factors destines any initiatives to failure.
Footnotes and references
1. In this paper, the term ‘Indigenous' is used in international settings, recognising the international diversity of
Indigenous peoples around the World. At the national level in Australia it has long been appropriate to use
the term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples or communities.
2. United Nations Development Program 2010, ‘Beyond the Midpoint:
Achieving the Millennium Development Goals', www.undp.org. p 24