The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) constitute a benchmark for minimum standards of health, education and livelihoods, and demand that signatory countries ensure that the lives of their people accord with these minimum standards. But this paradigm has not had the intended positive impact upon particular groups which experience a higher incidence of poverty and disadvantage than others, namely Indigenous communities in both developed and developing countries.
Looking at the Australian context, discrimination against Indigenous Australians is not effectively addressed by the MDGs and, without challenging the discourses and power structures, which continue to impoverish Indigenous groups, the MDGs are ineffective in addressing Indigenous poverty. Despite Australia’s status as signatory to the MDGs, our government has thus far made no attempt to integrate the goals into domestic policy and therefore has not produced an MDG Progress Report. This situation prevails despite the well-documented poverty experienced by Australian Indigenous peoples (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples). While Australian Indigenous people consist of more than 250 language groups and represent a great diversity of cultures and development needs, they constitute only 2.5% of the Australian population. Yet, despite their relatively small number, indicators such as life expectancy, which is some 17 years less than for other Australians, are a reminder that Indigenous people continue to rank lowest on all social and economic indicators.
If the Australian government had sought to implement the MDG paradigm, similar problems to those in countries reporting on MDG progress would arise when attempting to measure Indigenous progress towards development. In particular, a lack of disaggregated statistics obscures the status of Indigenous Australians, although attempts have been made recently to address this deficiency. Since 2002, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has commissioned regular reports against key indicators of Indigenous disadvantage. These reports, together with prominent reports such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), are gradually increasing the availability of disaggregated data relevant to specific poverty indicators.
Other developments which show a new approach to addressing Indigenous poverty include a commitment made by the Prime Minister, in 2007, to develop a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Additionally, the Prime Minister committed to halve the widening gap in literacy, numeracy and employment outcomes and opportunities for Indigenous children; halve the gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children; and, within a generation, to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Further commitments were made by the government in 2008 when they signed a statement of intent to achieve equality of health status and life expectancy by 2030. However, despite these positive steps by the government, concerns remain about the lack of goals and benchmarks to measure progress in addressing Indigenous poverty in Australia. Of particular concern is the Australian government’s refusal, despite significant lobbying, to frame Indigenous development in Australia within the MDG paradigm, thereby preventing assessment of poverty reduction in Australian Indigenous communities by comparison with other peoples living in extreme poverty.
As targets for eradication of extreme poverty, the MDGs are an overtly positive commitment. However, a number of the means by which progress towards the goals is being achieved cannot be considered positive. The NT Emergency Response (NTER) was announced by the Australian government on 21 June 2007, and was developed in response to an inquiry, which concluded that child sexual abuse in NT Indigenous communities was severe and widespread. Key measures implemented by the NTER included restricting alcohol on NT Aboriginal land; welfare reforms which restricted how people could spend income support payments; child health checks; and the compulsory acquisition (and consequently the administration) of Aboriginal townships on five year leases. The NTER provoked widespread controversy amidst claims that the measures were extreme and gave rise to several concerns. One key concern raised was that the NTER did not respond to any of the recommendations in the original report, nor did the measures taken specifically address the prevention of child abuse. A second key concern was the suspension of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which in effect deemed all NTER measures to be exempt from the RDA and removed the ability of people discriminated against by these measures to bring a complaint under the RDA.
These concerns were justified. In 2008, an independent review of the NTER published its report which, despite claims the government had altered its content, was critical of the NTER, suggesting that the government should “reset their relationship with Aboriginal people based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership” and that all aspects of the NTER should conform with the RDA. However, the report also recommended that as a “matter of urgent national significance,” the NTER continue.
It is difficult to assess the impact that this “game changer” has had on shaping development in Indigenous Australia, largely because of the lack of any comparative reporting or analysis. Without detailed benchmarks set prior to the NTER, the publication of figures detailing deployed resources is without context and therefore meaningless. Of particular importance is the absence of data from progress reports, which would enable an analysis of how the NTER has contributed to a reduction in poverty among Indigenous Australians. Whether or not the NTER has achieved some improvement in key poverty indicators, it remains a development programme to which Indigenous communities in the NT were compelled to submit, despite the fact that it diminished their rights and was implemented without consultation. As a “game changer,” the NTER has sought in a number of ways to address the issue of Indigenous poverty and disadvantage. However this development programme has had a detrimental impact upon many aspects of life for Indigenous people in the NT.
Clearly a new development paradigm of Particularity and Inclusion needs to be conducted that addresses the particular needs of Indigenous communities and includes them in the decision-making processes that affect their lives and futures.