As the Federal Government considers what changes are needed to the NT Intervention, it might wish to learn from the impressive efforts of three Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land which have been working to prevent youth substance misuse and to increase respect for culture.

We were involved in evaluating their work, as published recently in Australia’s Drug and Alcohol Review.

The project arose out of a December 2001 meeting between community representatives and local service providers, where the community leaders spoke of high levels of substance misuse and vandalism, declining involvement in cultural activity and lack of respect for elders. They described underlying stresses of violence at home, lack of recreational and job opportunities and confusion over whether the “old way” or the “new way” was right. They agreed to form a Youth Development Unit in response to these issues, which was implemented in 2003 with the support of Federal funding.

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While modest in scope, this initiative offers lessons worthy of the Rudd Government’s consideration during the current re-working of the Federal Intervention.

For these communities, recognising and building on past experiences and understanding the root causes of the problems was the starting point. From this common ground, Aboriginal community representatives and local service providers were able to affirm their objectives and work together to help their young people withstand the risk of substance misuse and related problems. Sounds simple, but too often new programs are dropped on communities without the benefit of local understanding.

Enormous pressures are all too common in remote Aboriginal community life, with high levels of ill-health, mortality and unemployment adding to the heavy load already placed on individuals with cultural commitments. In implementing these improvements, flexibility and respect were crucial. Knowing when to progress rapidly, slow down or ease off was essential. With time, participation of community members and young people increased in conceptual stages right through to program delivery.

Stakeholders envisaged young people becoming more connected with their community, and seeing what could be achieved in the outside world and the relevance of their own cultural practice. Alternatives to substance use became an achievable alternative. This demanded programs which offered practical skill development, recreation, increased job preparedness and cultural components. The resulting programs were viewed by the local community as a constructive way forward.

Strong relationships and respect were vital to the program’s success. Solutions which were imposed without reference to or respect for local settings had little chance of longevity. Put simply, there are no quick fixes. What works for one community is unlikely to be transferable to another without collaboration and consultation let alone be suitable for mass rollout. The one-size-fits-all approach assumes homogeneity. It disregards differences in the various cultures, languages and histories, as well as the challenges and strengths facing any given community.

The Federal Intervention would do wrong to assume that local people are unqualified to address the issues facing their own communities. Our evaluation revealed clear examples of Aboriginal people understanding the extent of their problems, the underlying causes and how they should best be addressed. Similar to other small Australian townships, all they needed was partnership with key agencies and adequate funding to move forward.

While there is a long road ahead for the communities we evaluated, with continued local Aboriginal ownership and appropriate support, prospects for this preventive youth initiative look promising. By building on past mistakes and successes to inform present day decisions, the building blocks of community development are considerably easier to climb.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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