I think closing the gaps is essential. But in my experience, when people talk about closing the gaps, they’re usually talking and thinking about individual outcomes measured by individual metrics. If we can get employment rates up, we’re closing the gaps. If we can get health indices up, we’re closing the gaps. And so forth.

What we risk losing here is the aspirations of communities, of peoples, of nations. Now one might argue that such things should not matter. We’re all individuals here. I don’t want to get into a discussion of individual vs. collective rights; for the purposes of this discussion, at least, my point lies elsewhere.

The evidence from the United States indicates that if we’re serious about changing socioeconomic conditions in Aboriginal communities, wherever those communities may be, we’re going to have to engage with them and bring them into the change process, not as recipients but as genuine partners — which means the pattern of change may not go quite the way we once imagined.

And when we accept Indigenous communities as genuine partners, it also means we’re going to have to take their aspirations into account. Otherwise, why should they partner with us? So that they can realize our dreams? I don’t think so.

I have encountered numerous tribal communities in the U.S. that are quite willing to forego certain economic benefits so as to maintain particular relationships and cultural practices, because for them, the vitality of the community and the continuity of a distinctive place, peoplehood, and culture simply matter more than individual prosperity. For them, the appropriate indicators of success may be different. They are not favoring poverty. But the trade-offs matter.

So my caution is simply this: be wary of one-dimensional measures, those that address only individual fortunes and that reflect only outsiders’ ideas of what matters. One of the biggest gaps we have to close is the gap between our understandings of each other, the gap between the respect we demand that others give to our institutions and the respect we are willing to give to theirs.

Finally, I see evidence of success and a basis for hope.

I am repeatedly struck by the success stories being generated by Indigenous Australia.

They aren’t hard to find. For example, I wasn’t invited to Australia to give this lecture; I was invited by Reconciliation Australia to attend the Indigenous Governance awards ceremony and luncheon in Melbourne two weeks ago.

In the United States, we run a program called Honoring Nations that identifies and celebrates examples of excellence in tribal governance. A few years ago, Reconciliation Australia, with the support of BHP Billiton, launched an Indigenous Governance awards program here that, while organized differently, similarly identifies and celebrates outstanding examples of Indigenous governance.

This year, to my great good fortune, they invited me to attend the awards luncheon—the third in the life of this program. It was a stellar event that ought to be required of anyone who is in despair about the future of Indigenous communities. It was a window on something that, in my experience, gets too little play in either your country or mine: Indigenous peoples brilliantly addressing the challenges they face at the community level.

But in addition to being at the awards luncheon, we then had the opportunity to visit two of the winning organizations in this year’s competition, the Traditional Credit Union in Darwin, which provides financial services to eleven Northern Territory communities, including remote ones, and the Southwest Aboriginal Medical Service in Bunbury, south of Perth, which is the only Aboriginal medical service in a large, mixed urban-rural area.

And I was enormously impressed with both organizations: with the quality of their leadership, with the resourcefulness and innovation evident in their service provision, in their sensitivity to cultural issues in making service provision work, and in their commitment to the direct involvement of their communities in program planning and execution.

Either one of those organizations would have been an easy award winner in the Honoring Nations program in the United States, and in fact, I think they are even more impressive than many of our award-winning programs, thanks to the conditions under which they operate here — the relative lack of government support for Indigenously generated solutions to socioeconomic problems, the enormous weight of reporting and compliance requirements under which they labor, the logistical challenges sometimes involved, and the greater educational and other gaps that are prevalent here. If Australia were to export such stories to the world, it would be doing Indigenous peoples everywhere a service.

This awards program has been identifying successes for several years now. And they’re not the only ones. The Indigenous Community Governance Research Project run by CAEPR at the ANU and by Reconciliation Australia — the most comprehensive research program on Indigenous governance that I have come across — has been out there, on the ground, studying Indigenous governance, figuring out what works.

They’re not short of subjects — there are learning opportunities everywhere — what they’re short of is the resources to do all the work that needs to be done in documenting and understanding what works in the governance arena: find the things that are working, figure out what’s going on, distill the principles involved, make them available to others who can put those principles to work. It’s an essential activity.

This government, as I understand it, has committed itself to evidence-based policy in Indigenous affairs. That sounds just right, although I’m not sure that the emerging evidence from programs such as these is being fully incorporated into policy yet. But the opportunity is there.

And the evidence — both here in Australia and elsewhere — seems to me to argue that if you give Indigenous communities the freedom and the support necessary to develop governance solutions of their own, there will be both failures and successes, but over time, the successes will build and the failures will diminish. Indigenous communities, in my experience, are as capable of learning as the rest of us, but we too seldom allow them to do so on their own terms. But they’re also capable of teaching, including teaching us better ways of addressing the problems that they face.

And this is true in urban, rural, and remote communities, where Indigenous knowledge about what the problems are, how the authority structures work, where the critical boundaries of community lie, and a hundred other things is an essential ingredient in closing the gaps.

Peter Fray

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