Why are Aboriginal remote communities so often cesspits of dysfunction? It cannot be blamed on a lack of money, attention or time invested in solving their problems. So, what is going wrong? Why are the vast majority of Australians with Aboriginal ancestry doing fine while those in these afflicted communities endure lives of such misery and violence that it is culpably negligent to persist with the approach and polices that have not merely allowed by encouraged it to continue?
The claim is that the experience of colonisation has caused these problems when the reality is that all humans are descended from the colonised and most do just fine. This suggests by default that it is the lack of assimilation which is the cause of the dysfunction. We know as much because the vast majority of those with Aboriginal ancestry are fully assimilated into the modern world and have been for generations. They are doing as well and have the same sorts of outcomes as other Australians. This is why it is so wrong to talk about ‘indigenous’ Australians as some sort of homogeneous entity or monolithic whole.
The minority who are in dysfunctional lifestyles are those still trapped in the remnants of primitive tribal cultures and welfare-dependent for generations. With no cultural appreciation for education, demonstrated by the fact parents do not ensure their children attend school, they are also largely uneducated and illiterate, which means welfare-dependency is destiny. Why would parents fail to understand the importance of education, of literacy and numeracy? Because dysfunctional people are poorly equipped to think clearly about anything.
Humans function best when we take responsibility for ourselves and learn to be independent and self-sufficient. This creates strength of character, resilience and flexibility, as any sensible parent knows and seeks to encourage. Welfare is both invaluable and humane in short-term situations, but destructive long-term. I saw this while living in four African countries, and indeed, some enlightened locals in those nations — Angola, Zambia, South Africa and Malawi — were also aware of the well-meaning but terribly destructive impact of aid given too freely and with too little thought. Too much help and people become dependent and childlike. The most paranoid saw it as a foreign plot. It wasn’t and it isn’t a plot to disempower, but never underestimate the destructive power of good intentions. As the maxim has it, no good deed goes unpunished or, to put it another way, in every gift there is a curse.
Nothing changes unless the culture changes, and cultures can only be advanced from within; anything imposed from the outside will be no more than icing that conceals for a time the mouldy cake beneath. If the culture in which people live does not change for the better then they will not change for the better, the causes of the problems will not change and the original dysfunction will continue while also manifesting in new forms.
Some one trillion dollars in aid, calculated in US dollars, has been poured into Africa since 1970 and yet the average African is worse off today than half a century ago. Aid does not work, at least beyond immediate crisis situations, and even then, as I saw, those in power often snaffle the assistance the West sends and sell it off for personal profit, with little or none helping their own needy. Their needs come first because that is how their world works. This is also a major problem in Aboriginal communities.
Ongoing aid encourages and entrenches a mendicant attitude and brews even worse corruption. It weaves itself into the foundational culture and changes nothing for the better. If the aid worked as billed it would/could help. But such plans mostly fail because they do not take into account human nature. And even the successes have unexpected sharp edges. Provide something useful to women in tribal societies and it’s a good chance the men will take it for their own use. Why would the donors think that something of value would be allowed to remain in the hands of women regarded as inferior in their societies and very much under male control? But think it they do, because when they ask their questions of the communities they seek to help, everyone smiles, including the men, and says ‘Yes, please!’
What is meant to happen and what actually happens are two very different things. As an example, most would agree that ready access to water is critical and women in Africa having to walk kilometres while toting heavy buckets is a major problem which should be addressed. And it was, with campaigns to provide and install wells and pumps in each village. A noble and admirable idea to be sure. So what happened, what went wrong?
Local chiefs would either take charge of the well and dictate who could use or, just as likely, remove parts for their own personal wells. And, when equipment broke down, who was going to pay to fix the well? Indeed, who had been taught the skills to fix the well? The Mzungus (whites) with the money, of course! And that is why Africa is littered with broken water pumps. I have since read there are now charities which seek to help locals repair the pumps.
Another great idea was providing mosquito nets to malarial villages. This happened during the five years I lived in Malawi, a tiny country along the edge of a huge lake. The nets were provided, but then what happened? Well, the ever-resourceful locals thought they would make great fishing nets. Who cares about mosquitoes! They had always lived with them, and that is what they kept on doing while the nets were cast into the water. Except those innovative Mzungus had provided mosquito nets infused with poison to kill the mozzies, so using them as nets soon had the fish in the lake dying. Not only were the locals now without nets to foil malaria, they were without food on which they relied to survive. Nobody responsible for the mosquito-net effort thought it through, but no doubt it seemed like an good idea at the time.
Much the same problems exist with remote Aboriginal communities and for the same sort of reasons. These places are riven by familial, tribal and traditional divisions. They do not and cannot agree on anything most of the time, except when someone comes along and wants to give them something for nothing. Again, the answer is a communal ‘yes, please’ but nobody, giver or receiver, thinks it through carefully and strategically — lots of thinking, but much of rising from the realms of assumption and fantasy.
Aid is most often based on what people on the outside think others should be, do or have, without those making these decisions actually understanding the people they want to help, how their world works and the social and cultural dynamics which will influence any help provided. If they have any sense of the alien culture with which they are dealing it is usually a romanticised, invented fantasy of “culture” rather than the real thing. They mean well, yes, they do. But in their idealism and ignorance they do great harm while wasting enormous sums.
I have a family member, at one time a social worker in the Aboriginal communities ofAlice Springs and Darwin, who recalls a major problem in getting a straight answer. Ask a question, any question, and the answer will likely be ‘Yes’, just as I saw in Africa. Partly it is because in many of these cultures, ‘yes’, is both the polite answer and a way to please the powerful and rich white person who wants to give you things. Why would anyone say no to a gift?
Thus do we see houses built in Aboriginal communities without taking into account that a death under the roof means no-one can sleep in it anymore. Aboriginal cultures in 1788 were highly superstitious, as indeed were all humans at Stone Age levels of existence, and these superstitions have endured in those communities which are the least assimilated into the modern world. Abandoning a simple wurlie believed to be inhabited by a ghost is one thing and easy enough to remedy — just whip up a new one with a few branches and bark. It is a very different matter replacing a settlement’s abandoned houses, especially when replacement dwellings are just as likely to be abandoned for fear of the latest deaths and resulting ghosts.
When mining companies want to build useful structures in a community — a school, say, and health centre — they will have to deal with individual ‘needs’ and wants centred on money and more LandCruisers. The power-brokers, the Big Men, are out for themselves while the mining companies are focused on the community, at least in terms of these consultations, and foolishly believe they are negotiating with leaders representing the pursuit of community-based goals. The truth is that their interlocutors care first and foremost about themselves.
There are exceptions but, generally, the outcome for the Aboriginal community will be a school or a health centre, not both, and the rest of the bounty delivered in money and cars. Without such concessions no agreement can ever be reached and no mine will ever be built. The school and health centre would, of course, meet the needs of everyone in the community; the money and cars will meet the needs of the few and the most powerful. Remote areas of Australia are littered with trashed Toyotas, our ‘water pump’ equivalents. What does it matter when there will be another car gifted? What does it matter when only today is relevant?
This is why the local Aboriginal community for the Argyle Diamond Mine in the Kimberley region of WA, despite 40 years of royalties running to many millions of dollars, achieved very little beyond some heady personal gains. When the mine closed, as the ABC reported, the end to the flow of such payments was bemoaned amid grim predictions of looming penury.
Despite millions of dollars a year from Argyle diamonds flowing to seven local family groups, or Dawangs, via a complex web of companies and trusts, the community is riven by poverty, poor education, alcoholism and one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country.
There were 40 years to put millions of dollars to good use but that never happened. Why? Because tribal structures and systems do not allow such thinking. The dangerous assumption made by those looking to help is that they are dealing with people who think as they do. That is the thing about cultures, they are different and they are certainly not equal. Never assume the person to whom you are talking thinks as you do, let alone understands how you think or even cares.
During my time in Africa, there would be people, including fairly well-educated individuals, who would do the silliest things, often involving theft, where it was guaranteed they would be found out. There was a case in Malawi when two workers on a mining site decided to steal a television set from one of the dongas. They had bought themselves some ‘magic dust’ which would make them invisible and which, one assumes, was in sufficient quantity to sprinkle on the TV set as well. Well they must have bought a dud batch because the guards at the gates asked why they were taking the set on an outing. The expressions on the ‘invisble’ miscreants’ faces must have been priceless.
That, however, is how vastly different mindsets can be in cultures which have not assimilated into the modern world. How could anyone believe such a thing, you might ask? Good question, but they do, and such ways of thinking are also a part of Aboriginal tribal cultures. That reality being ignored time and again is a major reason why these communities are worse today than they have ever been, despite all that help.
When René Descartes wrote cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am — it was to make a case that our capacity to think is proof that we exist. That may well be the case, but it is worth remembering a more useful maxim: What I think creates what I am. Cultures create how and how much people can think. All thinking is not equal.
Tribal communities are rarely self-reflective because that was of no help when they were nomadic hunter-gatherers. They learned to do what they were told by whoever ran the tribe, usually an old man, the chief in Africa, and in Australian Aboriginal societies a number of old men. Their word was law and anyone who challenged it as good as dead. If death was not the immediate outcome, the community/tribe would often wreak punishment in the form of banishment, which meant death anyway.
And today, where these tribal societies continue to exist, the chief, head man, elder or whatever will dictate what can be done. Anyone who goes against that will not last. For instance, if someone in an African village wishes to plant something different in their garden, they risk the wrath not just of the chief but of the other villagers. The tribal mentality is that ‘everyone is in the pot’ and those who try to ‘climb out’ must be pulled back down. Modern minds interpret this as ‘community co-operation.’ It is nothing of the kind; rather, it is tribal dictatorship and community control. No doubt this attitude originated in hunter-gatherer societies where it was necessary to be as one in order to survive. Without this primal need, and beyond the dictates of the chief, what else was there to bring people together? Old habits die hard. Individualism must be countered at any cost. This, of course, does not apply to those in positions to snatch and hold wealth and power. Might is right in such cultures.
Into the equation came the missionaries and the colonists who brought aid, in essence, a form of wealth. ‘Sit-down money’ Aborigines dubbed it, and sit-down money it was and remains. When someone provides you with food, shelter and support, then all you have to think about is how much of it you can get for yourself. There is no longer any need to work together, to function as a community. Why work when free stuff arrives on a platter? In Aboriginal communities, as in Africa, the same attitudes are all too commonly at work – self first and foremost, immediate family second, extended family a possible third and everyone else can go to hell. I had well educated and successful men describe this reality to me in both Angola and Malawi. That is why African countries are pretty much basket-cases, including South Africa, which once it was handed to African tribal entities began gurgling down the plughole of corruption.
In remote Aboriginal communities, disasters that they are, the same dynamics are at work. Turn a tribal hunter-gatherer society into a mendicant society and you get dysfunctional cultures which cannot function in any world, neither the one which exists only in fantasy — ‘world’s oldest living culture’ et cetera, et cetera — or in the modern one they need to join, yet are simultaneously encouraged not to join (‘world’s oldest living culture’ et cetera, et cetera) beyond accepting its material and mechanical gifts. How could anyone remain functional when caught between two such discordant worlds?
Aid has created a mentality where people see themselves as entitled victims. Holding out a hand to receive what you are told is your ‘right’ and due is far easier than using those same hands to lift yourself and change your world.
Working to end the mendicant mentality must come from the outside with a slow easing of the flow of aid and support for these communities. To do otherwise is to continue the destruction of useful lives and generations in ways which should never be allowed, especially in regard to the immense harm visited upon innocent children.
History reveals that aid has not worked and that welfare, beyond short-term, does more harm than good. But it always seems like a good idea at the time — and that’s the real tragedy.