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June 10th 2013 print

Frank Pledge

Indigenous squalor and the ‘Third World’ cliche

What might lazy journalists and other apologists do if they could no longer liken dysfunctional Indigenous communities to the Third World? They might have to tell the truth for a change


How many times have you seen it, the usual line repeated endlessly in the media, that Aboriginesare living in “Third World conditions”? I wonder if this is just laziness, or is it yet another attempt to mislead the public with agenda-driven journalism?


Most Australians, even those who haven’t actually travelled in the Third World, will be familiar with living conditions via TV images beamed into their living rooms. As a young geologist, I spent some time in the Third World, sleeping on dirt floors in bamboo shacks and little villages where there was no running water or electric power, and often no motor-vehicle access. The pursuit of my profesion has also seen me spend much time in and around remote Aboriginal communities. Not only are modern amenities — power, water and roads — taken for granted, they also boast airstrips, telephones, television and the internet.

I also remember the queues of homeless street people lining up to wash under the fire hydrants of Calcutta, and the spectacle of residents collecting cow dung to fuel their cooking fires. Also vivid in my memory are the small groups of clean, well-dressed children emerging from the packing-case slums of Jakarta and heading off to school.

On the other hand, my more recent images of Aboriginal communities in Australia include wind-blown drifts of empty drink cans, soiled and carelessly discarded disposable nappies, smashed electrical goods, and abandoned motor vehicles. These do not strike me as being representative of the Third World, but the flotsam of a well-off, consumer society. What I have seen is  evidence of luxury goods, not hard-won staples.

While Third World inhabitants battle to get by on just a few dollars per day, Australia’s Aborigines “struggle” on welfare payments of as much as $60,000 per family per year, with the annual total spent on Indigenous welfare estimated at $100,000 for every man, woman and child in remote areas. (see “Rivers of Money Flow into the Sand”, Quadrant, June, 2011). The Third World should be so lucky! With that kind of income it would be the Third World no longer.

There are other significant differences.

Aboriginal communities have far more than their share of obesity, heart disease and kidney failure, relative to Third World communities. These are, of course, the diseases of affluence.

Substance abuse is another symptom of relative affluence. From what I saw, people in the Third World rarely have the disposable income to indulge in substance abuse. That is most certainly not the case in Indigenous communities.  In 2010, the publican at the Kulgera Hotel in the NT informed me that the black market price for a carton of full-strength beer was $200. At a 2009 funeral in the Arnhem Land, The Australian reported bootleg bottles of Jim Bean were going for  $400 apiece. More recently, the NT News covered the seizure of $50,000 worth of kava at the small and remote community of Nhulunbuy.

Another remote community is said to spend $75,000 a week goes on grog. And the Amata Medical Clinic in the Pitjantjatjara Lands, servicing maybe 450 residents, put total expenditure on soft drinks in 2010 at $240,000 per annum – consumption that has also figured in a report on the community’s staggering waste-and-disposal problems. Given that health statistics show far higher rates of diabetes and kidney disease in Indigenous communities, doesn’t the massive consumption of sugary beverages represent another face of endemic substance abuse?

It is interesting, too, that so many people from the Third World flock to Australia for a better chance in life, but Aborigines, who have no need for visas or work permits, apparently have no interest in fleeing those “Third World conditions” for better lives in the cities. The First World and all its opportunities are right at their doorsteps, with no barriers to entry that I can see, yet the opportunities on offer are not taken up.

From my own observations of Third World living conditions I see four defining characteristics:

  • little or no access to education,
  • little or no access to medical facilities,
  • little or no access to welfare,
  • little or no access to legal representation.

From what I have observed at close quarters, Aboriginal communities have each of those, so they do not come close to fitting the much-cited Third World description. To use that term insults those in foreign lands who are in genuine need and scraping by as best they can. Even to apply the term “disadvantaged” to Indigenous communities requires something close to special pleading.

As one frustrated community leader once said to me: “You shouldn’t confuse poverty with squalor.”

So, I ask myself, is it sloppy journalism that confuses squalor and poverty? Is it sloppy journalism that confuses Aboriginal communities with Third World living conditions? Or is this just another example of lazy journalists misdirect their readers to a thicket of truth-obscuring clichés.

It is not a view we see reflected in press coverage, but a rational appraisal of Indigenous communities and their ills suggests that, far from being deprived, they are over-resourced beyond their ability to make efficient use of what has been so expensively provided.

Frank Pledge is the pseudonym of a veteran geologist who has spent much time in the developing world and, more recently, in and around Amata, Oenplli, Yalata and other remote communities