Development, Rights, and Indigenous Australians – A Critique of Australian Government Policy Using the Capability Approach

Vaughan, Donna (2010). "Development, Rights, and Indigenous Australians – A Critique of Australian Government Policy Using the Capability Approach" Paper presented at the 7th annual conference of the HDCA, 21-23 September 2010, Amman, Jordan.

The United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development (UN RTD) 1986 requires the State to ensure equal access and opportunity to participate in the economic, social, cultural and political domains and distributional equity in the allocation of State resources. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN DRIP) 2007 lays down the rights of Indigenous people to maintain, protect and develop their own political, economic and social systems (Article 20), to the improvement of their economic and social conditions without discrimination (Article 21), and to set development priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development (Article 23). The previous Australian Government in office until 2007 did not support the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people when it was first proclaimed in September 2007 however this position was reversed by the new (current) Government elected in late 2007 who eventually announced its support for the Declaration in April 2009. The position of the previous Government was based on a concern that its policies might not be construed as compliant with the declaration, even though it considered them to be consistent with a human rights based approach and consistent with the obligations of the State to accord these rights to all people without discrimination. In this paper I begin by comparing current Government policy to the UN DRIP with reference to the situation of Australian Indigenous people. I conclude that policy remains unchanged from the previous Government and is focused on developing Indigenous communities in line with Government priorities based on a uniform service delivery, welfare and economic model as applied to the rest of the population and country. I then examine concepts of Indigenous well-being from Government, civil society and the literature, and a subjective community view taken from my own fieldwork. While Government limits itself to measurable and quantifiable social and economic development outcomes the literature argues for a broader set of well-being objectives specifically for Indigenous people. The subjective community view, taken from my own field research, is anchored in a very different paradigm to that of Government, that is, one based on their traditional connection to country. In the final part of the paper I attempt to illustrate how the capability approach as a focus for policy would result in a better alignment with the intent of the UN DRIP. Acknowledging that the imperative for Government to ‘close the gap’ on severe Indigenous disadvantage in access to resources and services is overwhelming, I propose a parallel strategy to the current policy approach to enable Indigenous Australians to progressively take charge of their own development in line with the UN DRIP and their particular aspirations for well-being. This paper draws on a Doctoral research project currently nearing completion which uses the capability approach to evaluate Government policy on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) for development as it relates to communities and also to evaluate community ICT initiatives for their contribution to well-being as defined by the community. The research has been conducted in Sri Lanka and in four remote Indigenous communities in Cape York Australia.
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