Investing in very remote Aboriginal communities

Parnngurr women’s ranger team carrying out maintenance work

Social Ventures Australia (SVA) recently completed a cost-benefit analysis (CBA) that considers various scenarios associated with investment, or lack of investment, in very remote Aboriginal communities. SVA was commissioned to undertake the work by the Martu organisation, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ), and seven other partner organisations working with Martu people in the East Pilbara.

What was the focus of the work?

The analysis is grounded in a study of the very remote Martu desert community of Parnngurr and those Martu living in Newman, the closest town. We compared the cost to the WA Government associated with modest investment in housing, community development initiatives and service provision in Parnngurr, with the costs that would arise in Newman in the absence of such investment. The categories of cost included in the analysis are housing, education, health, municipal services, policing and imprisonment.

Martu are the traditional custodians of a vast area of the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts. The Martu population is now spread across the Pilbara, predominantly in the desert communities of Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji, the community of Jigalong (a former mission), the towns of Newman and Port Hedland and Roebourne prison.

What did we learn?

A significant driver of cost in the model is the dramatic demographic change that has been occurring over the last 10 years. Martu are moving from the desert communities into Newman, due to constraints on the capacity of those communities to absorb natural population growth. But Martu social, cultural and economic outcomes are far poorer in Newman than they are in the desert communities.

We found that for every dollar invested in housing and community development initiatives in Parnngurr, the Western Australian Government could expect to realise around three dollars of avoided costs, primarily associated with downstream policing and imprisonment costs that would likely be incurred in Newman.

Building on the findings of this cost-benefit analysis, KJ has prepared a supplementary paper, titled ‘The Case for Investment in the Martu Desert Communities’, which describes the broader, qualitative case for a policy of investment in the Martu desert communities and key strategies to complement investment in housing.

Parnngurr men’s ranger team installing a hand pump near Parnngurr community.
Parnngurr men’s ranger team installing a hand pump near Parnngurr community.

Does the work have broader application?

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Homelands movement led to the establishment of many, very remote Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people enjoyed the support of successive Australian governments to live on their traditional lands. But in subsequent years, that support has waned.

Current day assessments of very remote Aboriginal community ‘viability’ or ‘sustainability’ are often premised on the assumption that the closure of those communities will reduce public expenditure, because Commonwealth, state and territory governments will no longer be required to provide essential services and infrastructure to those communities. Such assessments have been criticised by some as being overly simplistic because they fail to consider the reasons why people chose to return to their traditional lands and the fiscal implications for state and territory governments of forcing those people back to centralised towns. Our analysis sought to quantify those implications in the context of the Martu desert communities.

The development of policy in relation to very remote Aboriginal communities needs to be context specific. It should be led by the people living in those communities and must account for their relationships to other proximate communities and towns in the region. This is a critical foundation from which Australian Governments can develop, coordinate and implement appropriate place-based strategies for investment in Aboriginal people and their communities. Through this body of work in relation to the Martu desert communities, KJ has provided a template for others to follow in formulating a policy of investment in other very remote Aboriginal communities.

Further reading

Below are links to the two reports referenced above: