Asset-Based Development Approaches in the Pilbara Region, Western Australia

The Client

My client was the IBN Group in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia. Established under the Mining Area C (MAC) Agreement between BHP Billiton Pty Ltd and the local Aboriginal claim group, IBN provide programs and services to improve the health, happiness and prosperity of the Yinhawangka, Banyjima and Nyiyaparli people.

The Challenge

The key challenge in this assignment was how to promote economic and social development among disadvantaged indigenous communities by building on assets, capabilities and opportunities, rather than simply planning around defined needs and levels of disadvantage. In a field characterised by dependency and welfare-based models of development, agencies are searching for new, more sustainable ways of working with local communities.

The challenge here was to devise a way of engaging with small, local communities to treat residents as citizens and build local ownership and responsibility of their local planning and development processes. Internationally, methods such as Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and Appreciative Inquiry have been used with some success among poor communities to formulate development plans based on local capacities, interests, skills, and opportunities. This represents a bottom-up approach to development that builds on local strengths and assets and promotes empowerment. However, these models have not been generally applied to indigenous economic and social development processes in Australia.

The Process

Addressing this challenge involved a combination of review of other development models and experiences, and consultation with rural and remote Aboriginal communities in the region, as well as with IBN staff and management. I met with a range of residents in small rural settlements in the Pilbara region. This region is dominated by mining. Often, Aboriginal people are marginalised from the employment and business opportunities that stem from these activities. Many of the settlements are very small, with high levels of unemployment. While government services are provided (e.g., housing, health, education), these are delivered to residents, rather than in consultation or partnership with communities. It took some time to understand these challenges and to identify those areas where good practices, based on local ownership, skills and capacity had been forged.

I was aware of a range of international models of asset-based development and these were reviewed to identify key principles and lessons, which could be applied to Aboriginal economic and social development in the Pilbara. These models had to be carefully studied in order to identify those elements that could be successfully applied in the Pilbara Region.

Drawing this information together, I produced a report describing the challenges faced by local communities and IBN and outlined the options for introducing a new way of working. The paper was presented to and discussed with key IBN staff and members. The challenges for adopting this new way of working were carefully considered.

Based on these discussions and a further review of new organisational strategy and business plan documents, I was asked to outline how an asset-based approach to development could be effectively incorporated into IBN’s work. The final report I wrote, presented a guide for further discussion on how IBN can support the development of all members, their families and communities. It contained four parts: Context (i.e., the issues that influence how IBN does this work), a framework (i.e., how IBN can organise and approach this work), practice (i.e., how to work with members, stakeholders, partners and other actors), and organization and programs (i.e., how to organise ourselves and mobilise resources).

The Outcome

IBN is revising the ways it works with its members and their communities. This involves changes to the original MAC Agreement, as well as changes to organisations structures and programming. The process of change takes some time and affects many aspects of the organisation’s culture, staffing, skills and program approaches. Increasingly, there is a willingness to identify and pursue partnership opportunities with local communities and to find ways where IBN members, their families and communities, become more involved in defining their future.

Lessons Learned

Disadvantaged communities have agency. To varying degrees, they have capacity to take charge of their own development. Good development planning involves a combination of top-down and bottom-up planning, but bottom-up development also creates a stronger rationale and basis for successful and sustainable development.

Organisational budgeting and programming loves top-down planning. It is easier to do annual budgets and projections, when these are based on central plans. It is far more difficult to respond to a diverse and decentralised range of actors’ aspirations and opportunities. Adopting an asset-based approach to local develop is very challenging for managers.

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