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Rebalancing the power: reframing recognition of indigenous cultures

August 9th is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This year’s theme is ‘The role of women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge’.

HOST International CEO, David Keegan, explores the importance of indigenous knowledge and why we still need to be vigilant against Colonialism.

As a young social worker, I had the privilege of working in a mentoring role for an indigenous owned and operated youth refuge in Western Sydney.

On many occasions, I would sit with Aboriginal elders, mostly women, on the veranda of the refuge and listen to stories of culture, politics and community.

Whilst my role was to advise on youth care models, I found that what was needed most from me was to facilitate permission for the community to govern their way within a colonial system. What I often heard was the impact of not listening to and respecting traditional ways.

I now work with refugee communities throughout Asia Pacific, and I still come across many stories of oppression in relation to indigenous culture and voices.

Furthermore, I work within an international protection system dominated by wealthy western charities and government infrastructure. It’s a system that fails to adequately acknowledge local voices in humanitarian aid and development.

Our world and the systems that aim to protect the vulnerable are unfortunately, and somewhat unintentionally, still subject to the grip of colonialism.

I and many others breathed a sigh of relief when we heard Anthony Albanese announce on election night that a voice to parliament was going to become a serious policy issue in the new government’s first term.

For many years, the Aboriginal people of Australia have sought to achieve legitimacy in Australia’s political system – beyond simply having the right to vote. That was issued 54 years ago in 1968.

The Uluru Statement of the Heart was developed as a way forward to seek a formal voice to parliament. My understanding is that it aims to work towards a treaty-based model, similar to what is in place in New Zealand, where indigenous voice is legislated and where Maori culture and language is widely taught and visible publicly.

In Australia, there is now a plan to introduce a referendum to change the constitution. If passed, it will include a formalised mechanism for indigenous Australians to have input to parliament. This essentially means that the parliament would be required to consult with, and recognise, indigenous knowledge and worldview when considering legislation and other decisions.

It would not, however, require those views be incorporated. The parliament still holds power.

Despite being a step in the right direction, I would argue that this change does not go far enough.

Australia's political system is a product of colonial takeover of indigenous lands. What is needed is a treaty which would establish a model closer to co-governance.

This requires a sharing of power which rarely happens effectively. Those with power fear what will be lost by relinquishing some or all of that power.

Similarities unfortunately exist in the international humanitarian and development systems that are designed to assist the poorest and most disadvantaged in this world.

The equivalent debate is over what role local communities should play in the design and implementation of aid and protection programs including indigenous peoples.

Our experience with refugees is that many programs and funds are still controlled by international NGOs and UN institutions. They focus on crisis aid rather than sustainable integration and development strategies and rarely empower local communities to design and implement supports to reflect local needs.

Commentary is increasingly focussed on localising protection and development. The Grand Bargain in 2016 positioned this as a key objective yet in practice, local engagement remains largely tokenistic.

Colonialism is essentially summed up as the powerful controlling the powerless. True humanitarian and development work requires an equalisation of power. In other words, the power must be distributed from the powerful to the powerless.

This does not mean that there is no place for the international community or wealthy countries. It means that the way we need to do humanitarian and development work needs to be reversed.

It has to be led by local actors and those subject to disadvantage as a result of migration or poverty.

The Uluru Statement of the Heart is about the right to influence and inform the way that Australia is governed. It does not reverse colonial rule, but it rebalances the power a little.

What if we were to mandate this right to influence and inform in other contexts including –work with refugees or with people experiencing poverty?

What if we could reframe recognition of indigenous cultures, turning it from a fear of what will be lost to an excitement of what can be gained through access to indigenous wisdom?

HOST was established with a vision for decolonising the humanitarian system and empowering communities to lead protection and inclusion. We respect and acknowledge indigenous cultures, and we are working towards local strategies to embed indigenous knowledge and culture into our work across the Asia Pacific.

We still have significant work to do, but all of our projects include local voice and partnership to ensure that we remain relevant and are leaving behind something better.

In particular, we encourage settlement and migration services to adopt traditional principles of social cohesion and welcome.

In my experience, these are more tolerant and inclusive than those we are used to in western culture.

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