Neoliberalism and Indigenous affairs

Mark Moran, World Vision Australia

David Craig and Douglas Porter Development Beyond Neoliberalism: Governance, Poverty Reduction and Political Economy, New York, Routledge, 2006 (352 pp). ISBN 9-78041531-959-1 (paperback) RRP $80.00.

Remote Indigenous settlements in Australia operate in an extreme economic context, arising from limited economic opportunities, the small size of settlements and large distances between them, the lack of human and institutional capital, and the high level of mobility between and within settlements. Other Australian settlements and most settings in less developed countries are underpinned by a market economy. Most remote Indigenous settlements are characterised by the very lack of one. Despite the different economic context, residents of these settlements experience living standards and institutional arrangements that resemble those in less developed countries. Remote Indigenous communities are also subject to policies that often resemble those carried out to aid ‘development’ internationally.

A new book scrutinising the ideas, practices and outcomes of contemporary international development policy can help us understand much of what governments have been doing in and to remote Indigenous communities. David Craig and Doug Porter’s Development Beyond Neoliberalism analyses the global economic impact of neoliberalism on international development practice. The book provides a compelling insight into the state of Indigenous affairs that developed under the Howard Government from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, and what the future might hold for Indigenous ‘development beyond neoliberalism’.


Neoliberalism is a political ideology which extends market relations into social, economic and political spheres. Craig and Porter (p. 11) argue that neoliberalism emphasises the rule of universal law, the need for human and property rights, and institutional reforms that remove obstacles to markets. In its approach to poverty, it eschews major redistribution and emphasises moral discipline, security and (again) markets. In the 1980s, when English-speaking governments seemed to take up these ideas wholesale, they were popularly described by critics as economic rationalism, Thatcherism or Reaganomics. Through the 1990s, neoliberalism confusingly came to pervade both left and right sides of politics. Today, it does not neatly align with the conservative Liberal Party in Australia, and it is strongly evident in New Labour in Britain, and the Democratic Party in the United States of America.

Craig and Porter chart the history of neoliberalism in international development, beginning with the structural adjustment programs (for example, deregulated currencies and privatisation of public services) foisted onto developing countries by a suite of international aid organisations such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and the African Development Bank (what collectively became known as the Washington Consensus). While the excesses of structural adjustment retreated through the 1990s, the authors demonstrate how neoliberalism continued to dominate international development practice, largely under the guise of a new ‘poverty reduction and good governance paradigm’ (p. 21). New projects and institutions arose to alleviate poverty and empower the ‘citizen’, but Craig and Porter demonstrate how these reframed in ways to maintain the neoliberal development model (p. 20).

The book is divided into two parts: the first develops the history of ‘neoliberal institutionalism’ and second presents case studies from Vietnam, Uganda, Pakistan and New Zealand. Craig and Porter see an increasingly dominant ‘institutional neoliberalism’ operating under an ‘inform, enforce and compete’ (p. 157) mantra. ‘Good governance’ is shown to be not simply hollow rhetoric, but a very real attempt to reduce poverty, improve stability and build institutions. In New Zealand, for example, early unsuccessful attempts in neoliberal governance through the market were followed by new modes of partnership and collaboration (p. 219). What emerged was complex hybrid governance arrangements with high transaction costs between partnerships and competitive contracts, inclusion and discipline, and free markets and community (Roelvink 2007).

Practice is to be all ‘joined-up’, inclusive and participatory and empowering as never before.

Contrary to the claims of joined-up, whole-of-government and partnership, Craig and Porter (p. 25) describe these hybrid governance arrangements as quasi-territorialisations; ambiguous organisations that are ‘perverse in both their plurality and in their failure to enable substantive practical approaches to the basics factors of poverty.’ They are accompanied by ‘slippery multiple accountabilities’, including audit, contract compliance, consumer voice, and participatory dialogue. A representative community organisation might facilitate participatory workshops to measure outcomes, while a global accounting firm audited the books (p. 104). The intention is that the more stakeholders informing, competing and enforcing, the more accountability. Practice is to be all ‘joined-up’, inclusive and participatory and empowering as never before. What emerges in practice is very different. The assignment of plural accountabilities down into quasi-territories, in turn leads to what Craig and Porter call quasi-accountabilities (p. 119). Perversely, it also leads to an undermining of territorialised or place-based accountabilities to the citizen (p. 61), such as local councils and other representative organisations.


In place of markets in remote Indigenous settlements, local economies are dominated by public services, which include housing, water, telephones, power, roads, rubbish, health, education, banking, police, justice, aged care, sports, unemployment, child protection, and income support. Public services are variously administered by multiple agencies operating across three levels of government (Federal, State/Territory, and local), each with separate administrative requirements.

Self-determination policies (introduced during the 1970s, but most active during the 1980s and 1990s) led to a plethora of local government councils, incorporated organisations, community-controlled health services, housing associations and other community organisations—what Tim Rowse has described as the ‘Indigenous Sector’ (2005, p. 214). More recently, non-government organisations (NGOs) and private providers have also come to play a role, generally operating under service delivery contracts from governments. Reform has been a constant feature of Indigenous affairs. Since mid-2007, this has been dominated by the ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory. But over recent years, other policies influenced by neoliberal ideas have also reshaped Indigenous policy, including the amalgamation of local councils into regional ‘shires’, changes to the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), decentralisation of training to Registered Training Organisations (RTOs), and the pushing of co-ordinating and funding powers down to strategic brokers and consultant case workers.

Whatever their respective merits, these reforms have had a common effect. New programs are introduced faster than old programs are closed, leading to a net increase in the number of agencies and programs, and increasing complexity—particularly as it presents to the residents of remote Indigenous settlements. Multiple service providers, including local government agencies, not-for-profit NGOs, and for-profit contractors, operating at different levels of the system, now compete in the same small jurisdictions.

Neoliberal programs have been most successful in authoritarian states.

On Cape York, for example, the number of agencies dealing with one local Council increased 50 per cent over a ten year period. In 2002, Council finances were drawn from an incredible 45 different programs delivered by 23 different funding providers (Moran 2006, pp. 240; 409–412). In 2007 in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory, local government reform and council amalgamations confirmed Tennant Creek as the service centre for the new Barkly Shire. At the same time, the Federal Government awarded the tender to manage the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Scheme in the Barkly to Alpurrurulam Community Government Council, located 600 kilometres away at the region’s most eastern boundary. In this case the dual policy instruments of regionalism and privatisation, operating through different governments, led to countervailing centralisation and decentralisation effects. Even reforms specifically targeting improved co-ordination of services, such as the recent Council of Australian Governments (COAG) trial at Wadeye, have led to an net increase in the number of providers and quantity of administration to be processed (Gray 2006). Notwithstanding the need to build local capacity, the ever increasing quantity of administrative workload contributes to shortfalls of local capacity, and problems of engagement and over-reliance on non-Indigenous employees. In the words of one Indigenous leader: ‘we are climbing the ladder, but it’s growing faster than we can climb’ (personal communication, 20 July 2007).

Craig and Porter point out (p. 251) that neoliberal programs have been most successful in authoritarian states with strong disciplinary control and weak democratic accountability processes (for example, Pakistan, Vietnam, Uganda). Centralised powers have been quick to discredit and disassemble intermediary representative governance structures, and the political leaders, service providers and other ‘elites’ that they spawn, since they might otherwise compose a political opposition. The hand of political authority is not quite so heavy in Australia, but there are some resonances here with Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison’s claim (2007) that the Howard Government was active in stifling debate and ‘disciplined’ organisations and individuals who opposed its policies, and that this posed a threat to democracy in Australia. In Indigenous affairs, the contraction of democracy has been evident in the abolition of ATSIC, the ongoing withdrawal of funding and discrediting of representative Indigenous organisations, and the portrayal of Indigenous leaders as elites or corrupt (see, for example, Hughes 2007).

Neoliberal reforms are progressed through moralising about the freedom of citizens to access the market, the ‘rights’ of the family, and mutual responsibility. Craig and Porter describe the rise in top-down accountability and security measures to ensure that local obligations are met (p. 21). There are parallels here with the marked rise in accountability mechanisms in Indigenous affairs (Ivanitiz 2000). The current ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territory to tackle child abuse, has seen a long awaited increase in police numbers, but has also been accompanied with a range of restrictions, including land reform, quarantining of welfare payments and alcohol restrictions.


Neoliberal ideas align with another key concept in development discourse, that of ‘community development’ and associated institution of the non-government organisation (NGOs). Craig and Porter link neoliberalism, community development and the rise of NGOs with their term ‘inclusive neoliberalism’. They argue that, under the neoliberal idea of community development, empowerment is conceptualised as participation in local and global markets; institutional capacity building becomes preoccupied with commercialisation; human capital is built through services rather than education; vulnerability is aided by formal legal rights rather than welfare; and citizen responsibilities are cast as moral obligations to community and work. Craig and Porter demonstrate how non-government organisations (NGOs) have entered the spaces created by the withdrawal of the government, ‘eager to partner in these “inclusive” arrangements and to gain a new prominence around service delivery’ (p. 251). But NGOs operate with some distance from political accountabilities, so when ‘given a privileged position as the prime means of articulating citizen voices, they can have the effect of diluting the accountability of state agencies to their citizens’ (p. 263). By acting as weak agents, NGOs can inadvertently undermine and depoliticise local accountability.

Not-for-profit NGOs are increasingly entering Indigenous affairs in Australia.

Craig and Porter are referring here to NGOs active in international development practice. In Australia, we need to distinguish between place-based representative Indigenous organisations (such as community councils and corporations with an elected board), and not-for-profit NGOs operating on larger scales (which tend to take direction from a board of prominent citizens). Not-for-profit NGOs are increasingly entering Indigenous affairs in Australia, largely by tendering for government contracts for service delivery, predominantly in the health and family services sectors. NGOs have an important role to play, but with an institutional landscape as crowded as Indigenous affairs, their challenge is to find a way to build and strengthen, rather than supplant or displace, representative governing structures.

Craig and Porter demonstrate the frailty of these fragmented institutional arrangements emerging under neoliberalism, which:

at best offer ‘inclusion delusion’, a sense of something multifaceted, involving plural partners, including civil society, responding to the voices of the poor; but accountable in the end to no one, unless it is the individual donors insistent on moving the money in their own current budgetary timeframes (p. 252).

If we are to look beyond neoliberalism, we need to think about how things might be different. In New Zealand, for example, Craig and Porter demonstrate how the government is now trying to put ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again’ (p. 105). Craig and Porter seek to ‘move the debate around poverty reduction away from its current “liberal markets, allocative efficiency, client-orientated service delivery” modes’, towards some more place-based modes within which ‘political accountabilities might be more effectively pursued’ (p. 258). To decentralise service accountabilities to NGOs, to push moral accountabilities down to clients, and to delegate co-ordination to strategic brokers is no substitute for potent, central to local, accountable transfers of resources that are provided over by durable forms of elected political leadership (p. 262).

As James Ferguson (1994) well illustrated in The Anti-Politics Machine, international development practice seeks technical solutions for what it finds difficult to achieve through local political processes. Craig and Porter argue how neoliberal accountability measures place ‘fetters on local political leaders, to discipline them, to create administrative arrangements to make sure they act in pre-determined ways’ (p. 176). The ability of elected local councillors to respond to the needs expressed by their constituents is thus constrained, placing them to ‘the side, able to influence the process only as a ‘spoiler’—thus reinforcing views that local politicians are irrational, and that a further round of ear-marking was required by higher authorities to bring them into line’ (p. 177).

Craig and Porter close their book with a call to international development practitioners to be more aware of the effects of neoliberalism, in not aiding the fragmenting of services and accountability and in abetting authoritative regimes. There are enormous incentives to go with the flow, and consequences for those that do not, but they finish with a plea that ‘spin should not be allowed to triumph over substance and practice’ (p. 273). Practitioners in Indigenous affairs, whether working for governments, private companies, NGOs or community organisations, would do well to take a critically inward view, to ensure that their activities do not depoliticise the political, and to frame their activities around durable governance structures, downward accountability, and the domain of substantive politics and places. They should be working to actively reduce, rather than exacerbate, the complexity of the institutional environment as it presents to Indigenous leaders in remote settlements. And they should be refocusing accountability questions out of local community and frontline contexts, up the institutional scale, to shine some accountability light on the governments and Neoliberal institutions operating in Indigenous affairs.


Ferguson, J. 1994, The Anti-Politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, 2nd edn, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Gray, B. 2006, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Trial Evaluation: Wadeye, Northern Territory, Commonwealth of Australia, WJG & Associates Pty Ltd.

Hamilton, C. & Maddison, S. (eds) 2007, Silencing Dissent, Allen & Unwin, Melbourne.

Hughes, H. 2007, Lands of Shame: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Homelands’ in Transition, Centre for Independent Studies, St Leonards, Sydney.

Ivanitiz, M. 2000, ‘The demise of ATSIC? Accountability and the Coalition Government’, Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 59, no. 1, pp. 3–12.

Moran, M. 2006, Practising self-determination: Participation in planning and local governance in discrete Indigenous settlements, Unpublished PhD Thesis, School of Geography, Planning and Architecture, University of Queensland [Online], Available: [2008, Apr 4].

Roelvink, G. 2007, ‘Book Review: Development Beyond Neoliberalism? Governance, Poverty Reduction and Political Economy’, Progress in Human Geography, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 122–123.

Rowse, T. 2005, ‘The Indigenous sector’, in Culture, Economy and Governance in Aboriginal Australia, ed. D. Austin-Broos & G. Macdonald, Sydney University Press, Sydney, pp. 213–229.

Dr Mark Moran is the Manager Australia Programs with World Vision Australia and an Adjunct Associate Professor with the University of Queensland.

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