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Comment: Indigenous people must draw on entrepreneurial tradition to break cycle of poverty and violence

5 July 2019
Written by Associate Lecturer Percy Knight
While many Indigenous communities remain "sorry towns," a growing number have taken charge of their financial future through a unique and ancient Indigenous approach to business, writes Percy Knight.
Percy Knight

Percy Knight

I have spent most of my adult life working to build positive socio-economic outcomes for Indigenous communities. Sadly, all too many Indigenous communities are no more than "sorry towns" - that is, communities where the funerals of people who die young from preventable causes are a social highlight. But there is also an increasing number of communities that have established a pathway to a sound financial future based on a unique Indigenous approach to business that is tens of thousands of years old.

Indigenous economic development demands that Indigenous people take charge of employment, business, asset and wealth creation and ultimately, operate their own private businesses and community-based enterprises in the communities and regions where they live.

Beyond profit, Indigenous entrepreneurs are often motivated by the needs of their extended kin network, the wider community and even issues such as self-determination. For this reason, it is possible for Indigenous businesses to successfully meet their community commitments but fail financially.  Alternatively, an Indigenous business might be profitable but fail to make an acceptable contribution to the community. Truly successful Indigenous businesses need to address both commercial and non-commercial factors. My research seeks to identify the specific constraints that prevent Indigenous businesses achieving their duel objectives, resulting in so called "successful failure."

Importantly, I am also examining those factors that will assist an entrepreneur to move on from a commercial or community failure and create a business that is likely to be more successful (or at least has viable ongoing operations).  

In recent years, Indigenous people have increasingly sought to participate in the national economy by starting their own businesses and community owned and operated enterprises. In most cases they are looking for an escape from poverty and the violence associated with it. They want to create a better quality of life for their families and community members.   

But breaking the cycle of poverty for many Indigenous Australians still poses many challenges - there is no generic Indigenous community. Although Indigenous cultures around Australia share many values and hold a similar worldview, there is also great diversity amongst them, resulting largely from the vastly different environment and climate across Australia. 

Indeed, there are an estimated 600 different nations and clan groups of Indigenous Australians and there is also a wide range of different business and community owned enterprise amongst them. These range from ecotourism and cultural tours to partnership with mining companies on native title land; restaurants; Indigenous-owned holiday resorts; transport operations; and fishing and agricultural enterprises. Indigenous people are finding new ways to participate in the national economy.

From a lifetime of participation in Aboriginal communities, it is my belief that Indigenous Australians actively participating within the Australian economy can result in their financial independence. From my experience, those Aboriginal households which are not welfare dependant or subject to the limiting options which result from low paying jobs are much more likely to be in control of their lives.

While some well-intentioned but misinformed scholars would have us believe that Indigenous Australians are motivated by a desire to retain and support Aboriginal culture - their "heritage" - I have found that individuals and communities are searching for financial stability. Indigenous entrepreneurs want to provide for their family, to give their children a better quality of life than they have had and to escape the entrapments of poverty.

Interestingly, entrepreneurial activity has had to exist, albeit in a different cultural format, for 70,000 years of Aboriginal history. Aboriginal people have been active traders both across the continent and with foreign visitors for a very long time, meaning that at least some have had to be very entrepreneurial.

When seen from this perspective, the Indigenous people have a heritage and long historical base upon which to build for the future. Indeed, wider acceptance of this fact may help to cast off the perception of welfare dependency that presently subjugates contemporary Indigenous Australia. It is no surprise however that this heritage has been submerged along with the destruction of our society caused by white invasion. 

Despite being subjected to discriminatory policies designed to exclude Indigenous people from economic participation (e.g. the "stolen wages"), there are Indigenous businesses across Australia that have overcome the systemic challenges associated with the legacy of colonisation to thrive in the current economic environment. In fact, the Indigenous business sector has experienced significant growth in recent years. 

However, the truth is that "sorry towns" are still far too numerous. It is now time for Indigenous Australians to grasp the true meaning of "self-determination," acknowledge their entrepreneurial heritage, combine it with Western education and build a sound economic future for Aboriginal people in a modern world. 

Percy Knight is an associate lecturer in the University of Sydney Business School’s Discipline of Strategy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and an elder of the Wiradjuri people.

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