4. Community development in the context of welfare dependence

David Martin

The beginning of the twenty-first century sees a number of quite fundamental challenges confronting the CDEP scheme, both at the policy level and at the level of local implementation. The first challenge arises from implications for the CDEP scheme of new international and Australian thinking about welfare policy in general. A second challenge concerns the establishment of meaningful and appropriate parameters for ‘development’ through the CDEP scheme which go beyond purely economic development. Another concerns the definition and operationalisation of an appropriate scope for the ‘community’ in which the particular CDEP scheme is operating.

CDEP and ‘mutual obligation’

I first want to turn briefly to some of the issues emerging from new welfare policy thinking in Australia, which itself reflects international trends in countries such as the USA and the UK (see also in this volume Saunders, Ch. 3; Smith, Ch. 7; Westbury, Ch. 10). In essence, these new approaches to welfare replace the philosophy of the inherent entitlements of citizens to basic social and economic support by the state, with one in which the recipient of welfare benefits is expected to actively seek employment, to improve his or her employability, and to contribute to society in return for its support.

The cynic might take the view that much of this thinking derives from the increasing reluctance of government to fund the ever-expanding demand for welfare support, and its sensitivity to popular, if misinformed, hostility towards welfare recipients. At the same time, it has to be said that there is an increasing awareness of the corrosive effects on individuals and communities of long-term welfare dependence. This can be seen both in the report to government of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society (McClure 2000) and in publications by the prominent Aboriginal intellectual and social activist, Noel Pearson, in particular Our Right to Take Responsibility (Pearson 2000).

The Reference Group argues that the welfare system must be judged by its capacity to assist people to participate both economically and socially, as well as by the adequacy of income support arrangements. The McClure Report identifies five features of its proposed Participation Support reforms, including ‘mutual obligations’ underpinned by a broader concept of social obligations, and ‘social partnerships’ as a key strategy for building community capacity. Similarly, Pearson argues for new partnerships to be forged between Indigenous people and their organisations, government, and other parties, and for ‘reciprocity’ to be reinstituted as a fundamental means by which the ‘gammon’ (false) welfare economy, which encourages passive dependence in Indigenous people, must be transformed to a ‘real’ economy.

While (as Jon Altman notes in Ch. 13 of this volume) neither Pearson’s monograph nor the McClure Report pay much attention to the CDEP scheme, it could be argued that for almost a quarter of a century Indigenous people and their organisations have pioneered innovative means of instituting principles now espoused through the ‘mutual obligation’ framework. However, I would caution against assuming that the principles of CDEP schemes should be seen as unproblematically consistent with that policy framework.

Firstly, mutual obligation is held to lie essentially between the welfare recipient as an autonomous individual on the one hand, and government, representing the wider society, on the other. However, the obligations accorded significance by Indigenous people are typically not to the wider, largely non-Indigenous society, from which after all they have historically been excluded or at best marginalised; on the contrary, their obligations lie within Indigenous society itself, for example to specific kin or within ‘family’ networks.

From this perspective then, the form of mutual obligation which underlies CDEP schemes may be closer to the ‘reciprocity’ which Noel Pearson has argued is necessary to transform the passive welfare economy to a ‘real’ economy. Pearson argues in part that government is too remote from its citizens, and in particular does not have the moral authority with Indigenous people to appropriately enforce mutual obligations. Rather, these obligations must be demanded and implemented between the individual and his or her particular community, family and local group; it is at these levels that the terms must be established of the reciprocity to which able bodied community members should be bound (Pearson 2000: 85–7; see Martin 2001).

The core point being made here is that while in CDEP schemes mutual obligation lies essentially between the Indigenous individual and their own particular Indigenous group or community, in the wider policy framework the obligations lie between the individual and the wider society. I return to this point later in the paper.

A second point of difference is that the stated objective of the mutual obligation policy is to encourage greater self reliance and motivation in job seekers by encouraging them to take responsibility for, and to be more focused on, preparing for and searching for work. That is, mutual obligation is clearly concerned with moving individuals from welfare dependency to engagement with the formal market economy. As such, it is consistent with the increasing reliance upon market and quasi-market forces in areas of social as well as of economic policy. Its adoption as a policy principle is thus consistent with a view of people which sees them essentially in economic terms, as taking their place within a progressively more mobile workforce in an increasingly globalised economic order.

Such views of the relationship between society, the individual, and the economy are not necessarily widely held by Indigenous people themselves; in fact, they may well be rejected. Within Indigenous groups, value is typically placed on particular sets of relationships to other people within particular social networks (especially those of kinship), and on connections to specific regions and locales. Thus, while there is high mobility amongst Indigenous people, it tends to be mobility within a relatively bounded social geography. Indigenous people’s world views and identities are thus often intensely locally based; the very idea of moving away from one’s own family and place may be confronting or even frightening. The values accorded to such ‘economic’ matters as work, cash, consumer goods, entrepreneurship, investment, and productivity, may differ significantly from those which enable individuals and groups to compete effectively in the wider economy.

A third, and very important, point of difference lies in the focus of mutual obligation on individuals. It implicitly assumes that social and economic change should be driven through changes in the circumstances, skills, and opportunities of individuals. Equally, it assumes that the wider social problems which are associated with welfare dependency can be addressed through changing the circumstances of individual lives. However, this focus on the individual does not reflect common principles of Indigenous social, economic, and political organisation. Nor does it reflect the fact that the problems associated with the cumulative effects of historical exclusion, marginalisation, and now welfare dependency in many Indigenous societies, most particularly in the remote and rural Indigenous communities, are systemic in nature and of a scale absolutely unparalleled in contemporary non-Indigenous society. CDEP, if it is to truly be effective, must take account of the particular ways in which individual participants, in each scheme, are embedded within their social networks and groups, for example those of family and kin.

I have suggested a number of reasons why the current policy definition of mutual obligation does not necessarily sit easily with the CDEP scheme. I now turn briefly to consider what might be meant by the ‘development’ aspect of community development.