Public discussion about ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians tends to focus on measures such as life expectancy, child mortality, early childhood education, literacy and numeracy, and employment. These are, rightly, essential markers of health and well-being for all people, and for decades they have provided evidence that Australia’s health and social systems have not met the needs of Indigenous Australians.
However, there is another story, one that focuses on the measures of success, as evident in the many thriving Indigenous businesses and corporations around the country. Across Australia, there is a growing story of economic security and success, in which Indigenous Australians are creating enterprises combining sound business principles with strong cultural and social foundations for the benefit of individuals, families and communities.
Urbis was commissioned by Westpac to undertake research into Indigenous business development, to provide an evidence base to support the work of the Empowered Communities group. The report, Enabling Prosperity: Success Factors in Indigenous Economic Development, suggests that these factors are much the same as for any other businesses: human capital, access to capital and markets, infrastructure, location and an authorising environment created through government policy and regulation.
In practice, businesses succeed because of more than one factor, and multiple factors can strengthen the capacity of a business to grow and develop. For instance, access to capital often relies on the development of successful partnerships, while ownership of land and resources requires human capital to realise its potential. Indigenous culture can be both a support and a resource. Individual attitude and vision are also essential ingredients in business success, while government plays an important role in ensuring the regulatory environment enables rather than hinders business efforts.
Much can be learned by examining successful Indigenous businesses both in Australia and internationally. Businesses are the key driver for wealth creation, helping to provide job opportunities and improve social and economic conditions. Fostering business success, therefore, has the potential to increase employment, improve living standards, and contribute to stable and nurturing communities.
Current government policy frameworks, such as the Indigenous Economic Development Strategy, are largely focused on increasing education and training and generating opportunities for private sector employment and enterprise. This is important. Just as important is the contribution that successful community or non-profit enterprises can make in providing employment, generating business investment for growth, building partnerships and demonstrating positive role models. The Empowered Communities group is such a national initiative. Formed in 2013, the group brings together Indigenous leaders from eight communities across Australia and seeks to strengthen Indigenous individuals and communities through a range of activities (see https://empoweredcomms.wordpress.com for more information).
Strategies that strengthen both individual and community business initiatives will help to ensure that more Indigenous Australians have the opportunity to live successful and productive lives. Everyone has a contribution to make in this regard. Governments can create an enabling regulatory environment. Banks can enable access to capital. Local chambers of commerce can foster business development through support and networks for new entrepreneurs. Communities and individuals can purchase goods and services from Indigenous businesses.
Building a strong and vibrant Indigenous business and social enterprise sector can then contribute to improving many of the health and social indicators, such as improving nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, and increasing employment and education. Efforts to improve Indigenous outcomes really are everyone’s business.