Do Indigenous Philosophies Present an Opportunity to Address Poverty?

Josephine Cashman, Executive Chair, Big River Impact FoundationThere is little doubt that our social service system is failing to eliminate poverty. Do Indigenous philosophies present the impact investing community with doctrines capable of turning this around?

Does Indigenous philosophy offer the impact investing community solutions capable of turning the social service industry around? It is not surprising the social service industry is failing to conquer poverty.

I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country, elders past and present. I acknowledge our continuing culture, especially their contribution. I recognise we live on their traditional country and I respect their cultural heritage and beliefs. I appreciate its strength, resilience and capacity and I pay my respects to the elders of this community and extend my gratitude to their descendants who are present.

I belong to Warrimay country on the mid North Coast of New South Wales. It is known as Many Rivers country.

I would like to share the story of Bayami creation, the great spirit with you. In the beginning Bayami stepped from the sky to create the land, to form mountains and valleys, to fill rivers with water and to create all living things. Everything Bayami created has a purpose, plants were placed on the land and men and women at special places. He made the first laws governing the way Aboriginal people lived and these laws have remained unchanged for thousands of years on this magical continent. Bayami remained to make certain all living things he created lived together harmoniously. When he was satisfied, he had achieved his purpose, he stepped into the sky from which he came, where he remains watching over his people and this magical land, we call Australia.

The rules of behaviour have been shaped in Aboriginal creation stories when the elements of the earth were created, when the chaos became order. The way of maintaining order has been communicated in these creation stories and pathways have been connected by the animals functioning as metaphors for different groups within one language group and others beyond. These have been encoded within the shapes and markings of ancestral animals and plants and they are the plans for sanctioning our laws and customs (Grieves 2009, p. 14; Drew and Harney, 2004, p. 96)

Today I want to examine the modern gaps I intend to challenge. We are advised to distinguish between ingrained constructed cultural models defining race, gender and other cultural systems. I emphasise we belong to the land. 

We know we cannot solve poverty within the current framework because services overlap; there is little strategic mapping of community needs and programs are usually not evaluated; outcomes are not continuously monitored; there is a shortage of quality social housing and the demand is not meeting the need; social services are usually not client focused and they do not encourage self determination and funding has not been wholistic or response to needs.

I am often invited to speak about Aboriginal disadvantage. After 40 years of public discourse it has worsened and in some areas. it has been ingrained and normalised especially in cultures on the fringe. Dysfunction is a reflection of this discourse and it has failed to address the real drivers of our disadvantage.

In a remote NSW town, I was told, ‘Aboriginal people do not want to work. It is not part of their culture’. This non Indigenous man also benefited from government grants to increase this activity but that’s another story. His statement is a rationalised myth. In this environment it is impossible for most people to achieve, especially young Aboriginal people. The barriers young Aboriginal people confront include extreme housing overcrowding and poverty. The life expectancy for men is the late 30s and for women the early 40s. Everyone knows the water is unsafe to drink, there is a shortage of affordable fresh food and electricity is ten times more expensive than competitive city prices.

I am advised trauma is the problem. Although trauma is a factor, the main driver of it is the calamitous government failure to provide social infrastructure and affordable homes. For example in some remote areas, there are 17 people living in one room and no alternative rental market. In the Tiwi Islands it will take 75 years to build 200 homes under the current funding agreement. There are almost 200 births a year and there is no economy to support employment opportunities. This discourse explains one reason why dysfunction has created trauma and this has become the excuse violent men promote. It also impacts upon social service funding. It has ingrained hopelessness because it does not address the real issues. The private sector cannot invest in housing because many communities are subjected to complex and paternalistic land title disadvantages. 

The 2017 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework Report made it clear areas suffering the most extreme overcrowding correlate with extreme violence (Australian government, 2017, p. 95-110). However these communities provide an active market for consultants and social services programs. In fact, in some communities there are as many such services as there are people.  Reports are written, communication is made inaccessible and programs do not match the real demand.

In the remote NSW town mentioned, one female leader impressed me. Her small home provided a sanctuary for many people in need of support. She has little but she is wise and gentle. She sits on several community Boards and all are unpaid and she works day and night to help others. She confided with me she feels dumb and finds it challenging to understand outsider professionals. She emphasised her lack of education.

I am informed Indigenous people need governance and capability. I do not agree. A community leader I know sits on a national government Board, five community Boards, acts as a mediator in conflict interventions while living in overcrowded conditions. Most CEO’s would not survive it. I know of no Aboriginal community leader who receives leadership support. We need to build confidence and support for those who know their communities. We need to build trust in order to drive change.

How many people here have experienced poverty? How many people do you employ who have experienced poverty? How do we expect to change the bottom line when interventions have not been designed to solve the real issues, in fact in many circumstances, interventions have ingrained poverty and dysfunction.

Why not consider Indigenous knowledge? Colonial encounters described us as primitive, pre-literate, stone age and underdeveloped, implying Indigenous cultures were simplistic and unworthy. Similarly Aboriginal religious practice was characterised as simple, crude and irrational, ‘these terms failed to explain the true worth of my people’, (Grieves 2009, p. 27).

In fact all pre-industrial societies were socially driven. An Austrian born pre industrial writer intellectual, and economic historian Karl Polanyi said, ‘Let us make our meaning more precise. No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. In spite of the chorus of academic incantations so persistent in the nineteenth century, gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human economy. Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life’ (Polanyi, 1944, p. 45).   

He was a genius, far beyond his time. His intellect allowed him to rise above the accepted discourse. He believed the market system was an historical anomaly not designed to provide social stability. He examined cultural premarket societies embedded in and ancillary to social, religious, and political value systems, ‘man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. (p. 48).” He contrasted this with modern markets, ‘instead of the economy being embedded in social relations, social relations are embedded in the economic system’ (Polanyi, p. 60).

There is a first world in the third world and a third world in the first world’ (Darby 2006, p. 4). In Australia, there is a widening economic divide. Not all Australians are equal. I believe this is because the focus has been on growth and expansion in the material sense and not on strengthening social and spiritual values.

Well you might ask: What has Indigenous philosophy to offer modern society? David Mowaljarlai, a spiritual leader and senior Lawman of the Ngarinyin people believes Indigenous philosophy is relevant and he has been keen to share it:

We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of culture in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture that is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself (ABC Radio 1995; Grieves 2009, p.4)

Aboriginal spirituality it derived from a wholistic philosophy of interconnectedness to the earth and the universe whereby people, plants, animals, landforms and celestial beings are interrelated. These relationships must be interconnected. This is one reason why our sacred stories are relevant. Our creation stories describe the shaping of the world and our people experience it as reflected in our ancestors who created order out of chaos, form out of formlessness, life out of lifelessness and established the ways in which all things should live. The creation ancestors thus laid not only the foundations of life, but also the interdependent framework. The Law ensures each person knows his or her responsibilities, their kin, their country and the ongoing relationship with their ancestoral spirits, (Grieves 2009, p. 10, 27)

It is unfortunate we do not view Aboriginal culture as an Australian asset because it is alive across our continent. Northern Australia is presumed to be the only place where traditional cultures have been continuous and unbroken. Indeed, some groups experienced their first encounters with Europeans as late as the 1960’s. Contrary to popular belief, Aboriginal culture in Southern Australia has not been extinguished. Yet the existence of our culture has been denied and suppressed. Connection to country is similar in Southern and Northern Australia and it is common in the south for an Aboriginal person to ask where you are from in order to determine whether there is a kinship connection.

When I worked at Arnhem Land, I was sceptical about outsiders being adopted by clan groups. After visiting small Indigenous towns and homelands around East Arnhem Land, I was eventually adopted into a clan and chosen to participate in a meaningful initiation ceremony. My adopted father and mother were leaders of their respective family groups and their roles included mediation, organising family and communicating important news. After the adoption, I noticed a difference in the way the locals related to me. I observed this was because I could be placed within their ancient matrix system. Everything within this is interconnected.

When one has a relationship with something, its value increases. It is loved, protected and used wisely. Aboriginal culture places a value on its surrounding social and environmental ecosystems. This structure would benefit our financial system and can be considered because it is obvious, we urgently need to place a monetary value on the consequences of long term investment decisions.

Aboriginal philosophy is a wholistic template for living on the Australian continent because it conserves the species and the natural world, it minimises conflict in human relationships and it ensures the continuation of our survival. Aboriginal knowledge sustains all humankind and it is a valuable source of inspiration for all people. Finally, Aboriginal law is fixed, immutable and continuous (Grieves 2007, p. 9, 14, 45).


Darby, P. 2006, Postcolonizing the International: Working to change the way we are, University of Hawaii Press.

Drew, J. & Harney, B. 2004, ‘A Wardaman creation story by Bill Harney’, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 2, p. 90.

Grieves, V. 2009, Aboriginal spirituality: Aboriginal philosophy, the basis of Aboriginal social and emotional wellbeing, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health Darwin.

PM&C 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework Canberra ACT, p. 276.

Polanyi, K. & MacIver, R.M. 1944, The great transformation, vol. 2, Beacon Press Boston.

This speech was delivered by Josephine Cashman at the Investing for good Conference 2019, Thursday, 9 May 2019 in Sydney, NSW.

© Big River Impact Foundation Limited 2019.