The Lost Stories are Bill Mollison’s articles published in the print magazine originally named Permaculture, then International Permaculture Journal and finally the Permaculture International Journal that was published between 1978 and 2000.
All stories and other content ©Permaculture Australia unless otherwise noted.

Story by Bill Mollison, 1988. Edition 29.
Feature photo: Bill Mollison and Robyn Francis, Australasian Permaculture Convergence 9, 2009, Sydney, ©Russ Grayson 2009

What is effective aid?

At the 1985 Australian National Permaculture Designers Conference Bill Mollison gave the following talk, having just returned from teaching several courses at Alice Springs in Central Australia. Hard hitting, it describes the situation faced by most Aboriginal communities in Australia. Although some progress has been made in recent years it is not significant enough to make this thought-provoking assessment out of date.

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There are about twenty years of active aid programs to review. Broadly speaking, the record has been abysmal. From technological aid to food aid it is difficult to find any successes although the efforts have been enormous and the amounts of money spent very large.
In the Northern Territory in 1985, the budget of $17.6m is supposedly going to Aboriginal communities, yet it is hard to find an area where aid has actually reached anyone in any meaningful sense or solved any real problems.
We have a Third World in Australia. A Third World whose infant mortality is greater than in any other area of the world; a Third World whose spectrum of illness is more severe than it is in any other area of the Third World; a Third World which has a peculiar addition to those illnesses — the modern diseases of affluence — on the top of the diseases of poverty. This is a unique condition.
There is gross malnutrition, no vitamin C testable at all in urine or in mother’s milk. The children are subject to every sort of infection. Seventy percent of the children suffer middle ear infection identifiable by a snotty nose, then bursting eardrums — not once, but three to four times. About the third time the inner ear is rotting, the tympanum is gone and the bones behind are rotting. The skull inside the ear rots also. The lungs become infected. The child can be deaf for life.
Of Aboriginal children, 30 percent have gross malnutrition;all of them have had scabies; all of them have had lice; 63 percent have sugar diabestes; 47 percent of children have kidney damage; some are chronically ill.
The horror story of aid is phenomenal. In any one Aboriginal settlement, if there are a hundred adults at any one time about six of them will be in sufficiently good health to do anything. This means that nowhere within the Aboriginal population is there a significant number of adults to handle any sort of program.
Unless the health level changes nothing else can change. Since 1967, with huge inputs of Government assistance to Aboriginal society, the health level has declined. There is a population sector which will grow up chronically ill. That is, another fifty or eighty years of sick people. The damage done to children before the age of five is so severe that their future as adults is reduced. After 20 years of government assistance health has gone backwards.
One of the reasons is that Aboriginal communities are fairly small. It would be unusual to have 300 people in a community. But government and non-government organisations are in such multitude that there is literally one of them per Aboriginal adult.

The Aboriginal industry

If there is a typical community of seventy people and there are seventy-two government and non—government organisations to serve this community, there is created a Major Disturbance Factor (MDF).
Each group depends for its existence on some input into the Aboriginal community. If there are six or eight people the demands on them and on the unfit people are a major cause of stress. There a about 70 organisations or 60 percent the Northern Terriory so employed.
The Aboriginal industry is enormous. It supports about 30 percent of the public service in some areas where there are Aboriginal communities and easily 30 percent of the commercial business people, particularly those in alcohol and junk food.
So. a lot of people, both public servants and commercial interests, depend for their living on maintaining a basically ill and uninformed group. That is, if the group were neither ill nor uninformed, a very large section of employment would collapse.
The Aid business is enormous. It can be assessed by calculating who employs whom, who draws wages or commercial gain from the business. All sorts of groups view Aborigines and other distressed peoples as their major activity.
The problems in the Aboriginal community are personal and domestic. The responses are public and organisational. Can these responses deal with personal and domestic problems? The whole hierarchical edifice has very few people at the contact point. There may be one or two well-meaning Europeans long in personal contact or with personal knowledge of one Aborigine. The greatest part is out of contact with the clients.

Where the money goes

Most money is expended in the high salary, high administrative area. It is basically absorbed there and minute amounts come to ground level. This is particularly true of government aid. At the interface where people are in contact there is very, very little money, hardly any although the officially designated money is apparently enormous.
In 1984, DAA (Department of Aboriginal Affairs) stated that $4 million out of a total $8 million in CEP grants had been earmarked for Aboriginal gardens in Central Australia. A further analysis was requested since there did not seem to be any gardens. DAA said 80 percent had gone into salaries and most of the remainder into fencing — for what? — for cattle.
So the money earmarked for gardens went into fences for cattle and benefitted white business. The rest went into tree programs. The trees were purchased largely from forestry and other supply centres and planted by CEP teams. But very few were fruit or food trees. After $4m spent there are no gardens. There is still no food in the settlements.
In South Australia in white recorded history, about $4000 was allocated directly for funding for gardens. Managed locally, it banked $40,000. It was very successful aid that got through, and aid that gets through can be very succesful and cheap to fund if it goes directly to an Aboriginal group.

Contact people

In the service area of government, just behind the contact interface, there is a peculiar and unexpected thing which becomes obvious over time. That is, the people who seek employment close to service in the Aboriginal areas are almost all racist. These people generally hate the client population. They are probably in high bureaucracies but just behind contact there is hardly anything else than racists. Not just Aboriginal racists. People who service aid programs almost aways hate the groups they serve. They are there for the high wages with many extras (vehicles, fuel and generous living allowances). Many run a racket. They live off, not with the people.
The problems of aid are rarely logistical problems. They are seldom technological. They are almost always problems of appropriate people for the job. Rarely are these people chosen from the local community of activists.
Another group are the amateurs and failures. People who have not been personally successful. This is their God-given opportunity to make a paid success in contact with people who they consider to be inferior. They are well meaning and fairly plentiful on the ground. They dash off and knit socks for Balinese children.
Now almost by definition, those in constant contact cannot be racists. They would not be in contact and contact would not be sustained. So people in actual contact have to be fairly tolerant and acceptable people. Othenrvise nothing works. No one comes to see you.
These problems are not unique to Aboriginal aid. They are problems not atypical of aid anywhere.
There are no screening programs and appointments are made on flimsy grounds. Very few people come forward as shopkeeper in Aboriginal settlements or rush in as doctors and nurses in hospitals which are basically slaughter houses where people die all the time. You cannot cure the illness because you are dealing With the end results.

What works and what does not work

Short term, anything does not work. The problem are very long term. When planning Aboriginal health today there must be a 100 year plan because it will be that long working with chronically ill people. Long term programs and long term funding works.
There are two grave inpedtments to that. One is our governmental system which is quite incapable of long term anything. There is no certainty that any government will be returned to office longer than three to five years. Very often the opposition does have a policy which means discontinuing the policies of the previous government. The political process is totally unsuited not only to aid but in fact to any long term effective change. It is particularly unsuited to fixing soil erosion  to reafforestation, to aid, to health. So the Government system is a totally ineffective and inappropriate way to deal with such problems which must somehow be solved outside the extremely short term, self-survival interest system of politics.
Public bodies don’t work. Their main concern is with their own survival. There is no genuine concern to cure a client when it is the end of their career. It the problem is fixed you do not need a department.
Much volunteerism is too amateurish and short term. It generally doesn’t work.
Occasionally, official self-help works by accident. That is, Aboriginal aid departments or Aboriginal policy units. However, irrespective of how many at these are set up they appear increasingly ineffective. In fact, to proliferate this money flow or even to maintain it is simpiy a very Major Disturbance Factor in the community.
Money does not work. Now, in the Phillipines, the Dole Fruit Company offers cheap plastic articles in exchange for land titles. Until the late 1960s in Australia, people would only sell goods to Aboriginal people for land titles. Today in Alice Springs you can stand outside an art gallery and for about a flagon of wine get a line traditional painting. That is what makes this so attractive to racists. They can get lots of money being near the contact area. So it is an area to enrich yourself.
Very often, work with people in the Third World is most effective in special groups. You teach sections to different groups of people. These are just basic cultural rules. Women go in there to teach women and men here to teach men. The most in are generally the women. Among Aborigines the male mortality is extremely high. They are often the main victims of addiction because they control the money. They are mobile, they travel a lot. Most communities consist of a majority ot women. They are the group to work with and male aid people do not do this.

Some conclusions

There are four basic things needed in communities — clean water, home gardens, settling the dust, proper houses tor inland conditions. None of those has been achieved for Aborigines in Australia. We are just like the world in general. We need to find simple methods for looking after dying people. There is a job to do. It is very simple. Again it is called clean water, home gardens, well designed desert homes, excellent nutrition teaching.
Find those who can help run the community. Monetary needs are minute and modest.Dismantle the whole expensive aid process: all the money disappears into the bureaucracies.
Effective aid lies in feeding modest resources into a community; supporting the people who live and work there; doing excellent research and teaching; living very much as one proposes that others live; respecting language and culture, listening a lot and using just enough money to achieve joint solutions to the basic problems of clean potable water, nutritious food, good housing and to reduce dust in the settlements, all of which are easily achievable.
This presumes goodwill, long term planning and establishing teachers in the community itself. It does not lie in establishing large bureaucracies or in large funds carelessly applied.
I suppose that’s a pretty challenging lecture and no one is going to clap. I gave the same lecture in front of the CSIRO and government aid agencies in Alice Springs and nobody clapped because, by God, there is nothing to congratulate anybody about. No congratulations are in order.

Bill Mollison’s presentation at National Permaculture Designers Conference, Ottord NSW 1985. Transcribed by Lea Harrison. Edited by Rowe Morrow.


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Rear cover, International Permaculture Journal, edition 29, 1988. The ad was for products sold at the Permaculture Epicentre, 113 Enmore Road, Enmore, The Epicentre was home to Permaculture Sydney association where the International Permaculture Journal was produced, courses and workshops held and that was home to Robyn Francis and Denise Sawyer (later of Crystal Waters Permaculture Village in the Sunshine Coast hinterland), as well as to the small permaculture-landscaped rear courtyard. At the time of writing the premises is occupied by Alfalfa House Food Co-op.

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Ad in International Permaculture Journal, edition 29, 1988. The ad is evidence that an alternative economics played a substantial part in permaculture in Australia in the 1980s. Earthbank was set up by Australian permaculture practitioners to stimulate the then-new social (aka ‘ethical’) investment industry in which NSW-based investor, Damien Lynch, (1998 story) played a major role. Damien had already started August Investments which invested only in socially and environmentally positive or neutral enterprises.


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