May 23, 2024

How can First Nations-led program design, monitoring, evaluation and implementation approaches be better incorporated into Australia’s development program?

Quality design, implementation and evaluation is key to achieving Australia’s vision for development effectiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Where do First Nations approaches and perspectives fit? And how can Australia’s First Nations approach to foreign policy come alive through its development practice?

Here at the Lab, we think there are important insights to draw from First Nations-led program cycles in Australian domestic policy, when it comes to implementing the Government’s International Development Policy and performance framework internationally.

Our colleagues at Perth USAsia Centre agree.

So we teamed up with Perth USAsia Centre’s First Nations Foreign Policy Fellow Sarah Leary to produce this issue of the Intel. Together, we asked three First Nations experts, “How can First Nations-led program design, monitoring, evaluation and implementation practices be better incorporated into Australia’s development program?”

Sarah Leary
First Nations Foreign Policy Fellow, PerthUSAsia Centre

It is possible to do things differently, and better. Nowhere does this matter more for Australia than in the Pacific where Indigenous communities are the norm. But what does “differently” look like? Australian development practitioners may be well served looking at First Nations’ expertise at home. In justice, education, health, governance, economics, skills and women’s leadership, Indigenous-led program design practices offer highly relevant insights.

Indigenous designs achieve better outcomes because they place community stories, evidence and leadership at the centre. They are also grounded in respect. Embedding this approach into DFAT’s Pacific partnerships could reap diplomatic dividends. However, despite the recent growth in Indigenous-led design terminology, it is still common to see designs tendered, consulted, written and approved by DFAT without meaningful involvement from the people those programs are seeking to support.

Rather than being consulted “about” by others, Indigenous design practices have a different flow that promotes local leadership. It begins with local leaders being involved at the starting gate. They sit on panels to decide on design team tenders before the work is contracted out. They help set the direction and scope of a design process. They play a key role in bringing community voices together to determine delivery models, indicators, “change-stories” and end-of-program outcomes. Indigenous leaders may also contribute to sign-off processes and “invite in” delivery partners once implementation commences.

We talk about embedding local ownership and voices in development but what if it has been there all along? Placing Indigenous perspectives and priorities at the centre of a design process means doing just that.

Sarah is a highly regarded public diplomacy practitioner and development expert specialising in First Nations diplomacy. As a career diplomat, Sarah’s experiences span across Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Attorney-General’s Department working on strategic policy, trade, investment facilitation and program design to improve gender equality and sports diplomacy outcomes across the Indo-Pacific. At the Lab, we admire Sarah’s commitment to driving engagement with Australia’s First Nations Foreign Policy Agenda and her innovative approach to diplomacy.

Lindey Andrews & Jessica Leslie
Specialist Manager Research and Evaluation, Wungening Aboriginal Corporation & Chief Investigator Evaluations, Wungening Aboriginal Corporation

While there has been progress with government funding of locally designed programs, both in Australia and overseas, the sad reality is that evaluations of these programs remain based on Western methods and assumptions that exclude First Nations peoples’ worldviews.

Aboriginal-led practices drive evaluative processes and learnings through respectful relationships, deep listening, and enabling community ownership and control of decision-making over data collection methods, interpretation and use. This ensures that local Aboriginal ways of seeing, knowing, being and doing are embedded in the evaluation. This takes time and a preparedness to adapt and change course where necessary. Aboriginal-led evaluations reflect Aboriginal service models and community priorities by understanding the complex intersection of the program in relation to its local context. They situate learnings within the bigger picture, identify systemic barriers to change, and hold broader systems accountable for their part in the program success.

For evaluations to be meaningful to the communities they are impacting, local and Indigenous involvement is required throughout all stages of evaluation. It is the responsibility of evaluators to unpack their own cultural biases and ensure evaluation approaches and conclusions do not perpetuate colonising practices of First Nations peoples. Evaluators should consider - does the evaluation serve the community? Is it strengths-based, or is it perpetuating harmful deficit narratives? Is it going to lead to real change and improvement, or is it just another expensive tick-box exercise?

This is about being comfortable sitting in the unknown. If you already know what you’re going to do and your approach, you may have missed opportunities for the evaluation to be community-led and impinged on the community’s right to being heard and seen in the context of their culture. This is counter to self-determination.

Lindey is a seasoned expert in monitoring, evaluation and learning with a commitment to Aboriginal ownership and control over data. Lindey is deeply interested in ways of working that privilege Aboriginal voices and worldviews; and advocating for the tools and conditions that make this possible.

Jessica is a skilled practitioner in monitoring, evaluation and learning, specialising in conducting de-colonising, Aboriginal-led evaluations. Jessica is passionate about promoting self-determined, First Nations-led responses to complex issues affecting First Nations communities.

At the Lab, we learn a lot from Lindey and Jessica when it comes to embedding First Nations voices in monitoring, evaluation, learning and design.

Ashlee Wone
Director of Strategy and Impact, GIRA – First Nations Advisory

Australia’s development program stands at a crucial juncture where it can redefine its approach by incorporating Indigenous Data Sovereignty principles into its monitoring, evaluation and learning practices in the Indo-Pacific. Genuine and equal partnership with Indigenous communities is paramount to shaping the selection and utilisation of data, fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment among First Nations peoples.

Community-driven data collection frameworks offer a structured pathway towards this goal, enabling the incorporation of locally defined metrics that align with both government efforts and community objectives. Without using community-driven frameworks, crucial cultural and place-based insights risk being sidelined or generalised in government operations.

At the heart of this lies Indigenous data sovereignty, which embodies storytelling, truth-telling, and power. By entrusting First Nations communities with the authority over data processes, governments are able to uphold principles of self-determination and respect Indigenous rights. While government-collected data provides a broad perspective, First Nations data reflects the lived experiences and aspirations of communities, offering invaluable insights into why and how certain issues affect individuals and groups.

The Australian Government – including agencies within the foreign affairs portfolio – already has obligations to Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles under the National Agreement to Closing the Gap. There is an argument for harmonising these data obligations across government expenditure to show genuine dedication to honouring Indigenous perspectives and priorities. Is the Australian development program ready to relinquish control and empower Indigenous communities to lead and succeed on the data and stories that shape decisions that affect their lives?

Positive changes will manifest in the adoption of practical, localised data solutions that prioritise culture and community at their core. It’s time for Australia’s development program to walk the talk and pave the way for genuine collaboration and progress.

Ashlee is a high impact operator in Indigenous affairs, armed with deep expertise in data-driven insights to deliver positive outcomes for First Nations people. In a previous life, she worked in policy and government relations across First Nations disability issues. She is passionate about pioneering novel solutions and forging impactful partnership opportunities in the Indigenous affairs arena. At the Lab, we admire Ashlee’s purposeful approach and her unwavering dedication to driving progress for First Nations communities.

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