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What Works

There is a significant body of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when working with Aboriginal people - we have learned a lot over the past decades. This evidence base points towards practical ways of working that will achieve lasting positive change.


The Harvard Project

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development was established in 1987 by Professors Stephen Cornell and Joseph P Kalf at Harvard University. The Harvard Project seeks to "understand and foster the conditions under which sustained, self determined social and economic development is achieved among American Indian nations." Since that time there has been significant collaboration between the Harvard Project and Aboriginal communities, policy makers and practitioners across Australia. Many of the Harvard Project research findings are relevant to the Australian context.


The project's key finding is that

"When Native nations make their own decisions about what development approach to take, they consistently out perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as government form, natural resource management, economic development, health care and social service provision."

Check out the Harvard Project's very comprehensive website at


What Australian research tells us

There have been numerous evaluations, consultations and reviews which have examined outcomes related to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander wellbeing and made consistent findings about what works. 

The COAG Closing the Gap Clearinghouse published an Issues Paper in October 2013 (1) which found that:

 “Without genuine engagement of Indigenous people it will be difficult to meet the targets of the Council of Australian Governments”;


  “Engagement requires a relationship built on trust and integrity: it is a sustained relationship between groups of people working towards shared goals; on the spectrum of engagement, a high level of participation works better than lower levels (such as consultation) where problems are complex." 

 Lastly a review of Australian evaluations about what works in developing policy and programs to tackle Indigenous disadvantage was undertaken by Eva Cox, Professorial Fellow at the UTS Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning in 2013. (2)

Findings from this review include the following:

“What works:

  • Community involvement and engagement
  • Adequate resourcing and planned and comprehensive interventions
  • Respect for language and culture
  • Working together through partnerships, networks and shared leadership
  • Development of social capital
  • Recognising underlying social determinants
  • Commitment to doing projects with, not for, Indigenous people
  • Creative collaboration that builds bridges between public agencies and the community; and
  • Understanding that issues are complex and contextual.”


What Moreton Thinks  

Moreton Consulting thinks that these research findings are on the money. They confirm the experience that we have all had: either as Aboriginal community members working on the ground and trying to drive change, or as public servants in past lives trying to design and manage government programs.

We know that if we collectively keep doing the same things we will keep on getting the same results. We also know that self determination and informed consent are critical planks in any positive social change - for everybody. 

But at the end of the day it doesn't really matter what we think. It's also what the United Nations thinks and has outlined in their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Australia signed up to in December 2009. And that does matter. 



1. Hunt J 2013. Engaging with Indigenous Australia – exploring the conditions for effective relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Issues paper no 5. Produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies p1

2. Journal of Indigenous Policy – Issue 12. Evidence –Free Policy Making? The Case of Income Management p 7

Last updated 28 February 2015