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What Is Aboriginal Economic Development?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell

The phrase “aboriginal economic development” is most commonly used by national governments to describe initiatives designed to foster business growth and employment viability among people of indigenous populations. It is most commonly used in Australia, New Zealand and Canada but has resonance in almost any country where the majority of the citizens were not the land’s original inhabitants. Comparable programs in the United States normally might be called Native American economic development and would serve essentially the same purpose.

Aboriginal people are people who are descended from the native inhabitants of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other colonized countries. During early periods of colonization, new governments frequently engaged in systemic abuse and marginalization of these people, which many people argue has led to depressed economic conditions for many in this group well into modern times. Aboriginal people are among the poorest minority groups in most places. Development programs aim to help these people regain a meaningful stake in the marketplace while preserving their culture.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

Some people argue that aboriginal economic development programs are designed to compensate for past wrongs, but this is not always the sole motivation. Programs usually are intended — at least in part — to help aboriginal communities keep from losing their culture to mainstream society. Native communities have dwindled in many places, and government officials have looked for ways of helping people balance culture with meaningful work and education. The underlying ideas are often that culture and advancement can go hand-in-hand and that people do not have to choose one or the other.

Education is one of the biggest parts of most countries’ aboriginal economic development programs. Policymakers and community development specialists often look for ways to provide aboriginal children and young adults access to quality schools and materials without requiring them to leave their hometowns or reservations. In this same vein, many economic growth plans also underwrite or subsidize the university education of certain qualifying aboriginals. An educated youth population, many people believe, is one of the first — and often easiest — ways to promote an isolated group’s standard of living over time.

Building and improving schools also promotes regional development by creating jobs and instilling a heightened sense of place for local residents. Job creation is another key way in which lawmakers use economic development to promote sustainability in minority and marginalized communities. Increasing human capital can reduce poverty as well as government dependence, and it often raises the morale and overall productivity of workers. Many economic growth offices seek to create jobs either within established aboriginal communities or nearby. Some aboriginal economic development plans also provide for job placement and counseling services.

Preferential hiring programs are also parts of aboriginal economic development plans, in many ways. These types of programs usually do not usually create new jobs, but they do make it easier for qualified aboriginal people to secure jobs that already exist. Governments often provide incentives to companies that have high numbers of aboriginal employees, and in some cases, the governments mandate aboriginal preference. Mandates usually are limited to jobs that directly serve predominantly aboriginal communities, but the specifics vary from place to place.

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