The State, Cultural Competence and Child Development: Perspectives on Intervention in the North of Australia

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    Abstract

    Policies to ameliorate Aboriginal disadvantage increasinglyfocus on early childhood and show a growing readiness to apply internationallywell known evidence-based interventions to Australian conditions for Aboriginalfamilies, children and youth. This trend has some important implications.

    Firstly, capturing the place of young people in colonisedsocieties is a difficult conceptual task that needs more than one disciplinaryperspective. Sociodemographic trends form a powerful influence underlyingethnographically observable patterns of relationship. In the Northern Territory(NT), the ratio of young Aboriginal people to older people was at its highestlate in the twentieth century, when there was a very large surplus of childrenwith a much diminished cohort of people in their forties and older. Formerhunter-gatherer societies are now ageing as cohorts of the period of very highfertility grow older. The competencies and vulnerabilities of today’s youngparents and householders were acquired under conditions very different fromthose experienced by their parents and grandparents and are now being put tothe test. Arguably a crucial challenge for anthropologically informed practiceis to see that intervention is able to support, rather than undermine or furtherconfound the development of those competencies among the young.

    Secondly, the tendency to reduce complex issues of socialchange and development to single-focus interventions may be inherentlyproblematic in communities where multiple stresses and pervasive social changeoverwhelm the effects of intervention on individuals. Against this, strategiesaiming to build participation or control at the community level areunconvincing without culturally competent and professionally credible tools tohelp build needed competencies or address problems of risk and vulnerability inearly childhood.

    Thirdly, there are gaps in policy concerning the rationalefor adopting early childhood interventions: there is a lack of clarity aboutjust what is worth doing and about what evidence should guide implementation.Here, policy ambivalence is exacerbated by deficiencies of the sciences ofchild development in respect of Aboriginal peoples. The implicit cultural logicof many interventions may simply not sit with the cultural logic of childdevelopment and parent-child relationships in some contexts. Interventions arelikely to be ineffective and unsustainable unless they are supported by provensystems of practice and unless they are capable of tapping into normative expectationsabout child development in a given context. They need to be backed by knowledgeof different patterns of family functioning and, perhaps more importantly, aregard for the cultural life of families and their children. These principlescan be illustrated with material from an early intervention program adapted forimplementation in NT remote communities.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationYoung Lives, Changing Times
    Subtitle of host publicationperspectives on social reproduction Symposium Proceedings
    EditorsUte Eickelkamp
    Place of PublicationSydney
    PublisherWordpress
    Pages1-24
    Number of pages24
    Volume1
    Publication statusPublished - 2012
    EventYoung Lives, Changing Times: perspectives on social reproduction - Sydney, Australia
    Duration: 8 Jun 20119 Jun 2011

    Conference

    ConferenceYoung Lives, Changing Times: perspectives on social reproduction
    Period8/06/119/06/11

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