The CDEP in town and country Arnhem Land: Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation

Author/editor: Altman, JC, Johnson, V
Year published: 2000
Issue no.: 209


This Discussion Paper presents the findings of research undertaken in 2000 on the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme administered by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC). BAC is located in the township of Maningrida in central Arnhem Land, and the CDEP scheme has participants residing both in Maningrida township and at outstations in the hinterland. A feature of the research is the comparative focus on 'town' and 'country'. The primary aim of the research is to assess the net benefits generated by the operation of the scheme in these two contexts. Benefits are defined not only in terms of employment generation, but also more broadly to include social, cultural and other economic benefits. The discussion is couched in terms of current social policy debates that highlight the apparent negative impacts of welfare dependence and especially 'passive' welfare. This case study focuses on a situation where what could be termed 'active' welfare-CDEP scheme participation-has been an important option, and concludes that there is evidence of significant net benefit from the scheme in a range of areas. On balance, the positives of the scheme outweigh the negatives in the Maningrida regional context, but this does not indicate room for complacency: the workings of the scheme can be improved and some recommendations for change are made. These are summarised below.

Case study choice

BAC is an important case study for many reasons. It is located in central Arnhem Land, in a remote locality. There have been very few case studies of such localities. It is a large scheme with over 500 participants-nearly 2 per cent of all participants Australia-wide. The scheme is administered to participants based both in a township and at outstations. It has been operative for over a decade and is consequently well established.

The authors of this discussion paper have had considerable research and work experience in the region: Jon Altman has undertaken research in the Maningrida region since 1979, while Victoria Johnson worked in Maningrida between 1998 and 2000. The links that both researchers have forged with local organisations and people resulted not only in BAC and its members, but also others in the region, collaborating very openly and actively with the research project. This reflects in part the keenness both of the organisation and of its members to demonstrate the benefits of the CDEP scheme, and to highlight areas for improvement.


Much of the research reported here was undertaken in the Maningrida region in the months of June and July 2000. Information was collected at BAC via file search and through examination of CDEP scheme records. A great deal of research was conducted by interviewing supervisors and participants in the scheme, but also by interviewing managers of all other major organisations and service delivery agencies in the Maningrida region. Two different questionnaires were administered, one to almost all supervisors of CDEP projects in Maningrida (the results are integrated into the general findings) and the other (see Appendix 1) to about 10 per cent of all CDEP participants.

Other research methods included literature search, file search and interview of staff in ATSIC's Darwin Regional Office, and analysis of data from the 1996 Census. An unusual feature of the research is that the stakeholders' views about research findings were actively sought in three seminars, two convened by ATSIC in Darwin and one convened by BAC in Maningrida. Feedback on an earlier draft of the paper was also sought from BAC. This research is a continuation of earlier work by Altman in 1998 on BAC's role as an outstation resource agency and in 1999 on a business development plan for BAC's arts centre, Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC).

Economic and social context

The 1996 Census estimated a regional Indigenous population of about 1,700, with 1,195 residing in Maningrida and 521 at outstations. The non-Indigenous population of Maningrida was 111. All these figures appear to be slight underestimates. The region is devoid of a commercial economic base; all told in 1996 there were only 89 non-CDEP jobs held by Indigenous people, and 87 held by non-Indigenous people. It is estimated that without CDEP, the unemployment rate at outstations, which is officially 5.7 per cent, would approach 100 per cent, while at Maningrida where it is officially 9.6 per cent it would approach 90 per cent.

Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation

BAC was incorporated as an Outstation Resource Agency (ORA) in 1979 to provide municipal-type services to about 30 outstation communities in a 10,000 km2 regional hinterland. From 1989, BAC has grown rapidly and its identity has changed considerably. It is now recognised as a complex regional organisation that fulfills three important roles: it remains a service delivery agency for outstations (including acting as a representative organisation on land management issues); it has become a large CDEP organisation; and it has evolved into a regional economic development agency. These three broad functions can be delineated financially: of total BAC income in 1999-2000 of $16m, $6.4m (40%) is linked to CDEP; 43 per cent is trading income from enterprises activities, and the balance (17%) is linked to its service roles.

The BAC CDEP scheme

The BAC CDEP scheme is organisationally complex: since 1997-98 it has had an annual budget in excess of $6m and just over 500 participants. Participants are distributed across 26 outstation timesheets and 31 projects, with almost all the projects being town-based. In mid 2000, the township and outstation components of the scheme were administered quite differently. In the township, participants are recruited on a project basis and are expected to work on these projects for 18 hours per week for a standard CDEP wages entitlement. In town, a 'no work, no pay' rule is variably applied and there is potential to work longer hours for additional income. At outstations, participants are not work tested and receive a standard 36 hours CDEP pay per fortnight. The structural divide between town and country creates problems for the effective administration of the scheme, especially because the regional population is highly mobile.

BAC also administers the Maningrida Council's allocation of 115 participants, who are primarily engaged in the delivery of municipal services. Other town-based projects include employment with enterprises, with service and infrastructure providers, in provision of social and cultural services, in training, and in office administration. At outstations, a large number of CDEP participants engage in the manufacture of arts and crafts for sale to MAC, and in informal economic activities such as hunting, fishing and gathering.

Economic and social impacts

The key focus in measuring economic and social impact is on the program goals designed to create employment, supplement incomes, encourage enterprise, provide services, and provide training. Overall, the scheme has a positive impact on participants' cash incomes, with supplementation occurring through additional work generated (universally termed 'top up') and extra wages earned, or through manufacture of art for sale while on CDEP, especially at outstations where other formal employment options are non-existent. The employment effects of the scheme are limited, with little evidence of participants exiting to mainstream full-time jobs. However, this is not surprising given that the local non-CDEP labour market is limited to less than 200 positions. A government incentive to BAC of $2,200 for every exit to non-CDEP continuing employment is ineffectual. The CDEP scheme has facilitated enterprise development under the auspices of BAC. Many of these enterprises are in the services sector and are dependent on funded CDEP labour and on recycling of government money. There are some embryonic export-oriented enterprises: the most successful is MAC, others include the commercial harvesting of wildlife and joint venture safari hunting and recreational fishing. The client services provided by BAC CDEP include financial services and especially a mechanism to facilitate saving for the purchase of vehicles, for ceremonial activity, for housing repair and maintenance, and to make payments to traditional owners of Maningrida that are deemed to be appropriate. The CDEP scheme in tandem with the Maningrida Jobs, Education and Training (JET) Corporation provides a wide range of training options that would not otherwise be locally available.

Policy issues

There is a range of policy issues that need to be addressed to make the BAC CDEP more effective.

  1. The administration of one type of CDEP scheme in a township and another in the hinterland is problematic, especially given the propensity of outstation people to reside in the township for prolonged periods.
  2. The existence of an 'active' welfare CDEP scheme alongside a 'passive' welfare Centrelink regime creates a degree of difficulty in trying to apply a 'no work, no pay' rule in the township.
  3. There is evidence that the CDEP scheme is operating as a substitution labour-funding scheme and that CDEP labour is undertaking a range of tasks that other agencies are, or should be, funded to provide.
  4. The growth and success of the BAC CDEP scheme is creating inter-agency rivalry and tensions within the Maningrida region.
  5. The growth of the BAC CDEP scheme has occurred with minimal business or participatory planning and little rigorous evaluation of outcomes.
  6. There is some evidence that CDEP-scheme generated employment growth, especially in managerial and senior administrative positions, primarily involves non-Indigenous people. This is due in large part to limited aspirations for such work within the local population, and a very limited supply of appropriately qualified Indigenous people.
  7. There is associated evidence of a degree of alienation within the BAC membership, resulting in a lack of participation in the management of BAC. With limited administrative resources, priority is being given to external financial accountability rather than internal accountability to, and empowerment of, members. This problem could undermine the longer-term political sustainability of the scheme.

The complex sociology of CDEP work

A combination of some of the unresolved policy issues identified above and regional political and cultural factors appears to be undermining the incentive of CDEP scheme participants to seek regular paid employment, especially in the township. These cultural and social factors are analysed within the explanatory framework of 'domain separation', drawn from anthropology, and by reference to the concept of 'income replacement ratio', drawn from labour economics. The domain separation framework allows us to put forward the hypothesis that Aboriginal people differentiate between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal domains of work, and that this differentiation is driven by the dynamics of their kin-based society. The Aboriginal social setting, with its particular cultural form of anti-individualism, does not tolerate those with appropriate formal skills taking managerial positions if they lack other forms of authority. In the labour-economics framework, the marginal financial returns from undertaking additional work can be shown not to offset the actual or potential costs of social exclusion; nor does increased earning capacity obviate the cultural requirement to share with kin. It is unclear how appropriate mechanisms can be established to encourage people to seek full-time employment in the context of these cultural factors, and indeed there are very few full-time jobs available locally, even for those who wish for them. The sociology of CDEP (and other) work thus remains complex, and the effects of the scheme are (and will remain) paradoxical if its aims are defined in terms of encouraging people into mainstream full-time employment and reduced dependence.


The BAC case study provides the basis for the following recommendations:

  • program guidelines should distinguish between CDEP in 'town' and in 'country';
  • the various manifestations of the scheme need to be distinguished: in some cases it operates to generate employment, training, or community development and in others it merely operates as minimum income support;
  • efforts must be made to distinguish active CDEP participation from passive welfare and suitable incentives should be provided to encourage the former;
  • efforts must be made to limit the substitution that is being underwritten by CDEP scheme activities;
  • a whole-of-organisation and consistent implementation of the 'no work, no pay' rule is needed; and
  • there is need for quarantined resourcing for more effective planning and outcomes monitoring, and a concomitant commitment by ATSIC to provide triennial funding on a rolling basis for those organisations that are implementing the scheme successfully.

ISBN: 0 7315 2644 9

ISSN:1036 1774

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