NGOing in Central Australia




Anderson, Drew

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The statistically defined disadvantage of remote-living Indigenous children has often been the target of state intervention in Australia. In this thesis I present an ethnography of an international NGO that attempted to improve the lives of such children through a participatory and culturally respectful community development project. Originally setting out to answer the question of whether participatory practices derived from “international development” could be useful in the context of Indigenous Australia, this study instead deploys the ontological approaches of Annemarie Mol (2002) and Bruno Latour (2005) to return to the dichotomous way in which such questions are framed: as a “global” organisation interacting with a “local” community. The distinction between the global and the local inhabits and structures other binaries that run throughout the thesis: between organisation and community, expertise and “cultural” knowledge, the developed and the to-be-developed, and between White and Indigenous, or in locally salient terms, Kardiya and Yapa. I ask after the effects of this framing: how do such dualisms define who participates in development, and in what ways? What forms of knowledge emerge as significant and important under these conditions? How do Indigenous people and White NGO staff negotiate the moral landscape of “helping?” What kinds of relationship are produced? And how does my ethnographic writing, as another knowledge practice, engage with development? I demonstrate the ways in which development is performed through an examination of the day-to-day practices of the NGO: drawing upon expertise and evidence to justify intervention (chapters two and three), monitoring and evaluating project impacts (chapter four), building “intercultural” relationships (chapter five), ensuring participation (chapter six), and marketing to raise project funds (chapter seven). I argue that because NGO practice enacts the objects of development (Mol 2002), and is therefore entangled with them, participatory approaches that rely upon a boundary between the developed and the to-be-developed are destabilised. The performance of this boundary is important however, as it serves as both the problem to be overcome and the crucial ethic through which well-meaning, settler-colonial NGO staff negotiate their work and professional identities in remote Indigenous Australia. I draw upon participant observation within the NGO to present an ethnographic account that unbinds development from its normative, instrumental representations, while eschewing denunciation as the necessarily alternative research position. My work brings the critical anthropology of development into conversation with an Indigenous Australian setting, and seeks to contribute to the growing field of NGO ethnography.



non-government organisations, non-government organizations, organizational ethnography, organisational ethnography, critical development studies, anthropology of development, Indigenous Australia, Central Australia




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