A recent study of social and economic conditions in the booming Pilbara mining region of Western Australia, asked a selection of local Indigenous people to comment on a variety of conventional social indicators that were deemed to be representative of their (parlous) situation. One such comment reflecting on increasing levels of participation in mining employment was as follows:

“Life is a bit better out here because of mining and those agreements. But my thing is my own kids, we’re not pushing them into what we want them to be. It’s up to them as individuals, I believe that fair enough. They can go and work in the mine, but they will be men and will have kids of their own, and they need to be there for their own kids to learn and teach them their culture. Because it’s about carrying on the traditional cultural ways teaching knowledge skills, and the country itself, all those kinds of things, the trees, the language, going to ceremony, going out on country. My kid’s father is teaching our kids. His grandmothers and grandfathers, they passed on all the knowledge to him, making him understand who he is, he hasn’t missed out on anything, he’s got it all and he knows what his role is as a cultural man and in our cultural life. But some of those mining men aren’t there for all that and that’s no good”. (Taylor and Scambary 2005: 58)

This statement has relevance in the context of current discussions initiated by the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in regard to the appropriateness of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) indicators for Indigenous peoples. It highlights the fact that a mainstream measure of well-being (employment in mining) may have negative consequences for an Indigenous measure of well-being (carrying on traditional cultural ways). More to the point, it illustrates that a range of Indigenous views on the appropriateness of various indicators are likely to exist and that, in all probability, these will stand outside, and therefore be excluded from, more mainstream indicator frameworks.


One of the major concerns of the UNPFII following its establishment in 2000 has been to establish statistical profiles of the world’s Indigenous peoples. As part of this broad task, and following a workshop convened in 2004 to focus on data collection and disaggregation for Indigenous peoples, the UNPFII at its 3rd annual Session recommended that the MDGs should be assessed with a view to incorporating greater recognition of Indigenous concerns, interests, and interpretations of development and well-being (United Nations 2004). It is worth recalling that international human development measures such as the MDGs and the Human Development Index (HDI) emerged within the international development scene as an attempt to provide a more holistic alternative to the single dimension Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as the key international comparative measure of human well-being or quality of life.

Ironically, the view of the UNPFII is that these new indices are themselves not holistic enough––in particular, they do not capture many of the criteria that are considered essential for the well-being of Indigenous peoples. Accordingly, the UNPFII workshop emerged with a fairly forceful declaration of the need for developing a conceptual framework for rights-based indicators to ensure that the data collected would be relevant to Indigenous peoples while allowing for the measurement of issues crucial for Indigenous peoples’ development and rights, such as control over land and resources, equal participation in decision-making, and control over their own development processes (United Nations 2004).

In order to understand what this might mean in practical terms, and to gain a more complete picture of existing reporting frameworks on poverty/development/well-being/disadvantage, and of their relevance to Indigenous peoples, the UNPFII moved to convene a series of follow-up workshops to focus on Indigenous peoples’ conceptions of well-being and suggestions for measuring these in different regional groupings. The first of these workshops, conducted in Ottawa in March 2006, was focused on Indigenous peoples in developed countries (Canada, United States, Scandinavia, Russia, New Zealand and Australia), an Asia workshop (held in the Philippines) was conducted in August 2006, a Latin America and Carribean workshop was held in Nicaragua in September 2006, and others on the Arctic and Africa are to be held in Kenya and Russia with a Pacific workshop to follow.

Part of the impetus for these initiatives stemmed from the work of the Arctic Council in compiling its Arctic Human Development Report in 2004. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental and agency forum for addressing many of the common concerns and challenges faced by the Arctic states of Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States. It is unique for including in this an international platform for several organizations representing Arctic Indigenous communities including the Aleut International Association, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich’in Council International, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council.

Within this consultative framework, the Arctic Human Development Report commissioned by this group examined the relevance of basic components of the UN’s Human Development Index to Arctic Indigenous peoples. Basically, the HDI integrates three goals:

  • A long and healthy life measured in terms of life expectancy at birth;

  • Educational achievement treated as a combination of adult literacy and school enrolments; and

  • A decent standard of living construed as GDP per capita.

As the report points out, many Arctic Indigenous communities would receive very low HDI scores against these criteria. Yet:

“...humans residing in the Arctic do not see themselves as lagging behind in terms of human development nor deficient with regard to some broader conception of well-being. Clearly there are social problems in the circumpolar North,... but this does not mean that Arctic lifestyles, cultures, economies, or social institutions are inferior to those in communities that rank higher in terms of HDI scores... Many Arctic residents—especially those who are Indigenous to the region—associate a good life with the maintenance of traditional hunting, gathering and herding practices. Yet it is difficult to use indicators like per capita GDP to measure the health of subsistence systems or mixed economies more generally. For many, well-being is to be found in a way of life that minimizes the need for the sorts of material goods and services included in calculations of GDP per capita” (Young and Einarsson 2004: 16).

According to this view, Arctic residents value the ability to determine their own destinies involving cultural continuity even while embracing some of the obvious benefits of poverty reduction and modernization.

The significance of these observations for the deliberations of the UNPFII and for Australian attempts at measuring Indigenous well-being lies in the strong relationship between the MDGs and the Australian government framework for reporting progress for Indigenous peoples as represented by the concepts and indicators that make up the now annual Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage (OID) report (SCRGSP 2005a). The purpose of this paper is to explore this relationship as a prelude to considering select Indigenous views on indicators of well-being that emerged from the UNPFII Ottawa workshop. In conclusion, some reflections on the implications of these international developments for the measurement of Indigenous well-being in Australia are provided.

MDGs and Australian Frameworks

Developed as part of the UN’s Millennium Declaration, the MDGs have eight goals and 18 targets with an achievement date by 2015. A total of 48 indicators have been selected to provide a measure of progress towards this end. It is interesting to note that the MDGs are seen by the UN and development institutions as representing a new and different approach to development because, among other things, they are people-centred, time-bound and measurable, and they are based on a global partnership that stresses the responsibilities of developing countries for getting their own house in order, and of developed countries for supporting those efforts. This is interesting because of the very similar thinking that underpins the Australian OID framework with its focus on the measured reduction of deficits via strategic interventions aimed at individual behaviour change within a framework of shared responsibilities.

The Australian OID framework is a product of the Council of Australian Government’s (COAG) response to the official decade of reconciliation with Indigenous Australians and is based on the federal government’s focus on achieving what it calls ‘practical reconciliation’, or the pursuit of statistical equality between the standard of living of Indigenous and other Australians in the areas of health, housing, education and employment. It draws heavily on social indicators from census and survey sources and is available on a biannual basis as the Productivity Commission Report Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage. In addition, the annual Report on Government Services issued by the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision (SCRGSP) includes a separate compendium of Indigenous statistics that relate to the OID framework drawn from the administrative databases of Australian, State and Territory governments (SCRGSP 2005b).

The framework is constructed around a very explicit causal model of Indigenous disadvantage highlighting the domestic settings of child rearing and the interactions between family and schooling based around three Priority Outcomes:

  • Safe, healthy and supportive environments with strong communities and cultural identity;

  • Positive child development and prevention of violence, crime and self-harm, and

  • Improved wealth creation and economic sustainability for individuals, families and communities.

These outcomes are informed by several Headline Indicators:

  • Life expectancy at birth;

  • Rates of disability;

  • Years 10 and 12 school retention;

  • Post-secondary participation and attainment;

  • Labour force participation and unemployment;

  • Household and individual income;

  • Home ownership;

  • Suicide and self-harm;

  • Child protection notifications;

  • Deaths from homicide and hospitalisations for assault;

  • Victim rates for crime, and

  • Imprisonment and juvenile detention.

These in turn are underpinned by seven Strategic Areas for Action:

  • Early childhood development and growth;

  • Early school engagement and performance;

  • Positive childhood and transition to adulthood;

  • Substance use and misuse;

  • Functional and resilient families and communities;

  • Effective environmental health systems, and

  • Economic participation and development.

Finally, these criteria lead to a detailed set of Strategic Change Indicators, too numerous to list here but including such measures as birth weight, literacy, care and protection orders, substance use, and housing occupancy.

With regard to the assessment of indicator gaps, it is worth noting that these reporting frameworks overlap substantially in content (though not always in specificity), with the socioeconomic components of the UN’s MDG and HDI frameworks. In addition, the structure of the Australian OID framework with Headline Indicators leading to detailed Strategic Change Indicators is also consistent with the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) toolkit for including Indigenous peoples in sector programme support in calling for an information pyramid that, at the lower levels, provides disaggregated indicators and describes interrelationships with underlying problems (DANIDA 2004: 16). To this extent, the Australian reporting framework could be said to represent international best practice. And yet, as noted, the view of the UNPFII is that the MDGs (and by implication frameworks such as the OID) do not capture many of the criteria that are essential for the well-being of Indigenous peoples. By focussing solely on gaps with mainstream majority populations, they implicitly downplay the significance of unique Indigenous priorities and world views.

Indigenous Culture and Measurement

Not surprisingly, a consistent message to emerge from consultations conducted by the Australian government with select Indigenous people and organisations is the need to improve representations of Indigenous culture in formal reporting frameworks (SCRGSP 2005a: 2.11). Although no explanation is provided as to what precisely is meant by the term ‘culture’, a basic dilemma to emerge from these consultations is the difficulty of identifying single indicators given the diversity of Indigenous circumstances and societies across Australia. Furthermore, the fact that the construction of objective indices is more likely to be directed at informing government policy, and not necessarily Indigenous priorities and processes, means that the challenge is to satisfy this requirement whilst at the same time producing measures that have widespread relevance to Indigenous peoples. Ultimately what is sought, then, is similar to the mechanism for illuminating the legal nature of Native Title for public discourse in Australia in terms of a ‘recognition, or translation, space’ that exists where traditional Indigenous law and custom and Australian property law intersect (Mantziaris and Martin 2000). This conceptualisation of a legal recognition space may be adapted to the area of social indicator development as illustrated in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1
figure 1

The recognition space for indicators of Indigenous well-being

As inferred from the diagram, much of what constitutes important aspects of Indigenous (or any other) culture such as world views, appropriate structures of social relationships, land relationships, kinship rights and obligations, reciprocities and accountabilities (Martin 1995; Schwab 1995)—in effect, different ways of life—is not necessarily brought to the level of public discourse (the intersect), and is therefore not easily amenable to measurement. Even where measurement appears possible, distinct modes of Indigenous living and aspiration may be incommensurate with the broad goals of government policy to the point where they defy common interpretation.

For example, in the Australian context there is a clear contradiction between the desire of many Indigenous people to live in remote areas in small dispersed communities on traditional lands, and the general thrust of government policy that is intent on securing Indigenous participation in the mainstream urban economy as the core means to enhance well-being. By the same token, elements of government reporting (certainly when it comes down to particular strategic change measures) may have little connection to Indigenous concerns and practices. An especially poignant example of this is provided by outputs from the Australian census which, because they are designed to represent the circumstances of mainstream Australia, generate results for Indigenous peoples in remote settings that can at times appear nonsensical (Morphy 2004). In addition, important elements of Indigenous customary economic activity, for example, can be overlooked entirely (Altman 2005; Altman et al. 2006), a problem noted for other Indigenous populations in developed country settings (Usher et al. 2003).

The main focus of the diagram, then, is on the cross-sectional space, or area of intersection, where policy makers and Indigenous people can seek to build meaningful engagement and measurement. This is the area that allows for a necessarily reductionist translation of Indigenous people’s own perceptions of their well-being into measurable indices sought by government. What is captured in this space is obviously far from the totality of Indigenous understandings of well-being, a point noted before in respect of Australian social survey data (Peterson 1996).

In contemplating the likely content of this recognition space, the SCRGSP (2005a: 2.11–2.15) highlights three categories of potential indicators that it believes meet this test of appropriate cultural measurement: the practice of culture by Indigenous people; the formal recognition of Indigenous culture; and appreciation of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people. Of these, only the first has some data available via the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which is the closest attempt within Australia to develop a comprehensive set of customised Indigenous survey data. The problem is, to a large degree, the content of the NATSISS is driven by the content of the ABS’ General Social Survey in order to ensure comparison with the mainstream population for the purposes of identifying gaps in mainstream indicators (40 out of 88 variables overlap). Of the content that does not overlap, relatively few variables (eight) may be said to be concerned with unique Indigenous issues. The point here is that even the best attempt to establish a set of Indigenous statistics in Australia would appear to fall well short of the aspirations expressed via the UNPFII.

As Peterson (2005) has pointed out, without a common agreed view of different and shared perceptions of well-being, the danger is that indicators become ethnocentric and the notion that Indigenous people may have their own life projects is obscured by the pressing moral and political objective of achieving statistical equality that comes with the policies of practical reconciliation and mainstreaming. In working through these questions, we should be mindful that from an Indigenous perspective the very notion of measurement may carry with it the spectre of state control, and that the implications of who is measuring what, for whom, and to what end is therefore crucial. To the extent that the development of indicators is concerned with enhancing the tools for positivist inquiry in the interaction between governments and Indigenous peoples this cross-cultural encounter involves more than just a recognition of difference—it requires the development of models of bi-cultural or partnership research involving negotiated design, methodologies and outcomes (Smith 1999: 173–8).

Similar concerns with respect to the new indicators framework in Australia have been expressed by Indigenous commentators. For example, Arabena (2005) sees the attempt to reduce the complexity of Indigenous circumstances to measurable indicators as neither ideologically nor theoretically innocent, with the process of simplification embodying both the expectations and beliefs of responsible technicians and officials. Dodson (2005) goes further in arguing that selected indicators can’t just be based on what government agencies consider success to look like—they have to focus on developing Indigenous measures of success or well-being, a point amply demonstrated by Grieves (2007) using urban-based Aboriginal focus groups. According to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, part of the means to this lies in ensuring effective full participation of Indigenous people in all stages of data collection and analysis as an essential component of participatory development practice (Calma 2005).

Towards Appropriate Indicators

The discussion so far has argued that the development of indicators in cross-cultural settings will always involve a degree of reductionism and a process of translation. What is important to ensure is that this reductionism is negotiated and that the sets of indicators developed are seen as legitimate and appropriate by all stakeholders. In considering what this might mean in a practical sense we can turn for guidance to the Programme of Action announced for the UN’s Second International Decade on the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This sets out the framework for what the UN and related international agencies, governments and Indigenous peoples should seek to achieve during the decade. Among the key objectives outlined are:

  • Promoting non-discrimination and inclusion of Indigenous people in laws, policies and programs at all levels;

  • Promoting the full and effective participation of Indigenous people in decisions that directly or indirectly affect them and to do so in accordance with the principle of free, prior and informed consent;

  • Adopting targets for improving the situation of Indigenous peoples, and

  • Redefining development processes to ensure that they recognise the cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples.

We can make use of this negotiated and agreed platform to begin consideration of an appropriate core set of quantitative and qualitative global and regional indicators of Indigenous well-being of the type sought by the UNPFII. Each of these is dealt with in turn with select indicator examples drawn from an Australian perspective.

Promoting Non-discrimination and Inclusion

Issues regarding the promotion of non-discrimination and inclusion of Indigenous people in laws, policies and programs at all levels have been the subject of some interest within Australia in recent years. In particular, there has been a trend of declining recruitment levels and falling retention rates for Indigenous employment in the Australian Public Service and this is considered a critical issue as it reduces the ability of policy and program agencies to draw on the perspectives and abilities of a diverse workforce that reflects the needs and views of Indigenous peoples (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2004: 120). What this demonstrates is the value of ensuring that data on the level and nature of Indigenous employment in policy and program areas of government are available based on Indigenous self-identification in personnel records.

Promoting Full and Effective Participation

The second objective of the Programme of Action raises issues to do more directly with Indigenous governance. This is not the same as ‘government’. ‘Government’ means having a jurisdictional control, whereas ‘governance’ is about having the processes and institutional capacity to be able to exercise that control through sound decision-making. Good ‘governance’, on the other hand, is all about the means to establish this with the ultimate aim of achieving the social, cultural, and economic developments sought by citizens (Dodson and Smith 2003; Dodson 2006).

In outlining a methodological and conceptual framework for Indigenous community governance research in Australia, Smith (2005) has identified a dozen key dimensions of governance that provide a starting point for assessing practical applications of what is in many ways a nebulous concept. In all but four of these, the development of a statistical base for planning involving local participation is found to be an essential element. To highlight the important scope of regional data collection in providing for good governance, it is worth listing, as a summary device, the particular dimensions identified by this project that benefit from regional statistical input. These include:

  • Cultural geography (governance and planning should be based on the local social geography such as concerning family groups, clans with information collected on this basis);

  • Decision-making (locally generated indicators enhance the capacity to make evidence-based informed decisions);

  • Organisational performance (data is required for effective service delivery);

  • Strategic direction (projections of future population numbers/characteristics provide for the development of long-term perspectives);

  • Participation and voice (information dissemination raises stakeholder awareness both internally and externally);

  • Resource governance (data on human capital resources informs economic development potential);

  • The governance environment (data on fiscal flows illuminates the impact of wider state and national relationships), and

  • Governance capacity (participation in data collection, analysis, application and dissemination builds local capacity).

Collectively, such indicators assist in the performance of good governance by enhancing local understanding of social and economic circumstances as a basis for sound and strategic decision-making and engagement with government. In one Australian example of how such measurement has worked for Indigenous people (Taylor 2004; Taylor and Stanley 2005), the bringing together of customised social indicators in partnership with local people has provided a platform for effective discussion with government over the resourcing of local development priorities in the Thamarrurr Region of the Northern Territory. The vision of the Thamarrurr Regional Council in the preamble to its constitution states:

Thamarrurr is responsible for the way of life of our people. This way of life is expressed as the spirit of our people. This spirit is expressed through family life. Family life is our relationship to kin and country. Responsibility for good family life has always belonged with the elders.

Thamarrurr, with authority of pulen pulen (elder men) and muthingan (elder women), provides direction for this way of life. Many decisions are carried out through kardu keke (the middle aged people) for the benefit of our people. This is our way of doing business.

In effect, when asked by government what is was they wanted, kardu keke found a compelling need for an information base that they could determine and control and attempts were made to formalise this via the establishment of a locally-staffed Thamarrurr Regional Education and Information Office to perform a data collection, analysis and dissemination role.

Of course, governance concerns range much wider than this, though evidence from the Harvard project on American Indian Governance and from Australia suggests that these may be reduced to one of four key principles: legitimacy, power, resources and accountability (Cornell 1993; Begay et al. 1998; Dodson and Smith 2003). These principles are also reflected in the United Nations Development Programme’s core governance indicator areas that include: parliamentary development, electoral systems, justice and human rights, e-governance and access to information, decentralisation, and public administration reform and anti-corruption. The suggestion here is that these core areas could be used as a basis for more practical indicator selection.

Adopting Targets

The adoption of targets for improving the situation of Indigenous peoples is one issue that has drawn a response from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner in discussions over the Australian government’s reporting framework on Indigenous disadvantage (Calma 2005). Casting this in a human rights approach, governments, working in partnership with Indigenous peoples, are required to demonstrate that they are approaching issues of equality of opportunity in a targeted manner and are accountable to the achievement of defined goals within a defined timeframe. In development discourse this invokes the ‘progressive realisation’ principle. According to Calma (2005), indicator frameworks such as that devised by the Australian government should be supplemented by appropriate targets or benchmarks that are negotiated by governments and Indigenous peoples. This would take reporting to a new level by requiring that governments make justification if there is no improvement on some indicators and, where there is improvement, justify whether the progress achieved is at a sufficient rate. As an example of this, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has recently called on the governments of Australia to commit to achieving equality of health status and life expectation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous people within 25 years (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner 2005: 16).

Redefining Development Processes

In current Australian debate, the redefinition of development processes to ensure recognition of the cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples is mostly focused around the extent to which the state is prepared to support Indigenous peoples who choose to settle at remote localities close to, or on, lands that they own. Recent pronouncements by government question the social and economic viability of remote settlements against the task of satisfying its own criteria for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage. For Altman and Rowse (2005) this presents, in sharp relief, a fundamental question at the heart of Indigenous affairs policy: should the goals of Indigenous affairs policy be to achieve equality of socioeconomic status or to facilitate choice and self-determination? As they point out, the former tends to imply integration and urban migration, while the latter may require adherence to different life worlds and resistance to transformation. Either way, this is one area where indicators may signal conflicting outcomes.

Take, for example, the number of Indigenous people living on homelands as an indicator of the cultural diversity of Indigenous peoples, as is available from the Australian NATSISS. Where this number is high and/or rising, it may be seen by Indigenous peoples as a positive measure of cultural strength enabling the preservation and development of cultural practices, and the maintenance of sacred sites and biological diversity. On the other hand, governments may view this as a negative outcome rendering all the more difficult their attempts to achieve statistical equality in other more socioeconomic indicators. This sort of conundrum highlights the importance of negotiation in the recognition space of Fig. 1.

Lessons from the UNFPII Ottawa Workshop

The UNPFII Ottawa workshop included Indigenous delegates from community-based organisations, government and academia including the Assembly of First Nations, the Cree Nation, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the International Indian Treaty Council, the United States Indigenous Environmental Network, Tuhono Trust, the Maori Statistics Unit from Statistics New Zealand, and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. For the first time, this group articulated the potential scope of indicators relevant to the measurement of Indigenous well-being in developed country contexts. These were seen as components of two broad categories of interest: Identity, Land and Ways of Living; and Indigenous Rights to and Perspectives on Development (United Nations 2006). In regard to these, the following listing of potential indicators emerged over and above those concerned with poverty-reduction as found in more mainstream well-being frameworks:

Identity, Land, and Ways of Living:

  • The number of language speakers, children learning language, language transmission programs, language in state documents and media;

  • Size of the Indigenous estate, participation in subsistence activities, economic value of subsistence;

  • Existence of programs to reduce violence against women and families, measures of the quality of health care access;

  • Measures of biodiversity including the number of endangered species linked to subsistence and cultural practice, climate change data and impacts, employment in ecosystem management, regulations protecting ecosystems, no. of environmental protection violations, levels of toxic contamination, and the existence and nature of legal frameworks for veto over land use;

  • Proportion of population in urban areas and rate of urban migration.

Indigenous Rights to and Perspectives on Development:

  • Recognition of Indigenous governance and laws, support for Indigenous capacity building, leadership, policy and program development, number of Indigenous people engaged in government programs;

  • Recognition of Indigenous rights in State laws, no. and effectiveness of consultations implementing free, prior and informed consent, percent of Indigenous peoples in public service, state elections, and parliaments, accountability of governments in meeting legal obligations and responsibilities, number of Indigenous rights complaints filed;

  • Number and content of nation to nation agreements between governments and Indigenous peoples;

  • Government expenditures relative to Indigenous need, existence of targeted budgetary, legal and policy measure to address discrimination.

Maori Statistics Framework

The idea that non-conventional indicators of the type listed above are seen as relevant to the interests of Indigenous peoples and can actually be collected within a coherent framework is demonstrated by the Maori Statistics Framework tabled at the Ottawa workshop and developed since 1995 by Statistics New Zealand (Wereta and Bishop 2006). This framework officially acknowledges that the statistical needs of Maori differ at times from those of the majority (Pakeha) population and in its strategic planning Statistics New Zealand lays the ground for meeting those needs through official statistical collections and/or through collections produced by Maori community-based organisations. The key outcomes sought include statistical information that is relevant to Maori, enhanced knowledge and awareness of official statistics in Maori communities and extended usage at this level, and enhanced statistical capacity within Maori community-based organisations with the official statistical agency assuming a supportive facilitating role.

After considerable deliberation via the Maori Statistics Forum (an advisory body to the New Zealand Statistician made up of Maori leaders and academics), the goal dimensions of Maori well-being that inform the content of the framework were determined to include: the sustainability of Te Ao Maori (the Maori world), social capability (not capital), human resource potential (not capital), economic self-sufficiency, environmental sustainability, and empowerment and enablement. In relation to these a total of 125 measurement dimensions, or indicators, have been identified and it is interesting to note that fully 68% of these are unique to the Maori framework and would not be found in any more conventional framework of well-being/disadvantage (Wereta and Bishop 2006).

The content and purpose of the Maori statistics framework are reflected in other similar statistical collections instigated by Indigenous peoples, not least in New Zealand where the Te Hoe Nuku Roa (Best Outcomes for Maori) longitudinal survey based at Massey University has been in operation since the mid1990s and incorporates many of the same concepts, world views and lines of inquiry. Elsewhere, the Survey of Living Conditions in the Arctic (SLiCA) is focused on Inuit, Saami and the Indigenous peoples of Chukotka. This is an international joint research effort aimed at measuring living conditions in a way that is relevant to Arctic residents. It is supported by the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Saami Council and the Russian Association of Indigenous People of the North. It builds on the premise that people exercise different preferences in organizing their lives (Ringen 1995) and the outcome, since 1997, has been a series of innovative surveys and studies conducted in partnership with Indigenous peoples of the Arctic (Anderson and Poppel 2002; Usher et al. 2003).

Australian Developments

Within Australia, as we have seen, the official government approach has been to identify indicators that best meet the criteria of government (e.g. indicators that are amenable to policy action), with only limited attempt to consider additional measures of relevance to Indigenous peoples. In contemplating what these additional measures might include, three categories have been identified: the practice of culture by Indigenous people; the formal recognition of Indigenous culture; and appreciation of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people (SCRGSP 2005a: 2.11). Of these, only the first currently has some statistical data available via the NATSISS and these include:

  • participation in Indigenous cultural activities (the NATSISS survey includes questions on type of cultural events attended and payment for cultural activities such as art and dance);

  • proportion of people with access to traditional lands (the NATSISS includes questions on persons recognising homelands, living on homelands and allowed to visit homelands. It also asks about identification with clan, tribal/language group);

  • Indigenous language use.

However, a number of non-government regional or community-based studies conducted by or for Indigenous groups are beginning to emerge and these are teasing out the many more varied dimensions of Indigenous well-being. As with the Maori framework it appears that these dimensions extend far beyond the limited survey-derived indicators noted above to include important aspects of the links between culture and participation in natural resource management (Greiner et al. 2005; Wet Tropics Aboriginal Plan Project Team 2005; Dyack and Greiner 2006), the pre-eminence of ‘family and community’ based around the nurturing of extended family relations, the retention (or reacquisition) of traditional knowledge about country (Greiner et al. 2005; Grieves 2007), and the importance of measures of power sharing and government accountability in meeting the needs of Indigenous peoples (Cutcliffe 2005).


Indigenous peoples’ perceptions and understandings of well-being extend beyond, and sometimes conflict with, many of the indicators currently adopted by global reporting frameworks. In recognition of this fact, the UNPFII and countries such as New Zealand have begun the task of identifying indicators that might constitute appropriate and comprehensive measures of Indigenous well-being. By contrast, within Australia, this task has barely begun. Here, the current paradigm for official collection of Indigenous statistics is focused primarily on the measurement of gaps from a mainstream perspective. For the most part, this assists processes of governmentality by bureaucrats and strongly reflects a deficit model of Indigenous development and well-being as measured by standard social indicators. It does little to inform a community development or community governance model and therefore suffers from the pitfalls of overlooking specifically Indigenous world-views. Somewhat related to this is a growing gap between the scales at which Indigenous polities either seek to, or are required to, organise and plan for their development, on the one hand, and the much larger jurisdictional scales for which statistics are generally made available.

One factor contributing to this sub-optimal outcome in Australia is the marginal status of Indigenous people in decision-making that effects them. From 1990 to 2005 there was some overarching institutional Indigenous authorisation for the Indigenous data collection activities of the ABS and other government organisations, namely in the form of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and its elected representative regional structure. Under relevant legislation, ATSIC and the ABS had a statutory relationship which allowed the Commission: “at the request or with the concurrence of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, but not otherwise, and without infringing the privacy of any individual, to collect and publish statistical information relating to Aboriginal persons and Torres Strait Islanders” (Commonwealth of Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989: s.7 (1)h). Though somewhat restrictive, this nonetheless enabled a relationship between Indigenous peoples and the official statistical agency somewhat akin to the function of the Maori Statistics Forum in New Zealand. However, ATSIC was abolished by the neo-liberal Australian government in 2005, with a return to mainstreaming of Indigenous affairs. As a consequence, the question has been left hanging as to who from the Indigenous community now legitimates the official reporting framework, and ultimately who now defines Indigenous well-being? As at least one Indigenous community has noted in relation to government efforts to measure progress the indicators adopted continue to be hampered by a lack of Indigenous input in deciding exactly what is important and how it should be measured (Cutliffe 2005: 36).

This is not to say that the current official indicator framework is invalid, or that considerable effort is not expended in generating indigenous statistics, rather that it omits significant content and that there remain long-standing concerns about the cultural relevance of information obtained from instruments principally designed to establish the characteristics of mainstream Australian life. Just as an example, in Australian society generally, ascription of social and economic status and well-being is motivated largely by opulence and commodity possession whereas for many Indigenous peoples this can also be determined by access to ritual or religious knowledge rather than to material resources, or by controlling the distribution of material resources rather than being an accumulator (or owner) of resources. In short, for many Indigenous peoples, materialistic considerations may be of less importance in acquiring status than reciprocity in social and economic relations (Martin 1995; Schwab 1995).

Ultimately, then, the issues at stake could be said to hang on the matter of what constitutes precision in social indicator development and the challenge here, as well illustrated in Riedmann’s (1993) unrelenting critique of the Changing African Family projects in Nigeria, is how to achieve measurement whilst respecting (and incorporating) the cultural integrity of subjects. Social analysts were warned some years ago of an imbalance between their concern for statistical precision and detail on the one hand, and their casualness of treatment of non-demographic contextual variables on the other (McNicoll 1988: 20), and yet the approach to statistical representation of Indigenous peoples in countries like Australia would suggest that this message remains to be heard due to stated perceived difficulty in accommodating culture in measurement. Interestingly, as Wereta and Bishop (2006: 269) report, this is an issue that the Maori Statistics Forum also grappled with, and not surprisingly, to address it they pursued the well known relativist dictum of Amartya Sen (1987) that in social investigation we should not reject being vaguely right in favour of being precisely wrong.