Date posted: 25/05/2017 3 min read

Corporate programmes supporting indigenous Australians

Inside corporate monoliths, committed people run programmes that can make a genuine difference in indigenous communities.

In brief

  • It is not uncommon for indigenous Australians in small, remote communities to share a pair of glasses.
  • Indigenous artist Dorita Escott, produces work that can be seen on big eye-care brands such as OPSM and Sunglass Hut.
  • Large corporates are turning their attention to Australia's third world eye health problem and making a difference.

Many of us take sight for granted. But in the tiny community of Gununa, it’s not uncommon for several people to share one pair of glasses.

Perched at the top of Queensland, Gununa is an indigenous (Aboriginal) community where traditional hunting is still practised.

To spear a goanna requires good eyesight, as does painting hundreds of white dots on a black canvas. Yet artist Dorita Escott (above, right) had to borrow her husband’s spectacles to finish her painting of barramundi.

“His glasses were a bit blurry,” she admits. Escott’s artwork is now licensed by Luxottica, the world’s largest eye-care company and owner of brands including OPSM and Sunglass Hut. It appears on a microfibre cleaning cloth sold nationally.

Each time the cloth is sold a small donation is made to OneSight, the Luxottica’s indigenous eye-health programme. Since 1988, OneSight has operated in 40 countries worldwide. Yet it was only in 2012 that the programme began in Australia, first in Mount Isa before expanding to the Gulf communities of Doomadgee, Gununa on Mornington Island and Palm Island.

Six times more indigenous Australians suffer blindness and they are 12 times more likely to have blinding cataracts than non-indigenous Australians. Yet 94% of indigenous vision loss is unnecessary and preventable.  

To spear a goanna requires good eyesight, as does painting hundreds of white dots on a black canvas.

“I kept asking questions, ” says Chris Beer, CEO of Luxottica, in the Asia Pacific Region.

“Australia being a ‘lucky country’, why do we have Third World eye health in remote indigenous communities? It was unacceptable to me.”

Long-term investment

Over the past decade, many corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes have trended from short-term towards longer-term social engagement within indigenous communities.

Initiatives take several forms: philanthropic donations (The Christensen Fund); corporate partnership (Jawun with companies such as Westpac); equipment and training programmes (Luxottica); or skills-based resources (Lion Nathan in Brewarrina, western NSW).

According to a 2010 report published by the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund, corporates and philanthropic bodies are motivated to invest for three reasons: “A strong sense of social responsibility; a belief in social justice; and disappointment with government support.”

(A former leader in the field distributing A$1.8m to indigenous programs annually, the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund was wound up in 2010.)

While the report recognises many successes, it also emphasises the challenges both sides face: “It is more than just granting funds; it is about changing the paradigm of power. In fact, it entails sharing power.”

For sight

On one of Chris Beer’s first trips to Gununa, he was struck by the comment of one elder. “We’ve heard it before from guys like you. The bosses turn up, there are some photo opportunities and 12 months later you disappear.”

Such scepticism is understandable says Brad Wilson, Mayor of Mornington Island.

“The last time someone came here was the Fred Hollows Foundation and that was a long time ago. Since then we’ve had an occasional optometrist who would charge around A$300 for glasses. So people didn’t believe OneSight would return. But three months later they were back.

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Now they’ve sorted out 90% of the population’s eye health problems.”

On Mornington, as in other locations, OneSight initially held week-long clinics every three months offering free tests and eyewear. Once the backlog has cleared, OneSight visits communities for a shorter period while maintaining long-term continuity of care in conjunction with community health services.  This is crucial when tackling diseases such as diabetes, currently at epidemic levels on Mornington.

As part of the programme an ultra-wide digital retinal scanner is installed in each community, offering the same state-of the-art technology available in metropolitan Australia.

Expertise and experience

On the eastern side of the Gulf, 600km from Mornington, is Cape York, home to Jawun. The organisation works with partners to offer skills and resources to communities across Australia, including in inner Sydney and the Goulburn Murray area.  

Since 2001, when Westpac became a founding partner, 661 staff have been seconded to Jawun, equating to 90 years of effort.

In late 2013 Westpac employee, David McLeod, workforce manager, BT Financial Group, spent six weeks as a Jawun secondee working with Ganbina, a small Shepparton-based community organisation, to help better promote its Youth Leadership Program. Like many non-indigenous Australians, McLeod had had “no real interaction with indigenous communities before”.

This lack of knowledge is often a motivator for white-collar workers to put their hand up.  

So is it an equal partnership and do indigenous communities truly benefit? “This is a question we’ve addressed every time this programme has been reviewed internally,” says Cairns-based Vit Koci, manager of the Jawun programme for Westpac since its inception.

“It’s very difficult to see a great deal of progress in the time frame of any particular secondee. They are in a community for five or six weeks and rarely will they see an absolute result. This is much more about incrementally building the capability of the indigenous organisations that support those communities. It’s absolutely not just about a bunch of white corporates having an experience in those places.”

Since 2001, when Westpac became a founding partner, 661 staff have been seconded to Jawun, equating to 90 years of effort.

In the early days nearly all Westpac secondees went to remote regions. “We’ve learned that while that might provide the most exotic experience for our people, it’s not necessarily the most sustainable and beneficial model for the communities we’re supporting,” says Koci.

Today the majority of Westpac secondees, after learning about cultural protocols and spending a few days on Aboriginal land, will be based in Cairns or the nearest major town.

For McCleod, it was still challenging. “I was discussing sensitive issues with people I’d never met before. One girl told me that Ganbina had saved her life.”

Like many, McCleod brought his experience back into the office. He’s now a member of Westpac’s indigenous employee action group.

“I’ve learnt that not everything that counts can be counted.”

Anthony Cavanagh, CEO of Ganbina, says that having the contribution of Westpac secondees impacts their bottom line.

“It means we don’t need to hire expensive consultants. It’s very much about mutual sharing of knowledge. The learning curve goes both ways.”

With the Jawun program there are no money transfers to communities.

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“We don’t hand over a single dollar,” says Koci. But for organisations like Ganbina, which manages a suite of school to work transition programs for indigenous youth, both resources and philanthropic donations are required.

Brewarrina thrived as a meeting place for tribes who congregated around the 40,000-year-old fish traps near the confluence of the Barwon and Darling rivers.
“A lot of regional organisations need financial support too,” says Cavanagh. “This is a way for our corporate partners to empower us.”   

The importance of corporates listening to the needs of communities and not imposing their views is paramount, as is cultural awareness training or a cultural advisory board.

Economic development

Anika McManus, formerly group sustainability leader at Lion Nathan, recalls one of her first meetings in Brewarrina.

“You might go with an agenda but you always start with a yarn. It’s about forming a connection first.”

When McManus and her team arrived in the NSW outback town in 2009 they were shocked to see handwritten billboards asking passing traffic to “stop and spend $20 in Bre”. Stricken by drought and high unemployment, this tiny community was in decline.

Yet in pre-settlement days Brewarrina thrived as a meeting place for tribes who congregated around the 40,000-year-old fish traps near the confluence of the Barwon and Darling rivers. This elaborate network of tiered pools and weirs is believed to be one of the oldest man-made structures in the world.

As part of its former CSR programme, brewer Lion Nathan (now Lion), recognised that “meaningful employment” is an effective way to prevent substance misuse in indigenous communities.

“Brewarrina stood out because it had some key leaders who were passionate and committed,” says McManus.

Over five years the team worked with the town’s business centre and council to re-open the Brewarrina Aboriginal Museum and the fish traps and regrow native plants along the riverbank.

Lion has not formally evaluated the Brewarrina project and has changed its community investment programme. For McManus, the experience was so profound she changed roles to join Evolution, a mining company, where as group manager in external and indigenous relations she works with traditional owner groups and stakeholders in shared-value projects.

In the dynamic between corporates and communities, mistrust can exist on both sides. McManus faced it at networking events or social barbeques.

“I’d talk about Brewarrina and people would say, ‘Oh what are you doing out there? Trying to sell more alcohol?’ People can see the corporate company as an entity and forget that within it there are passionate committed individuals who care.”

Chris Beer admits that what started personally has become an obsession. “It doesn’t finish until all those small communities, adults and more importantly their kids have the same eye health as all other Australians.”

Meanwhile artist Dorita Escott, who now has her own pair of glasses, can continue to paint – and practise her ancient culture for a new audience.

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.