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Noel Pearson: Choice is not enough

28 April, 2007

David Martin just posted about this article by Australian indigenous leader Noel Pearson on the AASNet mailing list. In his article, Pearson engages with Amartya Sen’s argument about the need for capabilities to underpin individual choice in promoting ‘third world’ development. Importantly, he addresses the relationship between culture, individual responsibility, and development. In short, he argues that the provision of opportunities for indigenous groups is not enough to produce capability; responsibility on the part of these groups is also needed. Here is an excerpt:

There are other influences on individual choice than the question of capability.

First, economic incentives matter. No humans, be they finance industry money-heads from Sydney or young indigenous people from remote communities, who are the products of poor health and pig-swill publicly provided education, are immune from economic incentive. We must get this straight when we think about indigenous policy: economic incentives influence the choices made by our people. I will not take the discussion of incentives any further here.

Second, culture matters. Sen was particularly concerned with the clash between culture and individual freedom and development; that traditions can constrain development and that traditional societies are faced with decisions about culture change.

The extent to which indigenous cultures in Australia are antithetical to reform and development are also inescapable questions for indigenous policy.

I wish there was more discussion of this within the indigenous community.

He goes on to question the relationship between culture, educational opportunities and addictions of various kinds. According to Pearson, culture is a crucial factor — either as barrier or facilitator — in the production of the sort of responsibility required for development to occur.   In a sense, Pearson seems to be arguing for a more utilitarian approach to culture on the part of indigenous Australians themselves, where is it rationally evaluated in relationship to development and welfare goals.  Presumably, those aspects of ‘traditional’ culture which are found not to be conducive to agreed goals should be  modified and/or discarded.

It seems that Pearson is making some pretty significant statements here, and ones that are bound to stir up debate about the role and value of culture and tradition in relationship to Aboriginal welfare. Such debates often polarise between a valorisation of ‘culture’ as authentic and therefore in need of saving, and the view that it represents the ‘dead hand of tradition’ which needs to be thrown off in order for ‘progress’ to take place. It will be interesting to see how discussion develops, and I would certainly be interested to hear any opinions about the significance of Pearson’s article in this forum.

The Australian: Noel Pearson: Choice is not enough

One Comment leave one →
  1. 30 May, 2007 4:18 pm

    Pearson utilises a very classical approach to describing culture and this makes it easier for him to then define what is not Aboriginal culture.
    This is deliberate ploy as it enables him to rationalise welfare as not being part of culture, when in fact ‘welfare’ as an ethos is very a much a part of Aboriginal culture(s).
    His writings often resemble the work of a first year socio cultural anthropology student. At other times the pedestrian meaderings of an urban lawyer (well they do know everything don’t they).

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