Self-determination can’t be achieved through compromised finance

17 Aug 2023

Ben Abbatangelo writes of his experiences dealing with philanthropists, and his decision to walk away from this kind of money. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and businesses have limited options for funding, Ben writes, but we shouldn’t take blood money from companies who bring harm to Country, and by extension, us.

I’ve made a disciplined effort to grant myself permission to think deeply and dream dangerously. We are a radically imaginative and resourceful peoples, but the ongoing psychological warfare and fight for survival that is life within the colony insidiously deprives us of the time and space to sharpen one of our greatest tools – our sovereignty of thought.

In these solitudes, I’ve been visualising the restoration of the ‘forever economies’ – which is a term coined and passed on to me by Nyikina Warrwa woman, Professor Anne Poelina. The founding and sustaining of the forever economies and all of its abundance for tens of thousands of years is one of our most profound feats and equally one of our most devastating losses- as the extinction economy fuelled by plundering extractivism and growth-at-all-costs supercharges the planet’s health to the brink.

This knowledge, paired with a plethora of undignifying personal and second-hand experiences of trying to secure finance to launch and sustain important grassroots aspirations, has led me to envisage what our lives would look and feel like if we were autonomously establishing, maintaining and strengthening our distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions. 

What shape would this continent and its adjacent islands take if we were exercising our right to self-determination and autonomously self-governing matters relating to our internal and local affairs – in line with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples? What would our relationship be with the wider world?

Engaging with these thoughts are simultaneously an exercise of imagination and memory – they are also an act of sedition in how they deviate from the acceptable parameters in which we are expected to exist. They are positioned at the juncture of what was and what can be. And they stem from a burning desire to break away from the untenable grasps of white gatekeepers and colonial institutions who are shamelessly using stolen wealth to undermine the fate of our futures. 

In her 2019 essay, The Ancient Library and Self Governing Literature,  prolific Waanyi author Alexis Wright reflects on the late visionary thinker and economist, eastern Arrernte man, Tracker Tilmouth. 

Throughout the essay, Wright speaks about the philosophies that underpinned the ideas and aspirations that Tracker had for his lands and his people. Tracker believed in and dreamed of a  “segregated Aboriginal economy”. He thought that once we were economically secure as a people, we would independently determine the survival for our culture and lands, and be able to work towards our future.

As Wright detailed, Tracker thought the question about the enjoyment of land rights was the most important question we had to deal with for our culture to survive in the future. He believed  the only way we would enjoy land rights was through economic independence, that this was the independence we needed to care for our culture, land, and people. All three are interconnected – culture, land and people – to social, cultural and economic independence. 

So how do we break free of the boxes that others have attempted to keep us in and bring Tracker’s dream of economic independence to fruition? Can we ethically generate wealth that doesn’t reproduce the harm we’re seeking to eliminate? Is that even possible? And in the midst of government and corporate sponsorship underpinning almost every imaginable Indigenous event or project, what obligations do we have to each other?

Perhaps a reasonable starting point is the idea that traditional philanthropy needs to be abolished, not reformed. The belief that rich people are best placed to be determining our destinies, despite their largesse being intimately tied to our historic and ongoing dispossession needs to be dealt a swift death. 

When I was in the nonprofit world and working with AIME, I remember meeting with a handful of families and philanthropists in Chifley Square. The meeting was arranged by a long term donor of ours. All of the attendees, which he framed as being his friends, were of material influence. One of them, who had rode in on his electric scooter, spent the first ten minutes of the meeting spewing eugenicist talking points, as he tried to whip up a debate about the definitions of Aboriginality. One of the many soul destroying lessons I learnt in that moment was to never be afraid to walk away from the table. 

Whilst many philanthropists posture as generous moral citizens driven by a deep sense of compassion and care, the truth is most are transactionally using our communities as a tax concession, a vessel to wash away their sins, a depository for clout and social status or a veneer to push forth their own ambitions. 

In 2019, I vividly remember meeting with a Sydney billionaire. He and a small group of other venture capitalists had just bought a major precinct in inner Sydney. The billionaire, who was an existing donor, messaged to ask if we were looking for a new office space, which was serendipitous, because AIME was in the midst of proactively finding a new home. 

Two days later, I wandered over to the precinct with the Chair of AIME’s board. I was young and thought it was wise to bring an experienced negotiator to lead the dealmaking. As soon as we walked into the room and before we could even sit down, the billionaire said: “Alright, just so were clear on how this works, you’re fucking me so I can fuck everyone else.”

In order for the NSW Government to approve the plans for their mega development, they had to prove they were adding significant value to the local community. Whilst the offer of free office space was generous on face value, we were merely just a means to an end; a mere pawn in a much larger game. 

Whilst this businessman wasn’t known for morality, extreme levels of insidiousness exist on the progressive end of the philanthropic spectrum too. These knowers of nothing and funders of everything force you to dilute your own aspirations to align with their egos and lack of imagination. These funders, many of whom have inherited mummy and daddy’s money, will interrogate your perceived capacity, capability and viability in a manner that suggests they know what they’re talking about and possessively assimilate your ideas into their redundant impact frameworks. If you’re lucky to get a small injection of tied funding to help keep the lights on, they’ll drown you in report writing and want to flaunt you around like a new puppy dog. 

Perhaps philanthropy is aptly summarised through this anonymous quote: “so then we destroyed the environment, exploited the masses, created systems of inequity and hoarded global resources, only to offer meagre sums as performative charity to the very problems we created in extracting our wealth, and they call us philanthropists.”


Current climate finance figures also support this notion. Whilst Indigenous communities manage half of the world’s land and protect more than 80% of the globe’s biodiversity, recent studies show  these communities receive less than 1% of the climate funding earmarked to reduce deforestation and pollution.

Despite there being more than $3.5 trillion in compulsory superannuation savings in Australia at the end of December 2021, $0 has been publicly committed to First Nations enterprise, entrepreneurialism or ecology. The Indigenous Procurement Policy has unleashed a tidal wave of black-cladding, where Black faces are signing up to wash designated finance back into white hands. 

Within the current models of violent economics, we need to honestly own our personal roles in perpetuating domination and reexamine the responsibilities that we have to one another – especially as the ecocide of our living lands and waters continues unabated. 

Seeing Rio Tinto, a company with a maliciously long and reckless history of dominating Indigenous communities, sponsoring the Wiyi Yanu U Thangani National Summit was jarring – especially in the wake of destroying the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Peoples sacred Juukan Gorge. The same with Supply Nation, who wheeled out Santos as their major sponsor for their upcoming Indigenous Business Trade Show. It is also not uncommon. 

It’s confronting to see mob take money from Andrew Forrest and his Minderoo Foundation. The Forrest family has a well documented history of paternalism and have generated their wealth from trampling all over our communities. Andrew Forrest and his Fortescue Metals Group’s Solomon Mine, the companies most successful iron ore mine that has been operating illegally on the Yindjibarndi’s Peoples Country for more than a decade, has been syphoning tens of billions of dollars out of their lands. This illegal project, as adjudicated by the highest court in the land after more than a decade long legal battle, is the subject of what is expected to be one of the largest compensation claims in Australian history. Projects like the illegal Solomon Mine are the spine of Forrest and his foundation’s wealth. 

We need to ask how we can in good conscience finance our initiatives and aspirations with the blood money that was extracted from other Indigenous peoples lands? What are the lines and where are they drawn? Whilst there is compromise in everything, are these compromises the ones that we are willing to make? Yes, the conversation is uncomfortable, particularly as the existing pool of government, corporate and philanthropic funding is dwarfed by the scale of challenges that our communities face, but it is one that we need to have.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do believe that we need to think deeply about the current economic paradigms and hold ourselves and each other to a higher account. By doing so, we can cultivate new economic methodologies and models that are aligned with our ideals instead of perpetuating those that are at odds with them. 

After all, as Tracker believed, by becoming economically independent our people are stronger and more secure to care for their responsibilities to land and culture – the very things that have sustained us since the beginning of time.

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