Championing Indigenous inclusion in Southeast Asia’s infrastructure

P4I's Inclusion Advisor, Braiden Abala, in Bangkok, Thailand
Braiden Abala has joined Australia’s Partnerships for Infrastructure initiative in Bangkok as the Inclusion Adviser to promote Indigenous involvement in infrastructure development in Southeast Asia

Australia’s Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I) initiative recently welcomed Braiden Abala to the team as the new Inclusion Adviser. Based in Bangkok, he will play a key role in setting the strategic direction for the inclusion of Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in P4I’s activities across Southeast Asia.

Braiden was recruited through one of P4I’s four delivery partners Ninti One, as part of a comprehensive effort by the Australian Government to increase the participation of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a range of sectors, including international development and diplomacy.

Funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), P4I is committed to supporting DFAT’s Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda. The agenda seeks to promote reconciliation in Australia, highlight the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world, and support the development and deployment of more First Nations Australians as diplomats.

“Working with P4I is a monumental opportunity to bring my experience embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues within government services in Australia, and to assist Indigenous peoples across Southeast Asia,” says Braiden.

Braiden is an Iwaidja, Mudiamo and Torres Strait Islander man who was born and raised on Larakia Country in Darwin. Iwaidja people from West Arnhem Land, Mudiamo from Daly River, and the Torres Strait Islands, all have ties to “saltwater” or coastline areas. Iwaidja and Torres Strait Islanders, in particular, have well-documented trade connections with Southeast Asia.

He says these ancient connections, which span more than 40,000 years between Australia’s northern Indigenous peoples and Southeast Asia, show strong links with countries that are now known as Malaysia, Singapore, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Despite the strong history, Braiden laments that the incredible diversity of Southeast Asia’s Indigenous peoples is not widely appreciated outside the region.

“The vast majority of the world’s Indigenous people—around 70%—live in Asia,’’ says Braiden. “The countries of Southeast Asia are home to some 260 million Indigenous people, representing 2,000 distinct civilisations and languages – it’s an amazingly rich cultural heritage.’’

However, this diversity is also a challenge when advancing DFAT’s Indigenous vision in the region, which seeks to ensure “the rights and traditions of Indigenous people are respected, where open markets facilitate the free flow of trade, capital and ideas for Indigenous businesses, and where Indigenous peoples are participants and beneficiaries of the international system.”

“For example, in Vietnam alone, there are over 50 ethnic minorities, not all of whom are officially recognised, with a huge range of languages, religions and cultures between them,’’ says Braiden. “So the challenge becomes how can we work with governments across Southeast Asia to better involve these diverse stakeholders in the development of quality infrastructure?”

Despite numerous frameworks and guidelines on Indigenous inclusion, and a commitment to inclusive development by Southeast Asian governments, gaps remain in converting theory into practice. P4I is focused on advancing the region’s infrastructure development ecosystem to be more targeted, informed and purposeful in addressing inequality.

“A potential starting point is building a knowledge bank of good practice on how Southeast Asian countries can better identify and engage the diverse range of stakeholders on infrastructure projects, from the planning stage all the way to implementation,” Braiden explains.

“One of the ways Indigenous inclusion can be part of infrastructure planning is to map diversity in an area and foster inclusive practices. This can include informed consent and joining with key local actors to ensure the voice and leadership of Indigenous and ethnic minority stakeholders is part of infrastructure development.”

Fostering positive engagement across barriers of language and culture with Indigenous and ethnic minority groups, often historically marginalised and subject to discrimination, is complex. Infrastructure or other forms of development can provide opportunities for minorities to close the gap on social and economic disadvantage by properly addressing their needs during planning and design.

“When governments are looking at how to get local ethnic minority groups and Indigenous peoples involved in infrastructure, it’s essential that they are included in activities on their terms,’’ says Braiden. “It’s about supporting the systems, policies and practices that will foster their involvement.’’

Braiden’s sensitivity to the ways in which biases and framing shape perceptions and decisions is the result of his studies in behavioural science, and of lessons he learned during his 20 years in health roles across Australia and in Cambodia.

As well as facilitating ways for P4I to share knowledge and build capacity in Southeast Asia about Indigenous inclusion, it is also a priority for Braiden to provide internal advice on how P4I can contribute to the Australian Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP). The policy aims to grow the Indigenous economy and drive demand for Indigenous goods and services. Although the target is 3% of all procurement awarded annually to Indigenous businesses, P4I is aiming to go much higher. For P4I, it is also an opportunity to share Australia’s Indigenous cultural identity, traditions, knowledge and trade with a global community.

“Finding ways for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses to participate in P4I’s activities, and in the global economy more generally, is one of my goals,’’ he says. “The IPP is a great initiative that’s working really well in Australia, and I hope we can leverage the intention and realisation of the policy in the work that we do in P4I across Southeast Asia too.’’

On a more personal note, Braiden says he’s really enjoying life in Bangkok, where the weather is similar to that of his hometown Darwin and the cuisine is right up his street.

“I love the spicy food of Thailand,’’ he says. “The Thai language is difficult to learn, but the first phrase I mastered was “please make it hotter”!


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