Jenna’s Indigenous agenda in international development

A woman looking at the camera
Jenna Hawes is project manager of international development at Ninti One, a First Nations delivery partner for Australia’s Partnerships for Infrastructure initiative

When Jenna Hawes started working on Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I) through Ninti One around 18 months ago, she never imagined the scope of work she would be undertaking to connect First Nations Australians to inclusive infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

Jenna is Wiradjuri woman and grew up in Muloobinba (Newcastle) in New South Wales, on the lands of the Awabakal people. At university, she studied development studies and was selected to travel to India and South Korea under the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) New Colombo Plan Mobility Program.

Her study and travels sparked a passion for Indigenous participation in international development, giving her a first-hand opportunity to learn about and experience various dimensions of this sector, including economic and community-based development and how they relate to Indigenous empowerment.

After a short stint working in state government, Jenna took up a role with Ninti One in early 2022 as project manager for international development. Now living in Dharug country in Western Sydney, Jenna works remotely from home to support Ninti One’s growing international portfolio and frequently visits Ninti’s head office in Adelaide.

“The majority of Ninti’s work is within Australia, with a small international development team working on projects overseas,” Jenna explained.

“We work primarily with DFAT and managing contractors to increase First Nations’ participation within various Australian government aid programs, primarily in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Southeast Asia.”

Jenna noted that Ninti One draws on a long history of working with First Nations, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, communities across Australia and has developed the ability to translate learning from this experience to a range of development contexts.

Ninti One is a key partner within the P4I consortium, which is made up of five organisations led by DFAT in collaboration with EY, The Asia Foundation, and Adam Smith International. Each organisation brings unique expertise and experience to deliver P4I’s mandate – to drive sustainable, inclusive, and resilient growth through quality infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

Since the beginning of P4I, Ninti One has provided guidance and assistance to this diverse team in ways to use P4I to advance the Australian Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy and DFAT’s Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda. They led the recruitment of an Indigenous Australian as Inclusion Advisor and have supported research studies into Indigenous inclusion on infrastructure projects in Australia and the region.

Jenna says she has “been involved in P4I since I started at Ninti early last year and supported a number of different Indigenous-focused projects.” These include studies into Indigenous participation on infrastructure projects in Australia, research into Indigenous intersections between infrastructure and disaster risk reduction and climate change, and the training of P4I staff on Indigenous inclusion.

In November 2022, Jenna travelled to Bangkok to meet the P4I team and progress thinking on Indigenous activities in Southeast Asia.

“It was great to see the progress P4I is making in understanding and researching this important space, for both First Nations Australians and Indigenous and ethnic minorities in the region,” she said.

“Indigenous peoples have deep and connected relationships with the land that often encompass cultural and spiritual connections that can span generations. Connection to land is rooted in history, identity and traditional knowledge.”

Jenna pointed out numerous examples where infrastructure projects have negatively impacted Indigenous livelihoods and connection to land, including displacement, environmental degradation and cultural disruption.

“Being inclusive to Indigenous peoples means that potential negative impacts can be mitigated. Infrastructure that is inclusive and respects Indigenous peoples’ connection to the land is important,” she added.

When asked what Southeast Asia can learn from Australia’s approach to Indigenous inclusion on infrastructure projects, Jenna makes it clear there are both good and bad examples to draw upon.

“Although there is always room for improvement, Australia has been working in this area for a long time and there are various lessons that can be shared with Southeast Asia,” Jenna stated.

One of the key documents in Australia is the National Indigenous Infrastructure Guide, which provides a framework for understanding major infrastructure provision issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“Having frameworks that aim to protect Indigenous lands, ecosystems, cultures and livelihoods could be translated into a Southeast Asian context to create dialogue and structure to protect Indigenous and ethnic minority groups, and ensure they can continue their culture and way of life.”

Beyond infrastructure, DFAT is taking steps to enhance Australia's Indigenous engagement in the region and further embed First Nations perspectives, experiences, and interests into the Australian aid program. In March 2023, the Australian Foreign Minister appointed the first Ambassador for First Nations, Mr Justin Mohamed, to lead a new Office of First Nations Engagement within DFAT and develop a First Nations Foreign Policy.

In a space that Ninti One has been working in since 2015, Jenna said the team is excited about the appointment, seeing it as a positive step in the right direction to have a First Nations person representing First Nations people internationally.

“We haven't had this level of representation ever on an international scale. This will elevate the importance of First Nations people globally, which will have a flow on effect for international development, not just foreign policy and diplomacy.”

Jenna is keen to see how this increased interest in embedding First Nations perspectives into Australia's foreign policy will evolve, and how connections between First Nations people and communities across the region can be strengthened.

For P4I, she recommends embracing the renewed policy landscape and creating further opportunities for Indigenous participation and knowledge exchange on infrastructure.

“This is a real opportunity for P4I to pave the way for how this new policy can be put into practice within Australian development programs, and to share Indigenous knowledge and perspectives on inclusive infrastructure.”

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