Laid bare: what Desert Knowledge is doing, and what it is not


ABOVE: 11 of the 13 participants in the 2013 DKA leadership course, as published in the organsation’s

newsletter and Christmas message. Names were not given. One thing we know this group did was a

worthwhile public art exhibition on the changing face of Alice Springs, which we recently reviewed.

We’re embarking on yet another year as one of Central Australia’s most closely guarded secrets remains, well, closely guarded and secret: What is Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) actually DOING?
We’ve made several attempts over the years to unravel that mystery, most recently in October last year. We asked  CEO John Huigen whether he thought it would be a suitable task for DKA to set up joint ventures between Territory owners of land,  hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of it, and partners with money, expertise and machinery, to take broad acre farming to a much biggest scale. Would this not put an end to the absurdity that thousands of these major asset owners are currently on welfare?
Mr Huigen appeared to be saying “no”. He did so in 184 words of jargon which he further denied me permission to publish.
He later said he would, as time permits, give information about DKA’s activities to the Alice Springs News Online. He hasn’t done so yet.
Then we got lucky. A leak – or how it’s usually expressed “according to a document obtained by the News” and so on.
In fact it was Mr Huigen’s Christmas card. It contains a month by month account of what DKA did in 2013.
What a treasure trove indeed for an investigative journalist: “The past 12 months has seen considerable success and practical benefits from Desert Knowledge Australia’s efforts to create opportunities that improve the lives and livelihoods of desert Australians.
“We do this three ways – we connect people and organisations together building partnerships [except, it seems, when it comes to developing primary production and getting thousands of people off the dole], we develop new approaches that change how things are done and we grow the capacity of desert organisations.
“For the past 12 months Desert Knowledge Australia has worked hard to build on its existing programs and core services so that we can expand their impact and more people can benefit. We have been in a consolidation and growth phase.”
Here’s how it went – bearing in mind that there are clearly the highlights:
DKA board member, Dr Bruce Walker, was awarded an Order of Australia, and the search began for the “next generation of leaders” to take part in the 2013 Desert leadership Programs [we will hear more about this].
DKA and the NT Council of Social Services “held a two hour Collective Impact Briefing Session. Collective impact is a highly structured approach to tackle complex problems across all sectors and organisations”. What the problems are and how they are being tackled is not described, not even in one example. And see (footnote below) what happened when DKA asked the Town Council for funding.
And: “One Outback business from Western Australian and two from Alice Springs shared their experiences of working with social media to benefit their businesses at a special Outback Business Networks (OBN) Cross Border Meeting.”
A workday followed on from the briefing session held in February 2013 [see above] discussing “their work group’s shared broad vision, scope and key stakeholders … essential research needed to inform their group’s actions … how to build a guiding coalition … and the first steps in gaining funding”. And how in fact is all this done? That remains under wraps.
The “Mining Services and Sustainable Building Industries Forum … looked at ways to improve and enhance the capacity and participation of Indigenous business suppliers”. Mr Huigen doesn’t say what the outcome was.
In this month “Members of Outback Business Networks and other interested people were able to meet with Mike Crowe, Director of Desert Knowledge Australia Outback Business Networks.” And? What did they or would they have talked about? Is the simple fact of a meeting enough of a description of activity?
The second event in that month was a briefing on the National Broadband Network (NBN). And?
NBN again – a virtual meeting (mostly online) attended by 42 people. And, and?
“Tourism businesses operating in the Northern Territory, South Australia and nearby locations were able to link in with a collaborative project or business cluster aimed at establishing a Historic Mining and Fossicking Itinerary.” Did it get established?
DKA open day.
“What advice would Alice Springs leaders give to the people of Afghanistan working to build up their community despite a history of factions? This was the question posed at a leadership forum hosted by Desert Knowledge Australia.” It’s the answers we would all be interested in. As it stands, we have to wonder what the people of Alice Springs would have to offer on that subject.
And: “Unlocking regional potential … Su McCluskey of the Regional Australia Institute … brought to the discussion extensive expertise in rural policy development, best practice regulation and governance. The purpose of the roundtable discussion was to give attendees the opportunity to hear about perspectives and identify pathways to future success to regional and economic development.” The Alice Springs News Online interviewed Ms McCluskey at the time.
Outback Small to Medium Enterprise (SME) forum discussed “what ‘Outback’ actually meant … how words ‘regional’, ‘remote’, ‘outback’ and ‘bush’ are often used synonymously and it was decided that all words indicate that OBN provides its services to the ‘back yards’ of Australia’s States and Territories.” Is this a good or bad thing? What can Outback SMEs do about it?
“2013 Alice Springs Desert Leadership Program joined the alumni of 2011, to build a strong team, equipped to understand, think and lead differently in Alice Springs.” 13 intending leaders participated.
An invitation to report on this event came with a handy guide from DKA for journalists: “We will arrange for two to three participants [us journos were clearly not allowed to pick them] to be interviewed in an agreed approach”.
Just in case us scribblers were too stupid to come up with our own questions, DKA provided “example topics for conversation”: “Why did you apply? What have you gotten out of it? Learnings …  Benefits … Growth. Interesting moments / memorable moments. Group Project Work. How can people apply to be a participant for 2014 program?”
It will come as no surprise to you that we gave this “media opportunity” a big miss.
“The Inland Treasure Trail group are planning to launch a Facebook page to begin promotions. This meeting was able to establish how the group will be managed.”
All this is leaving us breathless. If that was 2013, what a scoop will be 2014! We’ll put our best people on the case.
This is an extract from KIERAN FINNANE’s regular reports of Town Council meetings, this one published on July 30, 2013 :
How not to ask
Council regularly dispenses cheques for small amounts to support community activities. Last night councillors agreed to support local athlete Emma Kraft’s participation in the world mountain running championship in Poland to the tune of $1000; the Wearable Arts Awards, with one performance only this year, will get $2500. They also gave the tick to council’s in-kind silver sponsorship of the Mbantua Festival, worth at least $50,000. But a request for $15,000 by Desert Knowledge Australia to support “Intercultural Collective Impact projects across the Tri-State region” was knocked back without discussion.
It seemed that no councillor demurred from the executive’s conclusion that the objectives of the program were unclear and that in any case it represented “cost shifting”, as early childhood development – this much had been gleaned from the submission – is “clearly not a responsibility of council”.
It would not be hard to imagine the opposite being argued, even passionately by some councillors, but the attached two page submission – one page of jargonised argument, one of definitions and lists of attributes and functions –  gave them nothing to work with. It was a classic of its kind, full of strategic focus, vision, agencies, mentors, outcomes, approaches (complete with academic references) and exhortations to work together. But doing what, exactly? Who knows?


  1. DKA had an Open Day in August and what our “investigative journalist” was doing on that day? Did not he attend to find answers to his questions? May be he was busy doing his laundry 🙂


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