When it comes to improving the health and wellbeing of rural, regional and remote people, there is no magic wand – and certainly no simple solution. It’s a complex issue and, therefore, the solution must be multifaceted. But if I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: rural, regional and remote Australia needs better investment in the resilience and sustainability of systems, organisations and networks.
Most would agree that there has been significant underinvestment in rural, regional and remote communities for years. It’s just showing up more clearly and critically with the increasing frequency of natural disasters, and national and global issues like COVID-19, playing out at the hyper-local level.
People who live in these communities know it, as do organisations like ours that work with them closely. Since the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR) was founded in 2000, we have become a trusted partner, connecting common purposes and funding from government, business and philanthropy, with the genuine local needs of rural people and places.
Those needs and priorities will differ, change and evolve – which is why there needs to be resilient, sustainable systems, organisations and networks. But what we found in our Heartbeat of Rural Australia Research Study last year is that, after a series of back-to-back disasters, many local community groups and local leaders are united in feeling ‘uncertain’, ‘frustrated’ and ‘tired/fatigued’. Fewer people have the capacity to volunteer, meaning that those keeping vital services going and generating or sustaining economic activity are carrying a greater, heavier load. Their organisations are fragile, particularly those that rely on local fundraising, which felt the impact of lockdowns and travel restrictions deeply. It meant none of them could do their critical work and quite a few groups went under.
This is really concerning for the long-term health and wellbeing of these communities. In the Heartbeat study, nearly 90 per cent of respondents said their organisation plays some kind of economic role in their community. Many are responsible for more than one aspect of life in their community and almost all play a critical cultural or social role.
These anchor organisations are critical and their contributions are vital to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of rural Australia. Yet they also told us that they don’t feel heard or seen – often not being consulted about the issues that they live and breathe every day.
Despite this, local communities are taking the lead. Groups like Harrow Bush Nursing Centre in Victoria, where the closest general practitioner is up to 90 kilometres away. With an FRRR grant funded by Beyond Medical Education, the centre is increasing its capacity and will improve patient care by training the local nursing staff as rural and isolated practice registered nurses (RIPRN). They are also upgrading the community's primary care vehicle, so that emergency equipment can be safely transported. It's an ambitious project that will provide safe primary and emergency services that align with community needs.
So too in Glen Innes, New South Wales, which is still recovering from the Black Summer bushfires that came on top of years of drought. Understandably, mental health is one of the key priorities for the town. Arts North West is leading a project looking at how to support best-practice project delivery in mental health and creative disaster recovery. With an FRRR grant funded by the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Arts North West staff and the Glen Innes arts community got together to boost capacity and raise awareness of these best practices through targeted training. It’s a creative way of tackling recovery and looking out for one another’s wellbeing.
And there are hundreds more groups doing similar work – implementing initiatives tailored to their situation, to address their local priorities. But they need support to execute their ideas. Building advocacy skills and know-how is increasingly critical. Philanthropy is stepping in to fill gaps, support pilots, test new models, take risks and demonstrate their efficacy to governments. But it is not the long-term answer. Grassroots rural, regional and remote organisations are calling for funding that is more focused on their capacity; less project-specific funding but instead support that appreciates the local context, as well as access to networks, skills and in-kind support.
It needs more than money – it’s about structural change and systemic investment in systems, organisations and networks.
And so that’s what we’ll be working on. We’ll keep having those tough conversations and advocating for philanthropy, corporate and government sectors to work together to ensure funding gets to where it's needed most – so that Australia's rural, regional and remote population can receive the health care they need and deserve, without leaving their communities and support networks.