Published: June 22, 2021

This evidence brief provides a description and narrative summary of literature into decentralisation approaches overseas.


Decentralisation refers to moving decision-making away from centralised control and closer to those who are most affected as a means to improve responsiveness and performance.

This evidence brief references Australia, Canada, and the United States, given their somewhat similar colonial and Indigenous heritage to Aotearoa New Zealand, and notes where possible child welfare examples.

The evidence brief does not address in any depth the profound impacts of historical trauma in these countries, nor indeed, in the Aotearoa New Zealand context. Some of the commonalities and trajectories indigenous people in these countries have experienced are described. There has been an on-going struggle for greater self-determination and self-government in these countries, particularly in relation to child welfare. These struggles have progressed in different ways and with different results.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) emphasises autonomy (or self-government) in connection with self-determination. Autonomy involves the transfer of certain powers from a central government to that of the autonomous entity (thereby creating ‘self-government’). It is viewed as a promising model for group protection and empowerment given it opens up a space for self-government within a nation-state.

Key findings

Overseas examples show self-determination through mechanisms and structures of decentralisation are necessary, but not sufficient conditions for improving Indigenous child welfare:

  • In the U.S. with the passing of the ICWA in 1978, most American Indian and Alaskan Natives tribes now operate some form of child welfare services. Despite this support more broadly has been lacking.
  • In Australia, the child welfare legislative context has changed considerably over the past two decades. All Australian states have been through one or more child welfare reviews in this time. Progress towards greater Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination has arguably fallen short. There has generally been less acceptance of the idea of self-determination and self-government in Australia.
  • In Canada, Aboriginal rights and treaty rights are recognised by the Constitution Act, 1982. Canadian provinces largely look after child welfare. Indigenous child welfare remains somewhat patchwork given different provincial legislative environments and histories. Some of the more progressive approaches to child welfare by Indigenous people have nonetheless occurred in Canada.

Successful decentralisation involves a “whole-of-community” approach and empowers Indigenous communities. Fundamentally decentralisation must support readiness and development.

Participation and self-determination in designing the most appropriate government structures and governance mechanisms are critical. Evidence demonstrates policies that support the development of these mechanisms and structures, such that they are capable and effective institutions, and articulate indigenous people’s values and aspirations, are more likely to succeed.