During September, towns in Queensland and NSW participated in an international cultural tourism event called Sound Walk September.
As drought and various troubles beset rural communities, a number of small events have worked to bring people together and to offer a positive face to the outside world.
As one of the Australian organisers of SWS, I have seen how relatively micro focal points like this can impact positively on bush communities, to the extent that we might better emphasise such an approach nationally.
The value of an event like SWS is that it is targetted at reflecting the cultural character of a given location.
Events were held in nine countries and each displayed their own defining sense of place.
SWS is an audio-based program, and so each event is built around a 'soundwalk'; a means of walking a given location whilst hearing its stories via headphones on a smartphone app, geo-located through GPS.
The unique combination of physical, 3D space and synchronised audio storytelling is compelling, giving each location its own distinct 'voice'.
But, the value of something like SWS reaches far beyond its actual format. I was able to observe how such events can galvanise and deepen a town's sense of itself.
Based on this experience, I would argue that one solution to the current troubles in the bush is to create simple, resource-lite ways for communities to celebrate their stories and collective memories.
Unfortunately, it's an approach that's often under-utilised.
But it works.
Take Walgett for instance. We worked with local groups, including indigenous elders, to present a soundtrail on the anti-racism Freedom Rides there.
Their SWS event was really well attended and generated a real buzz in the town. Locals and visitors alike went away from it lifted and energised.
For all, it was a free, communal experience with great add-on value.
Look also at Inverell, another community with whom we have worked.
I heard the Mayor Paul Harmon talking about drought relief on ABC Radio National recently.
He emphasised the value of small projects in providing a local focal point and an opportunity to share and exchange experiences and to momentarily 'escape' the daily stresses and strains of the big dry.
Such small schemes give people the chance to "forget about the worries on the farm", argues Paul.
BIG TICKET ITEMS
There's been a lot of discussion about the Federal Government's $7 billion drought package over the last months.
There's also been some raised eyebrows and rolled eyes as politicians hit the dusty drought roads about the country for the inevitable photo opps and media grabs against red earth backdrops.
As we now know, much of that $7 billion has not yet been spent.
Some has been doled out to areas which are not actually drought affected.
Then, there was Barnaby Joyce's seemingly ill-fated and costly Drought Taskforce.
It seems that much that is planned is in the form of large infrastructure projects, with only a relatively small amount going to what we might call social programs.
While such big ticket, "big thing" items have a central role, assuming they are well structured, my concern is that the smaller grassroots projects can get rumbled in the rush to the next giant event or headline project.
Disasters like drought have a deep communal impact and we can't ignore this area.
The economic impact is real and needs attention. But, there are also social concerns.
While infrastructure is hugely important, it's also often time consuming and runs over budget. Further, it can generate a feeding frenzy among suppliers.
Some $130 million of the Coalition's drought funding has been ear-marked as council grants for community programs.
It's a relatively small amount, spread across numerous regions.
But it's something.
I hope with all this money, we don't lose our focal on the local.
Community projects shouldn't suffer because their success can be hard to prove in quantitative terms or because they dont fit on a spreadsheet.
Of course, we shouldn't ignore governance and accountability in even small outlays.
My intention is to ensure that governments and other donors better understand the role that small, community programs can play in decreasing both personal and social effects of drought and other natural disasters.
In communities where I have worked to bring our small-scale cultural tourism projects, like Walgett and Inverell, or Warwick, Nambour and Nanango in Queensland or Tenterfield, Uralla, Nimbin and Moree in NSW, each with their own challenges, the power of community-scale developments has been, and is, demonstrable.
An event like SWS was a great success. It was easy, cheap and simple. It mobilised and activated communities that are suffering.
In tough times, let's not forget the answers are not always huge and expensive.
- Hamish Sewell is founder of Soundtrails and coordinated events for Sound Walk September 2019 in Australia