Policies and lessons for reaching indigenous peoples in development programs

Despite great efforts to reduce rural poverty at the national and global levels, many of the poorest groups remain difficult to reach through mainstream development programs. In particular, there is ample evidence that indigenous and tribal peoples and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented among the rural poor worldwide.1 Several recent studies show that the poverty gap between these peoples and other rural populations is increasing in some parts of the world. In addition, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities generally score lower on the Human Development Index than majority groups in their countries, and this is particularly true of women.

Better reaching out to these marginalized groups in poverty reduction efforts is an important policy challenge. Meeting this challenge requires, first, taking into account the heterogeneity of poverty and, second, building on the strengths and values of these peoples, including their capacity to act as stewards of biodiversity.

Taking into account the heterogeneity of poverty involves recognizing that poor people face different forms of disempowerment and marginalization. For ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, these forms may be different from those of the majority in their respective societies. Their livelihood systems are often especially vulnerable to environmental degradation and climate change, especially as many inhabit economically and politically marginal areas in fragile ecosystems in the countries likely to be worst affected by climate change. They are often disempowered by lack of recognition of their cultural and socio-political systems, which undermines their social capital and their ability to shape their future. Their land, territories, and natural resources, with which they have ancestral bonds, and which are the basis of their livelihoods, are frequently threatened by encroachment, dispossession, and a lack of respect and protection of their rights.

In many cases, their governance institutions, notably concerning natural resource management, have been weakened by socioeconomic changes and by official policies. Finally, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are often at a disadvantage in capturing market opportunities. These factors of poverty impact on both men and women, but women are often most vulnerable to poverty, disempowerment, and exploitation.

Building on the strength and values of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples is about enlarging their opportunities to pursue developmental goals that they themselves value, both collectively and as individuals, and to continue to play their roles as stewards of biodiversity and holders of unique cultural heritages. Listening to these peoples, both women and men, and involving them in decisionmaking about their future, are key elements of an effective response. However, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are not explicitly targeted by the Millennium Development Goals, they are often marginal players in decisionmaking processes about poverty reduction and development, and rarely have a strong voice in Governments’ overall poverty strategies. This is only slowly changing.

Several international and national policy institutions now exist that focus on indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. Within the UN, these include the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and an Inter Agency Support Group for Indigenous Issues.

In September 2007, the General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirms among other things the collective and individual rights of Indigenous Peoples over their territories; their institutional, social, economic, and cultural autonomy; and their unique paths to development. Several donor agencies also have policies and strategies to guide their work with these groups. These are important resources to use when formulating policies and programs to expand their capabilities. However, much effort is still needed to better understand the complexity of the forms of poverty, subordination, and disempowerment faced by these groups as well as to work with them to further their own objectives, values, and capabilities.

Bage, Lennart
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
Special Edition
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