At this week's United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues  meeting, the tenth such gathering of the world’s indigenous peoples, the UN launched a new initiative, the UN Indigenous Peoples’ Partnership , to promote the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. The goal of the partnership is to strengthen the institutions and ability of indigenous peoples to fully participate in governance and policy processes at local and national levels.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted at the launch that “indigenous people suffered centuries of oppression, and continue to lose their lands, their languages and their resources at an alarming rate.” The UN highlights that indigenous children are less likely than other children to be in school and more likely to drop out of school. Indigenous girls are at even greater risk of being excluded from school. This resonates as well with the recent World Bank Global Monitoring Report , which devoted a chapter to the issue of indigenous and vulnerable peoples and the need to address their needs in order to reach the UN Millennium Development Goals.
During a World Bank-organized side event at the forum, Gillette Hall and I presented new evidence  showing that not only are indigenous peoples poorer, their level of poverty has barely decreased over the last decade and gaps between them and the mainstream population are growing in some countries. We also show that there is a sharp distinction in the record on poverty alleviation in Latin America – where indigenous are poorer, gaps remain, and there's been little progress – and Asia – where indigenous are also poorer but there has been a considerable reduction in the poverty gap. In one important case, China, the ethnic minority groups’ poverty level has increased faster than the majority’s, within a context of rapid poverty reduction overall and stunning growth rates.
At the same time, some good lessons have come out of Latin America as well, particularly if we look at the case of Mexico (see related brief here ). Our previous work in Mexico lamented both the lack of progress in poverty reduction for indigenous groups and poor data. But since then, two events stand out: (1) poverty among indigenous people has decreased, with the resulting poverty gap between them and the mainstream population declining, and (2) in 2008 Mexico included a question on identity in the household survey which allows researchers to identify directly indigenous peoples.
The reasons for the improvement could be many, but leading contenders could be remittances (prior to the financial crisis of course) and Mexico's anti-poverty program, Oportunidades (read more about the ground-breaking conditional cash transfer program , which is featured in a new book on aid effectiveness, More Than Good Intentions). We have information that shows the clear impact of the Oportunidades program for indigenous peoples. Although Oportunidades was poverty-targeted – not indigenous-targeted – it over-represents the indigenous as beneficiaries (since indigenous more likely to be poor) and shows that they benefit more from the program. The schooling benefits created by Oportunidades have a greater impact among indigenous school children and have helped to reduce the gap in early enrollment rates in the first year of the program.
The question of targeting certain populations came up in the discussion period during our seminar. Participants were keen to know how to make programs more effective. Should they target? Who should design the programs? Is the objective to improve socioeconomic conditions and mainstream the indigenous population? The consensus in the room seemed to be that while the goals of public policy might be these same for all groups, the means by which they are achieved may differ. That means giving indigenous peoples a say in development efforts and holding service providers accountable.
Watch as special guests of the World Bank's Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development workshop  held earlier this year sound off on the interlinkage between human rights, education and the future of indigenous peoples.
Photo credit: Curt Carnemark