Obama backs U.N. indigenous rights declaration

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Parents in Mexico meeting at a schoolWe just wrapped up a research dissemination workshop for an upcoming study on Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development. About 50 people attended the event  in person and several more viewed the event via webcast. All the proceedings are available to view on the event site.

The timing of this event couldn’t be better. Just last week U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous groups in such areas as culture, property and self-determination.

The United States was one of a handful of countries to refrain from backing the doctrine in the past, but following a recent review of the government's position, Obama said, "I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this declaration. The aspirations it affirms – including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples -- are ones we must always seek to fulfill" (Reuters).

Our event this week was kicked off with words of welcome and support for this work by Tamar Manuelyan, Vice President of the Human Development Network of the World Bank. She was followed by Cyprian Fisiy, Director of the Bank’s Social Development Department, who implored us to use research to help solve some of the problems indigenous peoples are concerned about. The whole proceedings were ably facilitated by Phil Hay, the Communications Adviser of the Bank’s Human Development Network. 

Throughout the day, Country Studies were presented by researchers (Quentin Wodon, Hai-Anh Dang, Dominique Van De Walle, Emily Hannum, Maitreyi Das). Additionally, special guests presented their new and on-going research and discussed policy implications of the research (Dalee S. Dorough, Assistant Professor, University of Alaska Anchorage and UNPFII Member 2011-13; Ricardo Godoy and Eduardo Undurraga from Brandeis University; Vicente Garcia-Moreno from Columbia University; David Ader from Pennsylvania State University; Daniel Wilson and David Macdonald from Canada; Susan Wong, World Bank; and Anne Deruyttere, Member Compliance Review Panel ADB). A special thanks to our chairs (Emmanuel Jimenez, Elisabeth Huybens, Robin Horn and Eduardo Velez).

Gillette Hall, Visiting Associate Professor at Georgetown University, and co-author of the new book, joined me to present overall findings. She put forward 6 hypotheses for understanding indigenous peoples’ poverty:

1. Spatial Disadvantage
2. Human Capital Theory
3. Asset-based explanations & Poverty Traps
4. Social Exclusion and Discrimination
5. Cultural and Behavioral Characteristics
6. Institutional Path Dependence

While evidence undoubtedly exists everywhere to support one or more of these hypotheses, they can be divided into two components, as suggested by Manny Jimenez: the first three correspond to what countries and international organizations already support: for example, reducing the burden of living in remote communities, building schools closer to indigenous peoples, implementing programs designed to build up assets of the poor, and so on. The last three are less well understood and less amenable to policy action, at least not typical policy action. Nevertheless, programs to address exclusion and discrimination exist, though their effectiveness is not well known. Moreover, even among the things that we do, they are usually done in a supply-side fashion that does not always take into account indigenous peoples’ needs.

Thus, the need to continue researching and experimenting continues.


Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

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