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Indigenous Peoples and poverty: A second chance to get it right

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 Curt Carnemark/World Bank
Guatemalan women in traditional dress. Photo: Curt Carnemark/World Bank

This week, over a thousand indigenous delegates descended in New York City for the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, a high-level plenary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples represent 4 percent of the world’s population yet account for over 10 percent of the world’s poor. In a book I co-authored, Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development we argue that the development community cannot afford to ignore Indigenous Peoples if it aims to achieve the international development goals, both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the soon to be announced Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and post-2015 goals.

Indigenous Peoples are making progress on several fronts – recognition, rights, political participation, education, health and so on – but the level of poverty is not being reduced and, especially in Latin America, the gaps are increasing. It is important to address the poverty gap because we are nearing the end of the Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (2005-2015) and the world has not made much progress since the first decade (1995-2004).
But the news is not all gloomy. Even in Latin America, Chile appears to be doing well. Chile has witnessed sharp declines in poverty, while economic growth has been positive. Chile’s focus on economic growth shows that it is policy that drives development. It also shows that economic growth is a necessary if not sufficient condition for raising incomes of the poor and for Indigenous Peoples.
China is another success story. It is the only country that we studied where the nation’s ethnic minorities (Indigenous Peoples) experience a decline in poverty that was greater than that for non-ethnic minorities. China’s success is driven by good overall economic policy and by targeting disadvantaged regions. This creates the conditions for the ndigenous populations to put their improved human capital to work.
The lessons, therefore, are:

  1. Target Indigenous Peoples – and especially the regions where they are concentrated – properly.
  2. Design better programs to develop human capital among Indigenous Peoples.
  3. Focus on implementation of programs.
  4. Base program design on rigorous evidence and conduct impact evaluations.
  5. Link programs to economic forces.
There is no substitute for good policy at the national level. This is also a lesson for the international community. We will not be able to make progress on global poverty reduction without considering the needs of the world’s Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities. We need to work  with Indigenous Peoples to create opportunities that will result in real economic development.
While the focus on this year’s World Conference has been on rights, the well-being of Indigenous Peoples was also discussed. One of the results in the outcome document (.pdf) of the conference is to “…commit ourselves to working with Indigenous Peoples to disaggregate data, as appropriate, or conduct surveys and to utilizing holistic indicators of Indigenous Peoples’ well-being to address the situation and needs of Indigenous Peoples.”

The international development community should be ready to support the economic development of Indigenous Peoples and help reduce poverty and improve the well-being of these communities.
Click here for more information on the book  Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development. Also follow Harry Patrinos on the  Education for  Global Development Blog and @hpatrinos


Harry A. Patrinos

Senior Adviser, Education

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