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Native Delegates Challenge Development Orthodoxy

Marguerite A. Suozzi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - While aboriginal peoples represent approximately five percent of the world’s population, they are 10 percent of the world’s poor, according to a new World Bank report on “Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Development”.

The study focused on seven countries in depth, and took a more cursory look at 30 others where data was less complete. It examines some of the root causes of the disproportionate number of indigenous peoples living in poverty, citing geographic disadvantages, insufficient investment in human capital, access to resources, and discrimination.

It also found that countries in Asia, notably China, India and Vietnam, have seen rates of poverty reduction that are “more rapid, much quicker and much more profound” as compared with the Latin American region.

“The level of poverty that has been reduced in Asia is significant,” said Harry Patrinos, a co-author of the study and lead education economist at the World Bank. He attributes these positive results to broad-based economic growth programmes in each country which aim to reduce poverty nationally.

China “started with a much higher level of poverty than any country in Latin America, yet the indigenous populations’, the minority populations’ poverty reduced by more than 17 percent between 1990 and 2002,” said Patrinos. “But we also have a more rapid change in India, as compared to Latin America, where there is a lack of progress,” he said.

The report cited the lack of development indicators for indigenous peoples as “a major hindrance to both their empowerment and poverty reduction,” and seeks to narrow these gaps “by estimating several key development indicators related to progress under the Millennium Development Goals for indigenous peoples around the world.”

But the definition of “development” by the development community, and the definition of “development” held by different native peoples may be one challenge in moving forward.

“Widespread, sustainable, economic growth is required to target poverty reduction,” Patrinos told reporters on Monday, as are programmes designed to be specifically relevant to indigenous communities’ needs.

But according Jean Georges Bidart of the Basque Traits d’Union Garabide Elkartea, the issue of survival is more pressing than economic growth.

“What is the use of having economic development if we don’t help people survive?” he said at a side event on the impact of the economic crisis on indigenous people.

Kenneth Deer, a Mohawk journalist and a representative of the U.S. and Canada Mohawk nation, explained to IPS some of the differences in the Mohawk conception of development.

“Development means to us protection of Mother Earth, protection of the environment, protection of our own viability,” he told IPS.

Too often, Deer told IPS, “development” by international institutions seems like another wave of colonialism.

“The implication is that development is going to take place, so you have to adjust development to culture as much as you can, and if you can’t, the development is going to take place anyway. Its like development is inevitable,” Deer told IPS.

“So we have to change that paradigm, the other way around. It should be culture and identity with development and that way the priorities are the culture and their own identity, and then what development can take place within that culture,” he said.

“We’re not against development. But this type of development has to be on our terms,” Deer said. “We have to encourage indigenous motivated development.”

However, Deer sees obstacles to development in these terms, particularly in the United States, where he views institutionalised racism as an overwhelming obstacle.

“The United States has one of the most racist policies,” he told IPS.

He noted that the immigration policies of the U.S. and Canada allow indigenous peoples of the territory to move freely across the international border. “However, in order for a native from Canada to come to the United States, you have to have a letter proving that you are 50 percent Indian by blood quantum. And blood quantum is probably about the most racist piece of legislation that’s on the books in America right now,” he said.

“I’m a Mohawk,” said Deer. “I don’t believe I’m a Mohawk by race, I’m a Mohawk by nationality. But Americans and Canadians look at us as a race, and they think our rights are race-based rights,” he said. “We don’t have rights because of our race. We have rights because we are a people,” he said.

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