4 ways to involve indigenous communities in development projects

The Dumalneg tribe, the indigenous people of Ilocos Norte in the Philippines. Indigenous people are among the most disadvantaged, representing 15 percent of the world’s poor. Photo by: Ilocos Norte / CC BY-NC-ND

Indigenous people may represent just 5 percent of the world’s population, but some 80 percent of Earth’s biodiversity is to be found on the territories in which they reside.

Many environmental experts acknowledge that their profound, often innate knowledge of their surroundings and ecosystems is often underutilized for the global good. Harnessing indigenous expertise, they argue, could play a crucial role in securing a sustainable future for our planet — a timely reminder as a set of sustainable development goals are finalized later this year.

But indigenous people are also among the most disadvantaged, representing 15 percent of the world’s poor. They struggle to defend their land rights because they do not have the necessary resources to preserve their cultural heritage and identity.

“[They] are still frequently excluded from mainstream development efforts and face severe obstacles when attempting to follow their own development paths,” Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the rights of the indigenous people noted in her first report to the U.N. General Assembly in August.

“History is full of examples of development interventions that have either failed or undermined the institutions, resources and cultures of indigenous people,” she said in the report.

What didn’t work? What needs to change? And what can development organizations do to make their actions more effective?

Call for a cultural shift

In her report, Tauli-Corpuz called for a “diversification of development paradigms and strategies [and] the construction of new models for partnerships with indigenous peoples.”

According to the special rapporteur, who spoke with Devex on the sidelines of the second global meeting of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum at the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s headquarters in Rome, the current development model is still too top-down. Further, it is too heavily based on fomenting concepts such as growth and an increase in gross domestic product, which neglect — and often undermine — the needs of people living their lives within the context of a nonmarket economy.

Tauli-Corpuz also still sees a risk of “assimilation” in externally designed programs, while at the same time, stereotypes and discrimination continue to blight indigenous people’s own development strategies. One example, she said, concerned the development of education or health systems that include traditional knowledge.

The challenges forwarded by the special rapporteur are not only relevant for policymakers, but also for development organizations that could consider adjustments in their ways of working when engaging with indigenous peoples.

“[First], they have to be more participatory ... they have to be rights-based, they really have to look at [development] from the perspective of the rights holders,” she told Devex. “It’s a cultural question [for] development professionals.”

Tauli-Corpuz asserted that this would require a change in mindset and an acknowledgement that there are alternative ways to do development, advocating for capacity building among development professionals, U.N. staff and the private sector to better understand the needs of indigenous people.

So how can donor agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector and other global development actors put this cultural shift into practice?

The lessons learned by IFAD’s 30-year experience of working with indigenous people can help identify and inform some key elements to design effective strategies. Here are four measures gleaned from our conversations.

1. Recognize diversity.

“IFAD’s experience has shown that every time we have done projects with indigenous peoples, applying a ‘mainstream’ approach — a kind of recipe that works for everybody — our projects haven’t been successful,” Antonella Cordone, senior technical specialist on indigenous peoples and tribal issues at IFAD, told Devex. “They have shown that the recognition of diversity is the fundamental thing.”

According to Cordone, when planning interventions, development actors must take into account the specific way in which indigenous people manage land and territories — as a collective, where men and women are just constituent parts of their ecosystem and equal to other “stakeholders,” including the forests, rivers or animals.

During the project implementation phase, this implies not only securing “free, prior and informed consent,” but also not going into communities with a “ready-to-use” project.

“It is necessary to understand the basic needs of both the peoples and the governments,” the technical specialist said.

2. Take a holistic approach.

A mind shift is necessary when dealing with indigenous peoples, according to Cordone, because they often have a holistic approach to development — and life in general.

“You cannot work on agriculture or irrigation without taking care of everything else around, [including the] political, social and economic structures that those resources sustain [or] the implications for the environment,” she said.

The technical specialist shared that one “big difficulty” in her job is when she is asked about particular sectors to engage indigenous people with. But in every project proposal she sees from the indigenous communities, all sectors are always represented.

Therefore for IFAD, designing a “project” in such settings usually means mobilizing a team where different kinds of expertise — from education to agriculture to health — are present.

3. Take a bottom-up approach to project design.  

Participation is the watchword, according to Tauli-Corpuz.

“The way economic development is really planned is nonparticipatory, [rather] developed by the technocrats or the sources of the money,” she said, noting that governments and private entities still fail to ask input from the communities.

And is the same true for international organizations and NGOs?

“It’s the same,” the special rapporteur said. “[Participation] doesn’t apply to governments alone. It has to apply to the private sector, it has to apply to NGOs and to all other actors in the game.”

Ensuring community buy-in is therefore essential.

“Every development project that does not have the full internalization of the communities we work with will fail,” Cordone said.

In order to ensure the effective and long-term involvement of indigenous peoples, IFAD developed a methodology for calls for proposals, where communities themselves design development projects that compete for funding. About 30 projects approved in each global call — or concurso — received a maximum of $50,000 each. The selection process is presided over by a jury of indigenous peoples and, according to Cordone, it is sustainable — and it works.

“Indigenous communities are not passive beneficiaries of development interventions, but co-creators of their own development, which takes the direction they want, of course, within the framework of national policies,” she said.

4. Be facilitators, not managers.

IFAD’s experience suggests a different role international organizations can play in defining indigenous people’s development strategies: less as managers of programs and projects, and more as facilitators of processes.

To this end, IFAD has established a $1 million assistance fund that is directly managed by indigenous people who not only select the projects, but also monitor and evaluate them, according to criteria defined by the communities themselves.

Establishing partnerships with indigenous people’s organizations, however, is still a challenge for development organizations and their staff. According to Cordone, it is often difficult to identify which organizations to partner with and which representatives to engage in dialogue.

“If you have to put in place a participatory process in a certain country, you need to know with whom you have to talk to,” she said.

A solution to this particular problem is one of the aims of the Indigenous Peoples Forum, a permanent fixture in the development calendar that aims to help build alliances and gather together not only indigenous organizations, but also international NGOs and other development actors.

What are your thoughts on community participation in project design and implementation? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.