Luis Felipe Duchicela, senior adviser for Indigenous peoples' issues at USAID. Photo by: Kimie Velhagen / CIF / CC BY-NC-ND

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Development institutions have often viewed their engagement with Indigenous communities through a lens of risk mitigation. That is important for ensuring projects do not cause harm to Indigenous peoples but has not always amounted to a proactive effort to involve them in planning and implementing development programs, according to Luis Felipe Duchicela, senior adviser for Indigenous peoples' issues at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

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“The gold standard … globally, in terms of social standards for Indigenous peoples, would be that of the World Bank,” said Duchicela, who joined USAID in June 2019 after serving in a similar role at the bank.

“Having said that … it's really constrained to a vision or a scope of safeguards. … It's an excellent standard but from the standpoint of safeguarding from harm and from reputational risk. It's mostly a risk management tool rather than a proactive policy to incentivize action,” he said.

In March, USAID approved its first Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the agency is rolling out this week after a delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with Devex, Duchicela described the new policy as part of an effort at the agency “to evolve from some of the old paradigms that we're seeing in the world today to new paradigms in terms of working with Indigenous people.”

It aims to do so by creating a framework for USAID programs to engage directly with Indigenous people, to help strengthen Indigenous-led organizations, to partner with them, and to safeguard the rights and well-being of Indigenous peoples throughout the agency’s program cycle.

Duchicela said it is significant that USAID’s policy explicitly focuses on Indigenous peoples’ rights, a term he said many development institutions and governments tend to avoid.

“To me, that creates a problem, because a framework of rights based on the declaration of rights of Indigenous peoples provides a very practical way of addressing Indigenous people issues,” he said, referring to a United Nations declaration passed in 2007 after decades of lobbying by Indigenous advocates.

A rights-based approach speaks to “the vision and the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in a more holistic way” than simply focusing on avoiding harm, he added.

Under President Donald Trump’s administration, USAID has described its development programs as part of a “journey to self-reliance,” which it says aims to assist partner countries in planning and leading their own development process. Duchicela said the new strategy for Indigenous peoples is consistent with this agencywide vision, in that it seeks to identify and strengthen Indigenous organizations as both USAID partners and domestic leaders in development planning and implementation.

One of USAID’s principal tools for reorienting its programs around this vision is the New Partnerships Initiative, which aims to identify groups outside the agency’s typical base of international contractors and NGOs and help them navigate the notoriously labor-intensive procurement process.

Given the Trump administration’s well-known interest in supporting religious groups, agency leaders have highlighted the initiative’s potential to help USAID partner with faith-based organizations much more often than they have spoken about working with new Indigenous partners. But Duchicela said he sees the same opportunity “to tailor-make the concept of the New Partnerships Initiative to the Indigenous peoples organizations.”

There are a number of obstacles that have made moving from risk management to deeper engagement easier for development agencies to say than to do, Duchicela pointed out.

Indigenous-led organizations have been “simply outstanding” when it comes to political advocacy on behalf of their rights, Duchicela said, citing the passage of the U.N. declaration as a clear illustration.

“The economic aspect of the Indigenous peoples has been neglected.”

— Luis Felipe Duchicela, senior adviser for Indigenous peoples' issues, USAID

“Their stance in political advocacy is unquestionable,” he said.

“However, if you go deeper into analyzing their capacity level for doing strategic planning or managing programs or designing programs or having constructive dialogue with the private sector … I do see a lack of capacity,” he added.

That is often matched on the other side by a lack of knowledge or understanding among national governments and donor agencies about Indigenous peoples, their rights, international legal frameworks, and successful models for engaging with them, Duchicela said.

In addition, even countries that have strong legal frameworks for protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples — such as constitutional recognition or free, prior, and informed consent laws — often fail to implement those policies on the ground, he added.

Duchicela said that USAID missions with a strong interest in applying the new policy to achieve deeper engagement with Indigenous communities will have an opportunity to participate in a new program the agency is rolling out in partnership with the Germany-based Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s largest accreditation organization for sustainable forest management.

Through a new Global Development Alliance — which uses a public-private partnership model — USAID plans to support the Indigenous Peoples Alliance for Rights and Development, an Indigenous-led organization launched by FSC. Its work aims to strengthen the capacity of Indigenous organizations, foster the enabling environment for Indigenous people to exercise their rights, and promote economic development, Duchicela said.

The latter priority is one that Indigenous organizations have been hesitant to discuss, Duchicela added, noting that they too have tended to focus — and rightly so, he said — on issues related to safeguards and mitigating harm.

“The economic aspect of the Indigenous peoples has been neglected,” he said.

“I find that today Indigenous peoples' organizations are more than ready to talk about their economies. So that's going to be a big challenge, and I think at USAID we have that opportunity to address that issue,” he added.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.