What indigenous peoples need from foreign aid

Indigenous women of the Cordillera region in the Philippines. In his speech on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of the importance of "honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive agreements between states, their citizens and indigenous peoples." Photo by: Judy Flores Partlow / CC BY

On the celebration of their international day, indigenous peoples on Friday are calling on governments to honor their commitments to them, but also asking the international community to change their current mindset and open a window for these ancestral communities to access elusive sources of aid funding.

The indigenous peoples of Cordillera, a mountainous region home to Igorot in the northern Philippines, greet the day with a heavy heart.

They feel betrayed by their own government, which pushed through two weeks ago with a mining application process despite strong protests. Even foreign aid failed to fully support their cause for self-determined and sustainable development, Santos Mero, deputy secretary general of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, told Devex.

In his speech on Thursday in New York, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki Moon said: “we highlight the importance of honoring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between states, their citizens and indigenous peoples.” Ban added that consensual agreements foster mutual understanding and enable meaningful coexistence.

Three years ago, local indigenous peoples groups in the Philippines submitted an agenda for change to then newly elected President Benigno Aquino. However, Mero said that “after three years, the Philippine government has not addressed our demands on the issues of self-determination, ancestral domain and development,” Mero said.

Over the past years, the government has pursued development by opening up to local and foreign private investment many areas rich in natural resources. But in those well-publicised sites for mining development, he explained, rising cases of militarization and violations of indigenous peoples rights have been documented.

“These ancestral domain areas are identified by the government as priority areas for mining development, even though it violates indigenous peoples’ rights, especially the collective rights to decide their self-determined and sustainable development,” Mero said.

No ‘IP aid’

Aid commitments by donors, as well as from the government, are also seen as insufficient, according to the advocate. Development remains dictated by external groups and opportunities for aid funding don’t come often. 

Foreign aid-funded projects have also eluded the indigenous people, like Aquino’s flagship conditional cash transfer program, partially funded by World Bank.

The initiative has excluded indigenous peoples who failed to present basic requirements like a birth certificate and marriage contract. “Indigenous people who should be able to access are excluded because they lack requirements,” said Mero.

Projects like this, designed by external forces, fail into account the nuances of indigenous peoples’ culture, he added.

“They just dictate and want to enter into these developments which are not appropriate and need of the indigenous peoples,” said Mero. “Indigenous peoples should be part of the decision-making process and in the process hold ownership of development.”

The problem, he explained, is that indigenous peoples can’t access funding from these aid groups: “What happens is that funding is channeled to NGOs who are advocates of IPs or directly to the government.”

To address this issue, donors should focus on helping indigenous organizations build their capacity, with “direct funding so we can decide on our own development” concluded Mero.

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About the author

  • Alliage profile

    John Alliage Morales

    As a staff writer, John Alliage Morales covers the Americas, focusing on the world's top donor hub, Washington, and its aid community - from Capitol Hill to Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom to the downtown headquarters of USAID, the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Corp. Prior to joining Devex, Alliage worked for a variety of news outlets including GMA, the Philippine TV network, where he conducted interviews, analyzed data and produced in-depth stories on development and other topics.

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