The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Development

According to the United Nations there are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world in 2020, spread across 90 countries and they make up over half of the world’s 5000 distinct cultures.

For A-level sociology students studying the Global Development option, it is very useful to know something about Indigenous Peoples as they represent interesting case studies that make it difficult to make generalisations about globalisation or development.

The United Nations seeks to work with indigenous peoples and to help the protect their lands and cultures, and to increase awareness of indigenous ways of life through initiatives such as the International Indigenous People’s Day is a United Nations led initiative held on the 9th August of every year.

Indigenous Peoples – A Definition

Given the variety of indigenous peoples around the world, The United Nations has not adopted an official definition of the term ‘indigenous’.

Instead it uses the following principles to identify indigenous peoples:

  • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Whether we apply the term ‘indigenous’ to a group of people also depends on self-identification – the group has to self-identify as indigenous rather than being defined as indigenous (as outlined in various United Nations human rights documents).

(Source: United Nations Fact Sheet: Who are Indigenous Peoples).

Who are the Indigenous Peoples of the World?

This video on Facebook provides an easy, accessible, one minute overview of some key statistics on Indigenous peoples today.

  • There are 350 million indigenous people in the world today
  • They make up 5% of the world’s population
  • They inhabit 25% of the earth’s land surface
  • And their land stores 60% of the world’s carbon
  • They are a diverse group and speak 4000 languages

A useful starting point to find out more about the world’s Indigenous Peoples is the United Nations ‘International Indigenous People’s Day‘. This has an extensive resource collection with many links and even reports on the ‘state of indigenous peoples’.

Probably one of the best known examples of a self-identified indigenous group are The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.

Indigenous Peoples and Development

Western models of development – the processes of colonialism, capitalism, urbanisation and industrialisation have done much to undermine or even eradicate whole indigenous cultures.

Many indigenous communities are still under threat from the pressures of increased consumption which goes along with ‘western modes of development’ – which results in encroachment on indigenous lands – grazing lands all over Africa have been taken over for farming, for example, and large parts of the rainforest are under threat in the Amazon.

However, many indigenous communities continue to survive to this day and many have adapted to globalisation and ‘development’ pressures from outside.

The United Nations works to help preserve indigenous rights, especially land rights, agains the encroachments of nation states.

It it is actually very difficult to make generalisations about what the role of the indigenous communities in development is, because there are simply so many indigenous peoples!

Certainly in terms of globalisation, you will find several good examples of transformationalism in the different ways indigenous communities have adapted to global flows.

In terms of theories of development – the persistence of indigenous cultures criticises Modernisation Theory ( so many don’t want to Westernise) and there seems to be a good deal of support in here for People Centred Development – as indigenous communities work with the United Nations to preserve their cultural distinctiveness and find their own paths to development, selectively choosing what aspects of global culture they want to work with and which they would rather keep ‘at a distance’.

More to come….

I’ll write more specific posts on specific indigenous cultures and development in coming months, as it’s hard to make generalisations here!

The Equator Prize – A good Source for Examples ‘People Centred’ Development Projects

The United Nations Development Programme has run the ‘Equator prize‘ initiative every year since 2009.

The idea is to recognise indigenous communities from around the globe who are adopting innovative, nature-based solutions to achieve sustainable development and combat poverty and climate change.

The 2020 award ceremony showcased 10 such diverse initiatives from around the globe, as shown on the map below.

To my mind this initiative seems to be an excellent example of ‘People Centred Development‘, as each of these development projects are small scale, led by the indigenous people themselves and sustainable. All the United Nations seems to be doing is connecting them and giving them more visibility and recognition on a global stage, but besides this, each one of these projects seems to be a genuine example of people centred development from the ground up.

Each of the initiatives seems to be linked to a famous advocate, some of whom you will be very familiar with. For example, one of the winners of 202o was a community run Maasai conservation project in Kenya, supported by Margaret Atwood (who wrote the Handmaid’s Tale).

It’s very difficult to generalise about what each of these projects are doing specifically, because they are diverse, and that’s sort of the point of People Centred Development – because it’s ‘people centred’ each of the paths to development looks different, so I will blog more about each of these projects in forthcoming posts.

However, for now I just wanted to highlight the United Nation’s Equator Prize as a good source for links to small projects that seem to be excellent examples of ‘People Centred Development’.

NB – don’t forget that PCD isn’t postmodern – it’s not ‘anything goes’ development, there is a kind of moral imperative that binds these projects together under the auspices of the United Nations – they are all sustainable, for example, and they are all ‘community run’ and presumably have a degree of democratic governance, all of which are aspects of PCD.

People Centered Development

This post provides a brief summary of people centered development approaches to social development, including the work of Vandana Shiva.

Why are developing countries underdeveloped?

People Centered Development Theorists generally agree with Dependency Theory about why some countries are underdeveloped – because of a history of exploitation and extraction by western Nation States and TNCs.

PCD theorists are also very critical of the role of large institutions in development – international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF and both western nation states and developing nation states. They argue that big development projects aimed at macro level goals such as increasing GDP and neoliberal strategies of deregulation often do not improve the lives of people ‘on the ground’. In this sense, as Amartya Sen argues, development needs to be about giving people independence so they have real power and choice over their day to day situations, it shouldn’t be ‘top down’ coming from the west, via governments and then trickling down to the people.

People Centered Development theorists also have a much broader conception of what ‘development’ could actually mean. They don’t believe that development has to mean them becoming more like the West and development shouldn’t be seen in narrow terms such as industrialising and bringing about economic growth, development projects should be much smaller scale, much more diverse, and much more coming from the people living in developing countries.

Finally, PCD theorists reject Western Definitions of ‘underdevelopment’ – just because some cultures are rural, non-industrialised, and not trading, doesn’t mean they are inferior.

Doctor Vandana Shiva
Doctor Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva is a good example of a theorist who comes under the umbrella of a People Centred Development approach to development.

She has spent much of her life in the defence and celebration of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge.  Seed freedom is central to the idea of Shiva’s work (the rejection of corporate patents on seeds, and protecting the rights of local peoples to save their own seed).

Vandana Shiva has also played a major role in the global Ecofeminist movement. According to her 2004 article Empowering Women, Shiva suggests that a more sustainable and productive approach to agriculture can be achieved through reinstating a system of farming in India that is more centered on engaging women. She advocates against the prevalent “patriarchal logic of exclusion.”

How should developing countries develop?

  1. People centred development means ‘ground up development’ – empowering local communities. Because of this, there are potentially thousands of pathways to development
  • The thousands of small scale fair trade and micro finance projects around the world are good examples of PCD style projects embedded in a global network.
  • Bhutan is a good country level example of PCD principles – globalising on their own terms.
  • Indigenous peoples living traditional lifestyles, effectively rejecting most of what the west has to offer is another good example.
  1. At a global level, PCD theorists believe that any development projects embarked upon should embody three core principles –
    • Social Justice – they shouldn’t be based around exploitation (like tied aid is)
    • Inclusivity – they should be democratic, bottom up, not top down – they should be designed with communities living in developing countries, not by western experts.
    • Sustainable – Projects shouldn’t degrade local environments

Criticisms of People Centred Development

  • All the other theories argue that, eventually, if a poor country really wants to improve the lives of its people en masse in the long term, it needs money, this can only come from industrialisation and trade, is it really possible to improve standards of living through small scale projects?

  • Focussing solely on small scale development projects still leaves local communities in developing countries relatively poor compared to us in the West, is this really social justice?

  • In a globalising world it simply isn’t realistic to expect developing countries (such as Bhutan or groups living in the Rain Forest) to be able to tackle future problems if they remain underdeveloped – eventually population growth or climate change or refugees or drugs or loggers are going to infiltrate their boarders, and it is much easier to respond to these problems if a country has a lot of money a well functioning state and a high level of technology.

  • PCD is too relativistic – is it really the case that all cultures have equal value and diverse definitions and paths to development should be accepted? Do we really just accept that patriarchy and FGM are OK in places like Saudi Arabia and Somalia because that’s what their populations have ‘chosen’?