The Development Agenda and Indigenous People

By Richa Kapoor

In 2016, UN updated their Millennium Development Goals into Sustainable Development Goals, in an attempt to create a more holistic picture of development that is suitable “for all”. As of 2018, statistician Hans Rosling’s work adds to this trend of updating the-meaning of development by urging the international community to drop the passé classifications of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ world. He implores us to challenge traditional conceptions of development, by identifying the utility of a foreign practice or lifestyle.

These changes are occurring as the world begins to question the conventional methods – as illustrated by the modernisation and neo-liberal theories – of development.  A few nations are achieving growing prosperity by implementing them, such as India due to its economic liberalisation; other nations have demonstrated negligible improvements and policies of neo-liberalism are imposed on the developing world whilst developed nations can afford to opt-out. However, a particular group of people that are consistently exploited and threatened by the relentless pursuit of ‘development’ are the global indigenous community. The livelihoods of indigenous communities across the globe are being encroached upon and their cultural identities are being eroded. But how exactly do the mechanisms of development affect indigenous communities?

Projections on Sustainable Development Goals and 70th Anniversary of the United Nations | United Nations Photo

One of the biggest areas of contention between the priorities of the indigenous community and the aims of development is ownership of land. To the indigenous, land is not only an economic asset, but more importantly it has spiritual and cultural significance: indigenous identity and life is crucially dependent on their control over traditional lands. Through multiple colonial operations land is now firmly under the control of governments and private organisations, despite international law clearly stipulating indigenous peoples’ rights over traditional lands. The displacement of indigenous people is being justified by governments based on development aims such as energy security and commercial activity. Unfortunately, when it comes to land, the state’s prioritisation of development tends to clash with indigenous rights because traditional lands are often vast stores of natural resources.

On what grounds can this clash of priorities be resolved? The negative consequences of ‘development’ are intensifying in their ability to impact not only the most vulnerable communities, but even the most protected ones. With the mounting pressure to act radically upon the imminent threat of irreversible climate change, perhaps it’s time to put development aims on the back-burner. After all, 6 out of 17 of UNSDG’s regard sustainability. Ironically, these priorities could utilise indigenous communities’ knowledge and unconventional practices since they have the potential to provide solutions. Much empirical research has been carried out to demonstrate the usefulness of indigenous knowledge in being able to mitigate against the known dangers along the ‘race to develop’.

But is development really all that bad for indigenous communities? The economic poverty of indigenous people means reduced access to modern healthcare, thus life expectancy, child mortality rates and easy-to-cure diseases remain big challenges for indigenous people. Even if economic prosperity is not a priority for indigenous communities’ conception of well-being and life satisfaction, the value of modern healthcare cannot objectively be denied. The UN’s stance on the matter is perhaps naïve, but optimistic: involving indigenous people in decision-making will create policies that are best suited to their needs. For instance, indigenous health practices like midwifery can be included in modern healthcare systems. However, unless the root of the issue (poverty) remains, it is unlikely that even inclusive healthcare systems could rectify the health gap between indigenous peoples and their non-indigenous counterparts.

Maori Dance | Stanley Zimny

It’s also somewhat false to suggest that every indigenous community resists the draw of ‘development’, with its share of burdens and benefits. Groups that were forcefully assimilated by colonisers have technically no option but to integrate, but often face barriers, and are thus unable to capitalise on their knowledge and resources. In the USA, “bureaucracy prevents tribes from capitalizing on their resources” as development projects on Native land take years to be authorised, in comparison to only a few months required on private land. In India, there is affirmative action for certain communities. But this has not eased the economic gap because the infrastructure required to level the playing field is still lacking, thus the indigenous are locked out from prosperity. However, there are more hopeful scenarios. In New Zealand, the potential legalisation of marijuana has created an opportunity to include the Maori community in the economic gains because of their traditional expertise in growing marijuana.

The issue of the development agenda and its interaction with indigenous peoples also raises certain moral challenges. Many non-indigenous people have an established standard on quality of life and believe that these standards are the ones that deliver maximum utility. Does this make it our moral imperative to impose those values on those that do not accept them? Despite countless attempts, the Sentinelese tribe of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have resisted integration. The discourse around integration has always been framed in terms of indigenous people not understanding what is best for them, but in actuality it is more appropriate to realise that their conception of what is best for them differs greatly to mainstream society. So, technically, we are all acting in our best interests. The issue lies in the clash between the interests, where the dominant group consistently overpowers the indigenous communities, resulting in their marginalisation.

Ultimately, it seems that certain aims of development are incompatible with the indigenous priorities. The ‘race to develop’ has caused significant environmental damage, thus indigenous communities’ knowledge and sustainable lifestyles are now vital to our survival. Whilst economic development is useful for indigenous peoples as well, they tend to be locked out of capitalising on their intellectual and physical resources due to government control. If certain groups resist integration attempts, we must respect their wishes and attempt to preserve their lifestyles to maintain cultural diversity.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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