Helping Indigenous Peoples Benefit From Philanthropy

Helping Indigenous Peoples Benefit From Philanthropy

Indigenous Peoples are the poorest, most marginalized, and disenfranchised people in the world. Though well connected to their lands, their connection to the global community is much more tenuous.

Indigenous Peoples have a combined population that is greater than that of the entire United States and live in more than ninety countries, yet they are invisible to most of the developed world. And because of that invisibility, they are often overlooked by those who are committed to making the world a better place. As a result, Indigenous Peoples miss out on funding streams that could be utilized in their own communities for capacity building, economic development, conservation management, and public health improvements.

Asset Stripping

Indigenous Peoples derive their sustenance, identity, and wealth from their ancestral lands. Yet these same lands are coveted by governments in pursuit of revenue, corporations in need of raw materials, and conservationists who desire to protect the rapidly diminishing biodiversity of the earth. Indigenous Peoples' territories encompass 80 percent of the last remaining biodiversity-rich wilderness areas and most of the major conservation priorities at the beginning of the 21st century. Unfortunately, conservationists and environmental NGOs routinely carve protected areas out of indigenous lands without notice to or consulting with the inhabitants of those lands. As their lands are stripped, Indigenous Peoples' sources of food, trade, and traditional medicine are taken away and their very livelihoods threatened, putting them at increased risk of poverty, disease, social unrest, and, in some cases, cultural extinction.

The single unifying issue facing Indigenous Peoples everywhere is how to protect their territories and stop "asset stripping." Addressing this issue is a priority for First Peoples Worldwide.


Many of those who give to conservation programs do so out of a desire to preserve the world's diverse animal and plant life, and to preserve wilderness areas. Most are not aware, however, of the unintended consequences of their efforts. Indeed, if they were aware that 90 percent of the world's cultural diversity originates from Indigenous Peoples, and that conservation efforts are endangering that diversity and driving indigenous cultures to extinction, they would demand changes in conservation programs. One of the ways in which First Peoples Worldwide is advocating for change is to demand parity of funding for indigenous-led conservation projects.

To invest in indigenous conservation efforts makes sense for many reasons. Indigenous Peoples are already living on these lands and have managed them for centuries, even millennia. Indigenous Peoples are also natural stewards of the land, and are capable and willing to manage their territories at costs that are substantially lower than the costs incurred by conventional conservation groups. And, perhaps most importantly, their well-being is directly tied to ecosystem conservation.


Millions of philanthropic dollars are spent every year on efforts to improve the health of people in developing countries. Yet recent findings indicate that Indigenous Peoples' physical, mental, and emotional well-being is directly linked to the security of their land tenure.

According to articles published in The Lancetin May and June 2006, Indigenous Peoples suffer from many of the same illnesses as non-indigenous peoples but have higher rates of endemic diseases such as yaws and leprosy. At the same time, maternal mortality among Indigenous Peoples is three to four times higher than among non-indigenous peoples, while infant mortality is two-and-a-half times to six times higher.

As bad as the situation is, however, the studies showed that illnesses among Indigenous Peoples increase exponentially if they are evicted from their lands and moved to resettlement camps. The articles also reported that increased alcoholism and violence was linked to resettlement and evictions, and that social problems such as fighting and assaults increase with evictions.

Allowing Indigenous Peoples to remain on their lands helps them maintain access to the medicinal plants and remedies they have used for centuries to maintain their health. In addition, providing technical assistance and training for Indigenous Peoples to increase their capacity to develop economically in ways that align with their cultures helps to avoid some of the social and health-related problems associated with poverty, including alcoholism, spousal abuse, drug use, and family breakdown. Improving Indigenous Peoples' economic situation also helps overcome barriers to obtaining health care, including access to modern medical facilities and treatments.

Government and Legal Programs Have Failed

The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1993 as the "Year of the World's Indigenous People," and starting in December 1994 proclaimed the "International Decade of the World's Indigenous People." The goal was to strengthen international cooperation in solving problems faced by Indigenous Peoples in areas such as human rights, the environment, development, education, and health. Unfortunately, the proclamations did not bear fruit in terms of poverty reduction or better health for Indigenous Peoples. In fact, the UN High Commissioner reported that "no gains were made in income or poverty reduction during the Indigenous Peoples Decade (1994-2004)."

In 2004, the UN General Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. Once again, the goal was to further the "strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people." The new proclamation added culture and social and economic development to the list of problems. While directives like this and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are valuable first steps, by themselves they will not foster the positive changes that are made possible by investing in indigenous capacity building and leadership.

Indigenous Peoples Need World Links

One of the reasons these high-level approaches to the protection of Indigenous Peoples' interests have been ineffective is that while there is organization by Indigenous Peoples at the local, regional, and international levels, the organizations themselves lack linkages.

First Peoples Worldwide is well positioned to act as an intermediary between different indigenous organizations. We are more readily accepted by indigenous groups because we are indigenous-led ourselves and engage with those groups on many fronts from direct contact with remote communities for data collection purposes to attending important conferences such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as presenters.

First Peoples Worldwide also has developed the Indigenous Stewardship Initiative and Fund. In addition to providing networking and training opportunities for indigenous conservation practitioners throughout the world, we offer small grants of approximately $5000 to $50,000 to indigenous communities. These funds in turn support indigenous stewardship at various levels of design and implementation through technical assistance and direct support. The end result is that Indigenous Peoples are able to use traditional conservation knowledge passed down from generation to generation for better biodiversity management.

Parity of Funding

There is little reliable data about funding for Indigenous Peoples, but anecdotal evidence suggests that very little goes directly to communities for capacity building and leadership initiatives the very things needed by these communities if they are to control and effectively develop their assets. During the 1990s, for example, grants from the Global Environmental Facility, the World Bank, and USAID for biodiversity conservation totaled around $2.4 billion. But preliminary research by First Peoples Worldwide could not identify a single indigenous community that received a grant from any of those sources.

First Peoples Worldwide is involved in making systemic change that will enhance Indigenous Peoples' ability to secure grants. We are working on an assessment for the World Bank that will explore the reason behind Indigenous Peoples' lack of access to international funding. We are also working on ways to design development projects so they have a significant positive impact on the communities they affect. To that end, we recently completed a report for USAID that applies our "Elements of Development" framework to the planning and implementation and/or evaluation of a project. Among other things, the study found that development programs which incorporated these elements were more likely to have a successful outcome than programs that were developed without them. USAID is widely distributing the report, Okiciyab, Promoting Best Practices in Indigenous Community Development, and has made it available to its grantees.

An important goal of effective philanthropy is trying to achieve maximum lasting benefit with minimum output spending a little to gain a lot. As we have seen, the principle of "first, do no harm" also applies. Indigenous Peoples represent skills, languages, practices, customs, and knowledge the global community cannot afford to lose. We should make every effort to ensure that the projects we support with our philanthropic dollars do not produce unintended harm to people and communities that are already marginalized and in danger of losing the connection they value most.

Rebecca Adamson, a Cherokee, is founder and president of the First Nations Development Institute (1980) and founder of First Peoples Worldwide (1997).