Study by First Peoples Worldwide Suggests New Strategies for Working with Indigenous Communities

By Eleanor Fausold

This is the second in a series of blogs about First Peoples Worldwide. Click here to read the first entry.

A study by First Peoples Worldwide (FPW), an organization focused on restoring indigenous communities’ control over their assets, was recently highlighted in an article in Alliance magazine. The study explains that although many indigenous communities have received large grants and other forms of aid, many of these communities are still very poor, and suggests new strategies for foundations and donors to make their work more effective.

Indigenous communities are effective at managing resources and working cooperatively with one another. (Photo credit: First Peoples Worldwide)

Today, many donors fund intermediary groups who work on behalf of the indigenous communities they serve, basing their strategy on the assumption that the communities are struggling because they lack the capacity to adequately manage the funds and projects themselves. But the recent three-year study by FPW suggests exactly the opposite. It found that the problem is not indigenous communities’ lack of capacity, but rather that donors and funders often fail to align their projects with the values and perspectives of these communities.

The study, conducted among 130 indigenous practitioners in Africa, Asia, Latina America, and the Pacific, was based on roundtable meetings with individuals who were involved with local projects focused on stewardship, sustainable development, and income generation in each of these regions. Through a series of experiments and discussions, the study showed that when determining how to distribute aid among themselves, the Indigenous Peoples consistently agreed to abide by principles such as transparency, fairness, and consensus—values that would help them build and maintain positive relationships with one another in the future. And, in each region, the participants found ways to take advantage of untapped resources, act strategically, and leverage results.

When part of the project involved an experiment to see how participants would give away US$20,000, for example, groups from the Pacific region used the money to establish a system through which communities could share strategies for enforcing fishing regulations in protected areas. The four islands that had the most successful enforcement strategies each received US$5,000, which they could then use to travel to other Asia Pacific islands and share their knowledge. Only four islands received grants, but communities around the region benefitted by learning about successful strategies that they could use themselves, illustrating the Indigenous Peoples’ abilities to manage scarce resources effectively and efficiently.

Foundations and aid agencies in the United States often lack specific strategies for working with Indigenous Peoples, but the results of this study suggest that developing better ways of reaching these groups would be well-justified. If funding initiatives can tap into the capacities and resources of the communities whom they are serving, their work could be far more effective. By adhering to the cultural values of indigenous communities and adopting more holistic approaches that engage communities in a two-way conversation, foundations and aid agencies will be able to work with communities to ensure that the projects they fund provide the greatest benefit to all.

Click here to read more about First Peoples Worldwide.

Do you have other ideas about how foundations could improve their work with indigenous communities? Comment below!

Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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