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Why are indigenous people left out of the sustainable development goals?


Indigenous Peoples

Delegates at a UN forum on indigenous issues in May 2014. Development can be considered a threat as much as an opportunity. Photograph: Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo


Powered by article titled “Why are indigenous people left out of the sustainable development goals?” was written by Jonathan Glennie, for on Thursday 14th August 2014 09.33 UTC

The great danger in compiling a list of priorities for international development, which is what most of the development industry has been preoccupied with for the past couple of years, is the dreaded “shopping list” or “Christmas tree”. This is where everyone’s pet problem is included and we don’t have a list of priorities at all, but a list of almost everything wrong with the world.

So I write this article with some caution. All told, I think the drafting committee for the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will replace the millennium development goals (MDGs) after 2015, has done a decent job. The fact that there are still 17 goals (which is too many) is a consequence of the pressing problems that global co-operation can help to fix, rather than an inability to prioritise.

Nevertheless, there is a gaping hole. Indigenous people are conspicuous only in the fleeting nature of references to them. In the draft of the SDGs released last month by the open working group, they get only two quick mentions: in goals on hunger and education, between commas in one of those lists that the UN so loves – they appear alongside youth, disabled people, women, family farmers and pastoralists.

But indigenous people make up 5% of the world’s population, and anything from 10% (according to the World Bank) to 30% (says the UN) of the world’s poorest people. By most accounts, they have been the group least well served by the MDGs – despite plenty of progress on achieving the goals, the most excluded sectors of society have not generally reaped their rewards.

The failure, so far, of indigenous representatives to gain recognition in the SDGs demonstrates their lack of political clout.

Indigenous people are, by definition, outsiders, both politically and geographically. They are often remotely located, so are easily forgotten by the centres of power, and their lands are considered a source of income generation rather than as heritage to be cherished.

In February last year, at an MDG review conference in Colombia, I saw indigenous leaders hand the head of the UN Development Programme, Helen Clark, their manifesto for inclusion in the development agenda. Its overwhelming focus was on land and territorial rights. Their concern was not so much ending poverty, a noble aim of course, but protecting their ways of life.

A glance at the website of the campaigning group Survival International reveals the continuing threats to countless tribal peoples. In a campaign timed to coincide with the World Cup in Brazil, the organisation highlighted the rapid extinction of tribe after tribe as “development” continues apace in the world’s seventh-largest economy.

“Development” is as often considered a threat as an opportunity by people who have been promised much in the past, but who have seldom seen the fruits of economic growth, enjoyed by others at their expense. The long battle for what is known in the jargon as “free, prior, informed consent” over development projects in their vicinity is now little more than a bad joke, as competition for resources becomes ever fiercer.

If ever a statement of intent could play a meaningful and powerful role in achieving change, the SDGs are it. But the draft has nothing to say on this.

Despite talk of this set of goals “leaving no one behind”, we have the usual development focus on money and social outcomes. But only the most bone-headed economist would judge progress for indigenous people in terms of minor increases in their income per capita. If that is what they wanted they could just come to the city and work in a factory.

The silence isn’t surprising. The last thing governments want is their hands tied by an international agreement that commits them to respecting indigenous rights, which could be detrimental to their short-term economic plans.


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