Donor policies

Focus on minorities

Halving global poverty by 2015 is the overriding goal of development policy today. But Western aid rarely reaches the people who are most disadvantaged. A policy that would specifically target disadvantaged socio-cultural groups could change matters.

[ By Frank Bliss ]

The World Bank defines poverty as living on an income of less than two dollars a day. According to that definition, around half of the world population is poor – and more than one billion people fall below the extreme poverty line of $ 1.25 dollars a day. “The poor”, however, are not a uniform group; they are socially, economically, socio-culturally and ethnically diverse.

People live in poverty because they have scant or no access to resources and are excluded from decisions that affect their lives. Poverty is particularly widespread among ethnic, religious or social minorities. Indigenous peoples are an example. It is irrelevant whether minorities are small or a numerically large group reduced to minority status by prevailing power structures. Like the pygmies of Africa, many indigenous groups have been displaced to difficult environments and cut off from education, healthcare and other social services. They are disadvantaged in legal terms and restricted in their cultural life.

Development projects rarely reach poor minorities, even if they are specifically designed to fight poverty. So it would make sense to target help to disadvantaged minorities, for instance, indigenous groups. As long ago as December 1994, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the first “International Decade of Indigenous Peoples” (Resolution 48/163). In December 2004, there followed a resolution (Resolution 48/163) for a second such decade with the goal of boosting the rights of indigenous groups.

According to the second resolution, indigenous groups must be given a say in all decisions that directly or indirectly affect their way of life, traditional land use, cultural integrity and similar matters. The UN General Assembly also endorsed the principle of “free prior informed consent”.

German experience in Latin America

In 2006, Germany passed a new concept for cooperation with indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is pleased with the results. Progress in recent years has been evident especially in indigenous groups’ participation in decision-making about their own development, right up to supranational level.

At a conference of AGEE, a German organisation of social anthropologists who work in development cooperation, experts judged the BMZ approach favourably. The concept, among other things, builds on the human-rights approach of the second International Decade. Strong points include the following:
– Parts of the concept were written in consultation with representatives of indigenous groups. Right from the start, it thus served as a platform for Germany’s exchange both with indigenous people as well as the governments of the countries concerned.
– The concept can be referred to as Germany’s position in international debates.
– It focuses German development policy more sharply on issues that matter to indigenous groups, so indigenous interests are taken into account more when projects are planned and implemented. Moreover, the concept established as a principle that, even when projects affect indigenous groups only marginally, their situation and needs must be considered.
– German development agencies have become more sensitive to the issue. They are now paying more attention to sociological aspects instead of basically assessing economic and technical ones.

The positive experience with the BMZ concept provides good arguments for stepping up cooperation, not only with indigenous minorities in Latin America, but with disadvantaged groups in Asia and Africa too. At present, development policy barely reaches disadvantaged social, religious or cultural minorities. But that must be done. Otherwise, the first Millennium Development Goal of halving absolute poverty by 2015 will not be reached.

Accordingly, an AGEE position paper (in Zeitschrift für Entwicklungsethnologie, 2009) applied the basic ideas of the BMZ’s Latin America concept to minorities worldwide. The aim is to ensure that German development assistance recognises and promotes the rights and interests of disadvantaged socio-cultural groups, regardless of how they are respected in their own country. The concept should also serve to clarify Germany’s stand and signal the country’s values and objectives to all parties concerned.

Estimates put the number of disadvantaged persons worldwide at between 300 and 700 million. Promoting the interests of these people means to shift the balance of power in their favour (“empowerment”). They need better access to economic resources and must participate in political and social decision making.

The following steps are necessary:
– Living conditions must be improved in culture-sensitive ways.
– Equality of opportunity has to be promoted and discrimination reduced; in particular, laws that already exist must be implemented.
– Minorities need to be involved in development projects as early as possible and according to the UN principle of “free prior informed consent". Minority organisations and agencies need to be created and their work supported.
– Action should be taken to ensure that projects such as the construction of dams and other major infrastructure projects do not impact negatively on minorities. The same is true of legal reforms.

German agencies, of course, cannot act as proxies. They can only support the decisions and efforts of the groups and governments concerned. Nonetheless, German agencies need to live up to their ethical standards. They must not compromise individual human rights – or human rights in general – for the sake of “culture” or “tradition”.


Promoting minorities at the international level means to ensure that donors respect their interests when they coordinate efforts or implement joint international initiatives such as “policy-based funding”, sector support or programme-oriented basket funds. In donor-recipient cooperation, poverty-reduction strategy papers should be co-drafted by legitimate representatives of disadvantaged groups. Policy dialogue has become more important – especially when it concerns human rights, gender issues and the interaction of authorities with civil society.

In regard to implementing projects that are geared to help marginalised groups, the following requirements are essential:
– The socio-cultural situation must be assessed as soon as possible.
– Employment, training and further training has to be provided to members of minority groups, they must be employed as skilled labour, and their meaningful participation in projects and organisations has to be ensured.
– The gender situation has to be taken into account, and action is necessary to strengthen the role of women and girls.
– Training and further training needs to be given to human-rights specialists, with a specific focus on minorities’ rights and equal opportunities.
– It is essential to boost the self-organisation capacities of target groups (but not of the organisations acting on their behalf), and this must be done in a gender-sensitive way.
– Finally, intended und unintended impacts have to be monitored with target-group involvement, taking into account the group’s gender situation and culture.

A participatory approach is particularly important where implemented projects affect disadvantaged groups. Measures need to be planned in dialogue with all inhabitants of the region concerned.

Before implementing measures that could impact negatively on disadvantaged groups, it is necessary to analyse the socio-cultural situation of the people in question (“Do no harm analysis”). Next, management plans must be drafted to minimise negative impacts. Compensation arrangements must be in place and, if a large number of people are affected, plans must be made to restore formerly more favourable socio-economic settings. Where necessary, resettlement and development plans need to be enacted according to the World Bank’s safeguards. Cross-border cooperation will often make sense since disadvantaged groups tend to inhabit areas that extend into several countries.

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