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Poverty and Indigenous Populations
Monday, 25 April 2011 23:56

Global reductions in poverty have been very impressive these past few decades, and have been especially stunning in East Asia.  However, to make further progress in reducing poverty, we need to understand the precise nature of the most affected groups, like indigenous and socially excluded populations.


The number of people living on less than $1.25 a day in the developing world fell from 1.9 billion in 1981 to 1.4 billion in 2005, representing a dramatic fall from 52 to 26 per cent of the population of these countries.  This drop in the number of poor people was thanks to a fall from 1.1 to 0.3 billion over this period in East Asia and the Pacific (poverty in China alone fell from 0.8 to 0.2 billion).  In relative terms, poverty in East Asia (and within that for China) fell from around 80 per cent of the population to less than 20 per cent. 


Progress was also made in South Asia.  Although the number of poor actually rose from 0.5 to 0.6 billion from 1981 to 2005 (for India, an increase from 0.4 to 0.5 billion), as a share of the population, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 59% to 40% (for India a fall from 60% to 42%).    


Is any of this poverty concentrated in certain population groups?  Yes, indeed!  Many “indigenous peoples” like indigenous ethnic minorities, aboriginals, hill tribes, minority nationalities, and tribal groups are greatly afflicted with poverty.  And it is not just “income poverty” from which they suffer.  Indigenous groups also tend to have less access to education, worse health outcomes and shorter lives.


Although boys and girls in indigenous groups are significantly underrepresented in school and lag on other important indicators, girls are particularly disadvantaged.  71% of out-of-school girls in developing countries are from indigenous groups.  Sub-Saharan Africa has about 23 million girls out of school, 75% from indigenous groups; South Asia has 23 million and 67%; Middle East and North Africa have almost 5 million and 90%; and Latin America has 1.5 million, almost all of whom come from indigenous groups.


Indigenous peoples are at a distinct disadvantage relative to the overall society.  They may come from a pre-colonial or pre-settler society.  Their self identity is attached to their community, rather than the nation.  They have a distinct language, culture and belief system.  They are a minority in their country, and usually do not participate in the political system.  And they are very often geographically isolated, which reduces their gains from overall economic growth, and makes them difficult to reach through targeted programs.            


The world’s indigenous peoples make up 4 per cent of the global population (nearly 300 million).  But they account for 10 per cent of the world’s poor people.  Fully one-third of the world’s indigenous people are poor.  Nearly, 80 per cent of the world’s poor indigenous people live in Asia, especially China and India. 


In many countries, poverty rates for indigenous peoples exceed 50 per cent, for example Democratic Republic of Congo (85%), Mexico (81%), Ecuador (78%), Guatemala (75%), Gabon (70%), Bolivia (69%), Peru (62%), Vietnam (52%), Laos (51%), Brazil (48%), India (44%), Chile (15%) and China (5(%).  Thanks to its exceptional economic growth, China has managed to greatly reduce the poverty of its indigenous peoples.    


It’s not only indigenous peoples in the developing world who suffer from poverty.  The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe, the Aborigines from Australia, Maoris from New Zealand, and the Native Indians from North America also suffer disproportionately from poverty.


Are things improving for indigenous people?  In some rapidly growing Asian economies, particularly China, India and Vietnam, indigenous groups have enjoyed reductions in poverty at a pace comparable to general society.  China’s ethnic minorities’ poverty rates declined much faster than did the non-minority rates, with the result that the gap between the two is now very low.   


In other countries, especially in Latin America, weak growth has slowed the pace of poverty reduction for indigenous groups, with the result that the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous groups has widened.  In Mexico, however, the difference in poverty rates for indigenous and non-indigenous populations has fallen substantially in recent years thanks to improved access to education and government services. 


Most distributive programs have not reduced poverty among indigenous people.  One exception is Mexico’s conditional cash transfer program (CCT), Opportunidades, which combines careful identification of beneficiary groups, transparent program delivery, and learning from experience.  Such CCT programs provide assistance conditioned on the beneficiary’s actions – that is, the government provides money only to beneficiaries who fulfill certain criteria, such as enrolling children in school, ensuring that they attend regularly and complete grades, and receiving regular medical attention.  Well implemented bilingual education programs can also promote school completion.     


Experience shows that economic growth has been a powerful instrument for poverty reduction, even for indigenous peoples.  But well designed programs to address their multiple sources of disadvantage are also required.  To properly empower indigenous groups so that broad-based growth and targeted poverty reduction programs work in their favor, these indigenous groups need greater political representation and greater voice.  In Mexico, for example, parents are given the right to exercise voice and decision-making authority over the use of small sums of money for improving schooling in rural areas.  These programs target disadvantaged and poorly performing schools, including a substantial number that provide services to indigenous people.




World Bank, "The developing world is poorer than we thought, but no less successful in the fight against poverty", Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravaillion.


World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2011, Imp roving the Odds of Achieving the MDGs.  CHAPTER 4: Assisting Indigenous and Socially Excluded Populations




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