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Indigenous peoples in Asia less poor

 InDepth News 13 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) Indigenous peoples are among the poorest of the world, who suffer from higher poverty, lower education, and a greater incidence of disease and discrimination than other groups of the society. But they are benefitting from the “rapidly declining” poverty rates in Asia, which hosts an overwhelming majority of them.  - By Jaya Ramachandran

GENEVA, Switzerland - Indigenous peoples are among the poorest of the world, who suffer from higher poverty, lower education, and a greater incidence of disease and discrimination than other groups of the society. But they are benefitting from the "rapidly declining" poverty rates in Asia, which hosts an overwhelming majority of them.

A new study has found that "overall and indigenous poverty has declined significantly in China, India and Vietnam". On the other hand, Latin America, and to some degree Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, "show a sticky persistence of poverty rates" for indigenous peoples.

In Vietnam, almost two-thirds of the population was poor in 1993. By 2006, only 16 percent of the population was classified as poor. "However, progress in reducing poverty was unequal; the poverty rate fell by over 80 percent for the non-indigenous, but only by 40 percent for the indigenous. The same pattern appears in India," says the World Bank study: Indigenous Peoples, Poverty, and Development.

The study, released at the Ninth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) April 19-30, 2010 in New York, offers a "global snapshot" of a set of indicators for Indigenous Peoples vis-à-vis national demographic averages.

It also considers in detail how social conditions have evolved in seven countries around the world - in Central African Republic, China, Congo, Gabon, India, Laos and Vietnam - during 2005-2010, the first half of the UN's Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

"This is the first book that systematically documents poverty for Indigenous Peoples outside of the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia," said Cyprian Fisiy, World Bank Director for Social Development.

"The most encouraging news from the study is that some countries are making progress in poverty reduction for Indigenous Peoples. We now know that poverty rates have declined substantially among Indigenous Peoples in Asia."

The study shows how success in some Asian countries at achieving sustained growth and poverty reduction has helped their Indigenous Peoples to achieve better poverty, health, and education outcomes.

A poverty gap still persists, however, between indigenous and non-indigenous populations, and while the gap is narrowing in China, it is stable or widening in most other countries.

"The contrasting results for Asia, where indigenous poverty rates have been falling, against the stagnating poverty rates earlier documented in Latin America, are striking," said Gillette Hall, co-author of the study.

The report provides both an imposing overview of basic statistics across indigenous groups, and a series of in-depth country chapters. Large scale household surveys or census data were used to document poverty and other socio-economic trends such as in health and education among Indigenous Peoples in the countries analyzed.

Combined with earlier case studies for five Latin American countries - 'Indigenous Peoples, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America,' (Hall and Patrinos 2006) - the new study offers a set of detailed results for almost 80 percent of the world's indigenous population.

"The study's findings suggest that widespread and sustainable growth and poverty reduction play key role in eliminating the indigenous poverty gap. This means that policymakers might want to focus first on poverty reduction, which should benefit vast segments of indigenous populations. After that, targeted intervention addressing specific sources of disadvantage can be undertaken to reach those among indigenous populations who need a special lift," said Harry Anthony Patrinos, co-author of the study.

Patrinos said the status of indigenous peoples from Latin America, compared to that of indigenous peoples in Asia, had changed little in recent years, raising questions about the benefits of targeted initiatives, such as bilingual education programmes, which was popular in that region.

Patrinos, a lead education economist at the World Bank, said there had been some rise in school enrolment levels among indigenous peoples in Latin American countries with a policy of bilingual education. However, without control groups, it was not possible to attribute that rise to bilingual schooling.

Asked to comment specifically about Mexico, Patrinos said there was no evidence that bilingual education had contributed to improved income gains among indigenous peoples in that country, although it was possible that it had improved school enrolment levels within that population.

However, he praised Mexico's cash transfer programme, whose beneficiaries included indigenous peoples, saying it had probably contributed to their increased access to schools and other social services, such as health care. But, there was no way to tell if the quality of schooling received by indigenous pupils was adequate, and unless it improved, the income gap between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples would likely persist.

He added that Mexico now had a policy of allowing parents from indigenous communities to participate in the design of school programmes, where they were given funds and special materials, which he said was promising. Bolivia had a programme modelled on the Mexican programme.

By contrast, Asian countries such as China, India and Viet Nam relied less on targeted programmes, preferring the adoption of strategies aimed at the economic growth of entire regions, he said. Poverty rates declined more rapidly in those countries compared to Latin American nations, indicating that, perhaps, there were merits to pursuing broad-based policies.

Asked to explain why poverty tended to persist among indigenous peoples around the world, Patrinos cited one popular theory - that indigenous people had a history of being dispossessed of their land. But, he quickly added that household surveys, on which the World Bank study was based, were "not the best instruments" to examine such issues.

He said discrimination against indigenous peoples was also hard to detect, although crude statistical techniques did exist to measure it. For example, a study conducted five years ago in Latin America had shown that between one quarter to a third of the difference in income between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples could not be explained through education level or other observable measures, and, thus, was attributed to discrimination. That mystery factor had diminished over time, which raised hopes that well-designed education programmes and other social services could help reduce the income gap between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples.

Patrinos said the study's findings pointed to the value of placing the needs of indigenous populations at the centre of poverty reduction strategies, and also called for more disaggregated data. And, while it was important to promote widespread and sustainable economic growth, better designed programmes targeting indigenous people were also needed.

The authors of the study say that, as the global community looks for ways to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs) of halving the share of people in poverty by 2015 from its 1990 level, it cannot afford to ignore the plight of Indigenous Peoples. Although they make up only 4.4 percent of the global population, they account for about 10 percent of the poor - with nearly 80 percent of them in Asia.

Turning the situation around will require widespread and sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction, along with well designed programmes that target Indigenous Peoples.

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