Social inclusion and indigenous Latin America: The World Bank weighs in

The “golden decade” of Latin American economic growth and social mobility was not shared equally by indigenous groups. Unfortunately, all the World Bank can offer as an answer is the notion of “development with identity.” What?


In its 2015 report on indigenous peoples in Latin America, the World Bank describes the 2000s as Latin America’s “golden decade,” a time of economic growth and unprecedented reduction of extreme poverty, but one in which the indigenous did not share equally. The benefits of economic boom and the social mobility that came with it were “unevenly distributed.” Poverty fell overall, but not as fast for indigenous people, leading to a rising inequality gap between indigenous and non indigenous at a time of historic economic growth. The net result: Latin America remains the most unequal region around the world, though increasingly also along ethnic and racial lines.

Statistically, Latin America’s indigenous start from a more difficult position than non-indigenous, with a greater percentage caught in the poverty trap. Coming from an indigenous household increases the probability of poverty, and decreases the probability of completion of primary and secondary education. The probability of poverty increases even further if the indigenous household is headed by a woman.

Added to this already challenging starting point is the recent trend of urban migration. Throughout the region, indigenous populations are moving at high rates to the cities, with 49 percent currently living in urban areas; that rate is expected to continue to grow. Urbanization offers the indigenous both new opportunities in terms of access to education and other resources, such as electricity and sewage, but exposes them to new forms of exclusion, including the digital divide, cultural differences, the high probability of informal employment, and political inequality and invisibility relative to non-indigenous groups living in the cities.

Traditionally, indigenous people are thought to live in remote and isolated areas. What this urbanization trend means is not yet clear, as the authors readily admit. The urban indigenous do better on various measures of education and poverty (see figure below, from report), but that does not mean the inequality gap disappears.

The second major take-away from the report is also both positive and negative. Latin America has had significant legal and participatory gains for indigenous people, ranging from the ratification in 15 countries of the ILO Convention on Indigenous Rights (No. 169, requiring consultation and participation of indigenous peoples on decisions affecting their culture and rights) to the increased self-identification as indigenous and active electoral participation of multiple indigenous groups. However, the report points out that this has yet to translate into social or economic gains, as the inequality gap between indigenous and non-indigenous has only widened in that time.

The final result is an unclear prescription for how to move forward in tackling poverty eradication to better include indigenous peoples, both rural and urban. Poverty has been defined and measured numerous ways, but as the report suggests, all definitions include a “lack of material or immaterial aspects that limit the enjoyment of a life worth living.” This definition is different from the traditional development agenda—the report maintains—with “life worth living” defined by one’s culture, especially when it comes to indigenous peoples. It is this specific idea that “requires approaches that are historically contingent and socially embedded” and emphasizes that development cannot be tackled from a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, many indigenous groups perceive concepts of wealth differently and place a different weight on values and production.

Where the report falters is with its emphasis on “development with identity,” merely suggesting that education “might” hold the key and to focus on expanding “free, prior and informed consent” and participation in the decision-making processes. The report advocates that indigenous people themselves need to be included in determining relevant development goals and measurements, but there are no concrete examples of what it would mean or how it would be achieved. The lack of any markers or ways to measure forward progress using “development with identity” feels like an afterthought, rather than a result of data analysis which drives the rest of the report.

The report provides important data on the socioeconomic situation of indigenous people in Latin America. It is specific in highlighting the existing gaps and giving credit where progress has been made. However, it falls flat when it comes to prescribing how to address these gaps going forward. Examining development data by ethnicity and race is a big step forward, but prescriptions need to go beyond the frustratingly nebulous concept of “development with identity.” There is more to social inclusion that simply adding a cultural component to development—or in this case saying it should be included without saying how. Rather, what is needed is a more expansive concept of how the indigenous lack access to the basic pathways and tools of development, irrespective of culture: access to public goods (such as education, healthcare and security), access to infrastructure, the effects of corruption, and how social inclusion, or exclusion, is linked to political lack of representation and discrimination.

WB Figure

Taken from the World Bank’s report, Indigenous Latin America in the Twenty-First Century

More Commentary

Scroll to Top