Economic Development of Indigenous Communities

Robert B. Hoyer, a graduate student at the University of York, England, spent two months traveling throughout Metro Manila and Southern Mindanao for the purpose of academic study on culture in development. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, December 17, 2007 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

As most studies indicate, the regions of the Philippines that are the most prone to violence are also those with the highest rates of deprivation.  Unfortunately, many development organizations neglect the socio-economic realities of target populations.  For example, a substantial portion of development programming is given over to trade and enterprise, or livelihood, training.  This training, according to an “indigenous” NGO, acts to foster “sustainable economic enterprise” within the local populations.  However, it is disingenuous to presume that there exists no economic activity prior to the intervention of international donor agents.  It is therefore imperative to comprehend the socio-economic landscape of any given region prior to any intervention.

Socio-economics here acts as a measure of bounded culture, that is to mean the range of options available to a particular individual or organization relative to any given circumstances.  It limits and guides activities not only externally to the individual, but also commands their internal thought processes to arrive at certain conclusions.  This culture establishes informal regimes, or a series of rules and expectations, of socio-economic relations that form the landscape in which an individual resides.  However, international donor organizations, being foreign to these bounded cultures, and having a logic that does not necessarily coincide with local regimes, often fails to recognize their fabric of interwoven relations and impose their own logic which often entails a significant alteration of the socio-economic environment.  The effects of development on the rural communities, where the claims of knowledge were disseminated from the donor organizations leading to a ‘rational’ design and management framework that commands the physical attributes of development in the recipient communities, is  therefore manifested as a contradiction in the paternalistic methods of many NGOs that seek to “preserve” the indigenous culture yet filter it through the cultural lens of external actors to alter the value structure of cultural practices.

In their efforts to revitalize and preserve indigenous culture, one NGO director explained, “according to some scholars… (traditional farming) is sustainable.”  The logic of traditional farming’s sustainability needs no assurance from the academic or development communities, the traditional means of farming practiced by tribal people in the Philippines was sustainable long before the arrival of foreign actors with their own particular agricultural interests, yet farming advocates still feel the need to verify their own tribal farming techniques through the academic and bureaucratic channels that are revered by the foreign institutions.  Additionally, while seeking to preserve indigenous culture through agriculture, this NGO simultaneously sought to dissuade other traditional practices that are deemed offensive to Western academic and development communities by incorporating foreign activities, such as “gender sensitivity” training to foster an awareness of women’s rights not previously known, into the development framework.

Many NGOs, particularly in Mindanao, subscribe to this conceptualization of the “indigenous people” that historicizes the collective self of what an indigenous person is, where their interests lie, how their society is constructed.  It is a photograph of a distinct past, developed and super-imposed on present conditions.  What is ignored is that culture is not stagnant, it is a dynamic that constantly interacts with a changing environment.  As many contemporary theorists posit, any separation between seemingly autonomous social units is artificial.  On the contrary, they are to be viewed as forming part of a singular dynamic matrix of economic and political interactions so that those conditions that existed do not bear the weight of the conditions that currently exist.  The continuous self-evaluation and re-evaluation in relation to fluctuating external conditions allows for new logics to emerge that will automatically incorporate terms and concepts within the social units that find them useful, negating the necessity for training in normative structures.

At present, the socio-economic reality of the “indigenous people” is not foreign to the socio-economic realities that influence the rest of the world, much less the entirety of the Philippines.  The values of the rural populations are increasingly catering to modern tastes.  The desire for homes utilizing imported building materials, television sets, motorized vehicles and avenues to formal education have encroached upon supposedly traditional values.  So it is a fallacy to create an image of the “indigenous” identity that acts in contrast to other factions of a society.  It has the effect of re-shaping existing identities through the classification of groups based upon particular bounded criteria that exclude the inequalities of wealth, access to land, education, and political structures that define the conditions of the indigenous populations.

That is not to be construed as promoting a willful ignorance of the symbolic resources derived from the primordial constructions of indigenous culture, but neither should they be viewed as static.  New truths are not an extinction of culture, but rather an evolution of culture, and how communities and individuals operate within these spheres is for them to determine.  The issue is not to foster programs that are sensitive to a homogenous conceptualization of culture but rather to establish linkages to a wider economic audience and to provide the means for actors to approach these processes on their own terms, to grant equal access without regard to ethnicity.  To presume that we know better than they do in regard to their own needs and desires would be to perpetuate the paternalism of past programming.  Social units will establish their own logic for economic interactions that carries the consent of the actors involved. To this end, there currently exists limited physical access to markets and a crucial lack of information relative to markets, finances and credit.

The failure of market access through transportation infrastructure undermines the efficient distribution of goods, limiting the profitability of economic endeavors and making producers susceptible to exploitation.  Even where credit is available for production inputs, such as through informal lenders or micro-credit schemes, the continued lack of access to markets results in surpluses that reduce overall values.

Similarly, the lack of information reduces responsiveness in production to goods desired by outside markets.  The efforts by co-operatives to address these failings often suffer similar dysfunctions so that they are often limited in their operations to local initiatives.

Many co-operatives sell goods produced by their members but with few buyers.  Often, the majority of the funding for these institutions originates in foreign donors eager to promote development in the region.  The end result is a reliance on foreign inputs in the form of ODA and non-governmental development assistance that perpetuate cultural asymmetries, and lead to a continuous cycle of dependency.  As the executive director of an NGO in South Cotabato remarked, “I’m both happy and sad.  I feel good…that I was able to organize a billion pesos, but (the beneficiaries) may not be economically empowered.”

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