Four Principles for NGO Engagement of Indigenous Peoples

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December 3, 2011; Source: Humanitarian & Development NGOs Domain (Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations)This is a very instructive posting at an excellent blog of the Hauser Center at Harvard focused on international NGOs. A mid-career fellow at Hauser, Elisa Peter, proposes four principles for NGOs’ engagement of indigenous peoples that are meant to be of more use than simply making NGOs look “indigenous peoples friendly” (a concern expressed by Carol Kalafatic of the American Indian Program at Cornell University):


  1. Power relationships: “It is important that indigenous peoples are able to enter the relationship on their own terms and at their own pace, in keeping with the principle of self-determination.”
  2. Different assumptions: NGOs must pay attention to the fact that “NGOs and indigenous peoples have different ways of setting and achieving goals, different paradigms, knowledge systems, governance institutions, worldviews, working cultures, etc.”
  3. Rights-holders, not stakeholders: “Indigenous peoples have universal human rights and collective rights based primarily on the special relationship they have with their traditional lands and territories”—meaning that indigenous peoples are much more than “stakeholders.”
  4. Trust and relationship building. “NGOs need to allocate the time necessary to meet indigenous peoples on their own terms,” necessitating “a fundamental shift in the NGO organizational culture.”

It is a brief but persuasive blog posting, and it reminds us of the past couple of years’ powerful advocacy from Rebecca Adamson of First Peoples Worldwide, who has been reminding Congressional decision-makers, foundations, and the public about the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands due to “two factors: large foreign investments for commercial development and the establishment of national parks and conservation areas.” These four principles apply for instance to Adamson’s Alternet article, “Are Western Conservation Efforts Causing Famine In Africa?” that we discussed in the NPQ Newswire some time ago.  The question in this particular case is, what are the funders and NGOs that are promoting conservation in Africa doing to apply these four principles—and how would they change funders’ and NGOs’ programmatic approaches?—Rick Cohen


  • Elisa Peter

    Rick, Thank you for referring to the blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago on NGO and indigenous peoples relations on the Hauser Center website. Just one correction: the four principles outlined above are Carol Kalafatic’s suggestion, not mine. She presented them during the workshop we held with her at the Hauser Center and I just summarized them in the blog post. Thank you. Elisa