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CONTRIBUTION · 6th January 2012
Elisa Peter
Four things NGOs should know for successful engagement with indigenous peoples

Editor Note: This article also applies to Governmental Organizations.

In a time when NGO leaders are increasingly looking at engaging with grassroots movements, it is crucial that they spend the time necessary to build relationships based on mutual trust, respect and understanding.

This is particularly important when engaging with indigenous peoples movements.

“’Red-washing’ is not uncommon”, says Carol Kalafatic, Associate Director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University who spoke at the Hauser Center yesterday.

“It has become profitable to look “indigenous peoples friendly” but many NGOs only pay lip service to the priorities and rights of indigenous peoples, especially if they don’t fit into the NGO’s organizational goals and culture”.

Kalafatic proposed four principles for engagement, which all NGOs wanting to partner with indigenous communities need to embrace:

1. An honest examination of power relationships. NGOs are often the ones initiating cooperation with indigenous communities. Most of them already have a set agenda, which may not correspond to indigenous peoples’ needs and priorities.

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. A readiness to question assumptions. NGOs and indigenous peoples have different ways of setting and achieving goals, different paradigms, knowledge systems, governance institutions, worldviews, working cultures, etc.

It is important that the transfer of knowledge is bidirectional with all parties willing to truly listen and learn.

3. A shift from viewing indigenous peoples as stakeholders to rights holders. Some NGOs view indigenous communities as victims, recipients of social services or one group among others to be consulted during a project. Others idealize them without understanding the complex nature of indigenous peoples’ unique history, culture and socio-political heritage. This too often leads to cooptation and a breakdown in the relationship.

Indigenous peoples have universal human rights and collective rights based primarily on the special relationship they have with their traditional lands and territories. A rights-based approach is key to a successful collaboration between indigenous peoples and their partners.

4. A long-term commitment to trust and relationship building. Many indigenous communities may be distrustful of the purpose of collaboration. NGOs may get frustrated by the need to follow the decision making protocols of indigenous peoples’ customary governance systems, which does not nicely fit into the NGOs’ and their donors’ logical frameworks, timetables and deadlines.

But sacrificing relationship building in the name of efficiency often leads to more mistrust and a failed collaboration in the long run.

NGOs need to allocate the time necessary to meet indigenous peoples on their own terms. This may involve a fundamental shift in the NGO organizational culture.

These principles may seem aspirational but there are simple tools that could make them become reality:

- Foster human-to-human contact away from board-rooms and conference centers. If invited, NGO leaders should consider bringing their families to spend time with indigenous communities and establish personal relationships. This could go a much longer way in building trust than to send glossy annual reports with financial statements and a foreword from the Director stating his/her commitment to cooperation with indigenous

- Get donors on board. Deadlines are often donor-driven and the need for financial resources is very real both among indigenous communities and NGOs. That creates pressure to please the donors and meet the deadlines at all costs. But donors can be convinced to be flexible on their timeline.

In 1996, several delegates attending a UN meeting on sustainable forest management in Leticia, Colombia, extended the duration of their stay, following advice from indigenous peoples’ groups.

- Read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and hire staff who are committed to genuine relationship building with indigenous peoples.

Both indigenous movements and NGOs have much to gain in working more closely together. Indigenous peoples also have much to lose.

The success of the relationships they establish with partners will greatly depend on the ability of these partners to truly listen.

Elisa Peter is a mid-career fellow at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School.

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