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Indigenous Decade sees mixed results

Discrimination explained about half of earnings inequality between indigenous and non-indigenous groups in Latin America (1) in 1994, according to Harry Patrinos, a World Bank expert who co-authored the new study Indigenous People, Poverty and Human Development in Latin America, 1994-2004 . The other half, he points out, could be attributed to human capital development gaps.”

How have things improved since then?

Not that much, according to Patrinos and study co-author Gillette Hall. “Indigenous peoples have certainly gained political influence,” Patrinos said at a recent talk at IDB headquarters, pointing to political upheavals in Mexico, Ecuador and Bolivia and the increased organizational power and representation of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. There has been gains in policy as well, he remarked. Only 6 countries in the region had bilingual education in the 1970s, while today 18 do.

But there is no evidence of a gap decrease between indigenous peoples and the rest of society in terms of poverty, education, health and other indicators.

“In four of the five countries in the study, poverty rates for indigenous peoples changed by less than 0.1 percent over the 1990s,” Patrinos remarked. The one exception was Guatemala, where they declined by 15 percent. “Interestingly enough, the decline in poverty rates for non-indigenous peoples' in that country was higher--25 percent, ” he added.

There's a theory that indigenous peoples tend to be less connected to the national economy and markets, and are therefore less affected by macroeconomic changes. This could explain the situation, but it is just one of several unproven hypotheses, Patrinos noted.

“What we do know is that the poverty gap for indigenous peoples is deeper and shrank more slowly than the gap for non-indigenous groups over the 1990s,” Patrinos said. “In countries where national poverty rates were falling, the size of the poverty gap decreased more slowly—or even increased—for indigenous peoples. Most notable was Bolivia, where the poverty gap for non-indigenous groups declined by 2 percent, while the gap for indigenous groups increased by 8 percent between 1997 and 2002.” 

In a spot of good news, the study shows evidence suggesting that discrimination in labor markets may be declining.

But social services such as education and health continue to show sizeable gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous groups. “There's a big gap in terms of years of schooling between these two groups,” Patrinos reported. “The average gap across the region is between 2.3 years of schooling for indigenous peoples and 3.7 years for the rst of society.” The study also shows a big health gap from available statistics on chronic malnutrition and access to health insurance in the study.

In order to improve the earned income gap, Patrinos proposed differentiated programs in education specifically targeted to indigenous peoples. “Some programs are well-targeted,” he noted, “but others are not.”

(1) The study focused on the five countries in the region with the largest indigenous populations: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico and Peru.