When we think of health and education, we envision the well being of human beings, as these are essential elements for all of us to live a full life and reach our potential, both as individuals and as members of society. At the Inter-American Development Bank, projects in these sectors are usually classified as “low safeguard risk,” since their environmental impacts are often minor. Nevertheless, when our goal at the IDB is to improve the living conditions of indigenous peoples we must understand health and education services from a broader perspective, and apply the principles of our Operational Policy on Indigenous Peoples (OP-765) to protect against any harmful impacts.
In many cases in the Americas, education used to be a tool of control by colonial powers and national governments. An example of this is the residential schools that Canada forced indigenous children to attend. These children were taken away from their safe and nurturing communities, where the elders taught them values and a way of life that made sense to them, and often placed them instead into cruel and unfamiliar boarding schools; they were forced to assimilate to the dominant [Anglo-French] Canadian culture, and were forbidden from speaking their native language. Worse still, they were taught that their heritage and way of life was inferior and that they should hide their identity. As indigenous scholar and educator Gwen Point of the Skowkale First Nation in Canada said, “I was afraid to go to school … because of all the stories we would hear about how mean the nuns were.” There were no First Nation teachers there, and children were taught to be ashamed of their identity.
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Moreover, educational materials in many cases can make socio-culturally inappropriate references (for example, math problems that talk about grapes for indigenous groups in Brazil that have never seen or tasted a grape). In the case of the First Nations such materials alienated children from their own surroundings and led them and their teachers to believe that they were somehow less intelligent. It’s important to note that today, the scenario has improved significantly. Indigenous leaders of Canada like Gwen have an important voice, are respected and represent indigenous interests in organizations like the United Nations. Also, the Prime Minister of Canada has affirmed the country’s commitment to continue to transform and strengthen the respect for the identity of these communities and investments in their wellbeing.
Health care has not always been a benign service either. The mass sterilization of indigenous women in Peru, Mexico and the United States without their consent or knowledge has been reported and documented, and is a clear example of how health care can be used not only to uplift but also to harm indigenous peoples and take away their rights, in this case the right to have children. Moreover, reports of discrimination against indigenous people when they attempt to access health services are widespread, with providers denying them health care because they perceive indigenous people as being resistant to the biomedical treatments offered, which may not be in alignment with traditional beliefs and practices.
Certainly, these unfortunate past (and in some cases continuing) grievances do not mean that we should stop working to offer the best education and health care to all who need it. The point is that we need to make greater proactive efforts to ensure that indigenous communities are included, particularly considering that they have been historically marginalized. However, to treat health and education projects as always having low risk for indigenous communities is a fallacy that ignores the well-documented history of adverse impacts against them. We need to make sure that project proponents that want to support indigenous communities avoid any harmful practices or attitudes on the part of service providers, whether intentional or inadvertent, and that their projects respond to the specific needs of indigenous communities, defined together with them.
Sociocultural analysis and participatory research are important tools that can help development professionals working on improving the health and education of indigenous peoples to offer services that are meaningful and healing. The involvement of social specialists with an understanding of the particular kinds of risks that indigenous communities face in the health and education sectors is essential in this process, along with a general awareness of the risks inherent in these kinds of projects to avoid the potential adverse impacts and maximize the positive ones.