Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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Poverty and livelihoods

7 min read

Socio-economic inequality is determined by a complex range of factors, manifested in many interconnected spheres, such as livelihoods, income, material assets, access to social goods, influence and participation. While state policies have often focused heavily on national averages and broadly defined groups, to address the specific disparities experienced by those most marginalized – including many minority and indigenous communities – it is necessary to look at how identities, social norms and structural factors intersect to create distinct patterns of experience. For many minority and indigenous communities, this interconnectedness forms the basis of their well-being: if disadvantage is experienced in one sphere, other areas are also likely to be affected.


Access to decent employment, as well as traditional non-market and subsistence-based economies, are essential for minorities and indigenous peoples to achieve socioeconomic equality. Without this, human agency and social connections are weakened, leading to many social problems. Yet these sources of livelihood are often vulnerable to environmental change and other pressures, including those caused by development initiatives by governments or corporations.

For example, there are approximately 200 million pastoralists worldwide, including minority and indigenous communities such as Tuareg in the Sahara and Maasai in Eastern Africa. Their livelihoods are often restricted or halted due to a range of factors, including climate change, sedentarization, appropriation of land and insensitively designed conservation projects.[i] Representatives of pastoralist communities have highlighted how this impacts them in multiple ways, undermining their culture, dignity and spirituality, as well as their subsistence base and access to markets.[ii]

Livelihoods can themselves be a source of discrimination and stigma. For example, in Thailand’s upland forests Akha, Hmong, Lahu and Lisu communities engage in swidden agriculture – a practice frequently seen by outsiders as ‘uncivilized’ compared to the settled wet rice cultivation of the lowlands.[iii] Disregard for traditional livelihoods and appropriation of land for large-scale development or extraction schemes has forced hundreds of thousands of persons belonging to minority and indigenous communities to migrate or resettle elsewhere, in many cases pushed by resource depletion, enforced state policies and targeted violence. For example, in Laos and Vietnam large-scale dam projects have led to the relocation of entire communities en masse, often leading to their disintegration due to a lack of economic opportunities and friction with other residents over limited resources such as land.[iv]

Minorities and indigenous peoples frequently experience low income levels due to discrimination and lack of skills deemed commercially useful, such as those used by women to make traditional arts and crafts that have been replaced by market goods. For example, in Bolivia, 67 per cent of the unskilled workers are reportedly indigenous, while only 4 per cent of indigenous occupy high-level positions, leading to pronounced income disparities between indigenous and mestizo workers.[v]

For minority women, opportunities to carry out chosen livelihoods and decent work are frequently constrained. For example, of the approximately 100 million Dalit women in India, the majority have restricted access to basic services, resources and public places, with many forced into unsafe and poorly paid work, such as manual scavenging, to survive. In addition, at a national level, a disproportionate percentage of ‘single’ women – meaning widowed, separated, divorced or unmarried – are Dalit: when they separate most get dispossessed, and when widowed their inheritance is typically handed to their sons or male relatives on whom they then have to depend.[vi]

Unfortunately, existing socio-economic policies fail to address the complex nature of the disadvantage created by the convergence of caste, gender and marital status. For instance, Dalit women often struggle to access available support in accessing work opportunities: as women and members of a minority, they are frequently sidelined by both majority women and members of their own community. For instance, when they apply for the scheduled caste quota they may find themselves directed to apply instead for the women’s quota, and vice versa.[vii]

Access to services

As with livelihoods, accessing services – including education, health care, water supply and sanitation – can promote greater equality and better life opportunities. However, minorities and indigenous peoples commonly inhabit locations that are underserved by basic services. In Latin America, for example, it is estimated that around 50 per cent of indigenous peoples reside in isolated rural regions with limited access to basic services or infrastructure.[viii] In addition, other barriers to accessing these services occur due to discrimination as a result of cultural norms, stereotypes, language and related factors.

Health care, which can help prevent high absenteeism and low productivity at school and work, is one area where lack of access can undermine development and well-being. An example of this is the ‘San of southern Africa [who] face severe discriminatory attitudes from health workers in ways that impede on both access and quality to health services’.[ix] Discrimination can be experienced within communities, too: for instance, in the Great Lakes region of Africa, Batwa men decide if their daughters are sent to school.[x]

Socio-economic inequality can be driven by a vicious cycle across generations. For example, while education can help improve life outcomes, if it cannot be accessed or the experience itself is alienating, then children are likely to find themselves in a similar position to their parents, with limited prospects. This is highlighted by how access to better education is often determined by where one lives, which in turn is linked to a family’s socio-economic background. For example, 27 per cent of African American youth grow up in severely disadvantaged neighbourhoods, compared to around 1 per cent of non-Hispanic White youth, exposing them to ‘a worse education both in terms of fewer years of schooling and poorer quality of schooling’ and, in the long term, leading to ‘fewer opportunities for employment and income’.[xi]

Moreover, children from poor families are often sent to work, thus missing out on school. In Guatemala, it is estimated that 65 per cent of domestic workers are indigenous girls and adolescents from ‘impoverished families who often send their young female members to towns and cities, where they work an average of 14 hours per day and are often at the risk of physical and psychological abuse’.[xii]

Migration, participation and citizenship

Migration too can often be a by-product of socio-economic inequality, highlighting how intersectional inequality is not always static. Millions of people migrate each year, both within and beyond borders, predominantly so they can survive and improve their lives. Often the mere process of migration creates new minorities and disadvantages: migrants typically face barriers in accessing services, are frequently able to find work only in the informal sector and face restrictive immigration policies which further entrench divisions in terms of ethnicity, nationality and gender. For example, while ‘20 per cent of European Union natives are at risk of poverty or exclusion, the proportion is 35 per cent among those born outside the European Union’[xiii] – a situation that can be further exacerbated by gender discrimination.

Socio-economic inequality is further experienced by minorities and indigenous peoples due to lack of voice and under-representation in the public sphere, with the result that their perspectives, priorities and needs often remain invisible. This, in turn, further hampers their access to resources and opportunities to meet their full potential. For example, in Thailand an estimated 600,000 people belonging to indigenous and minority communities are currently deemed to be stateless, leaving them without the necessary documentation such as birth certificates to access services, exercise their basic civic rights or access credit.[xiv]

In conclusion, the inequalities experienced by minority and indigenous communities are not only informed by a general lack of resources or local deprivation, but also distinct patterns of discrimination. As a result, conventional poverty reduction measures alone may not be sufficient to address these issues without a more comprehensive programme of policy and social reform that includes, among other areas, recognition of land rights, respect for traditional culture and targeted investments in basic services such as health and education for minority and indigenous communities.

Electra Babouri

[i] United Nations (UN), State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, New York, UN, 2009, p.30.

[ii] Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists, La Granja, Segovia, Spain, 14 September 2007.

[iii] Kabeer, N., ‘The challenges of intersecting inequality’, Maitreyee, 24, July 2014.

[iv] UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children (OSRSG/VAC), Breaking the Silence on Violence against Indigenous Girls, Adolescents and Young Women, New York, UNICEF, May 2013, p.26.

[v] Gigler, B., ‘Poverty, inequality and human development of indigenous peoples in Bolivia’, paper presented at the 6th International HDCA (Human Development and Capability Association) Conference, Georgetown University, 2009, p.36.

[vi] Mangubhai, J. and Capraro, C., ‘“Leave no one behind” and the challenge of intersectionality: Christian Aid’s experience of working with single and Dalit women in India’, Gender & Development, vol. 23, no. 2, July 2015, pp. 261–77.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] UNICEF et al., op. cit., p.21.

[ix] Ibid., p.24.

[x] Ramsay, K., Uncounted: The Hidden Lives of Batwa Women, London, MRG, May 2010.

[xi] American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, Report of the APA Task Force on Socioeconomic Status, Washington, DC, APA, 2006, p.12.

[xii] UNICEF et al., op. cit., p.32.

[xiii] UN, Inequality Matters: Report of the World Social Situation 2013, New York, UN, 2013, p.96.

[xiv] UNICEF et al., op. cit., p.24.

Photo: Indigenous people in Bolivia. Credit: Szymon Kochański.