Embrace or Reject? Decoding Indigenous Perspectives on Development Programmes

By Léna ProuchetNew Rhythms of Development blog series

Entrepreneurship has become one of the main strategies used by international organisations and NGOs to promote sustainable development in the Global South. This approach has been highly criticised and deemed unfit to address structural issues underlying poverty. Such criticism has also been rooted in case studies of indigenous and local communities rejecting “development” initiatives. This blog post, based on field work in the Peruvian Amazon, reveals a nuanced perspective on the relationship between local communities and “entrepreneurship for development” projects. It shows how locals leverage projects to access new resources that fulfil basic needs and achieve aspirations for a better lifestyle, while still giving importance to some aspects of their traditional lifestyle.

Entrepreneurship for development: a fake solution to poverty?

Over the last three decades, the promotion of entrepreneurship as a means to achieve sustainable development and tackle poverty has been and is still championed by international development agencies including the World Bank and United Nations, as well as national governments – for instance in Peru.

This approach has received strong criticism, from critical development and critical entrepreneurship scholars. They affirm that it perpetuates neoliberal ideology by placing undue responsibility on people to “get out” of poverty through individual agency, which diverts attention from addressing the root causes of poverty through structural changes.

This scepticism towards this development philosophy has led some critics to advocate for a complete cessation of such entrepreneurship for development initiatives, presenting cases where indigenous and local communities rejected and resisted such paradigm. Instead, the proposition is to explore “alternatives to development” among indigenous and local communities, that are deemed to prioritise environmental and social well-being over economic dimensions.

“It is not because I am indigenous that I cannot become rich!”

When I started my fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon, that was preceded by two years of extensive reading on critical development and entrepreneurship, I was anticipating observing such rejection and alternative visions to development among the community I was staying with. The reality I encountered, however, was different from my expectations.

In 2022, during two periods of two months, I stayed in a village where several NGOs had implemented cacao production projects. Through observations and conversations, and in collaboration with a Peruvian anthropologist, and a local community facilitator I was able to better grasp locals’ vision of development and their perception of “entrepreneurship for development” initiatives.

A first striking element was the prevalence of “money” as answer to my questions about what one needed to live a happy and peaceful life in the community. Money was a necessary means to access not only food and medicine, but also education. Several community members expressed the hope that additional income would enable them to finance studies outside of the community for their children. This does not mean that younger generations want to leave the community to settle down in urban areas. Interestingly, several testimonies underlined that indigenous peoples tended to come back to their communities after living in the cities, because: “In the city, you have to work all the time to eat and have somewhere to sleep. In the community it is different, you can always go to the chacra and harvest some food”, as one man told us.

After visiting various houses, it became evident that increased financial resources translated into preferences for more “modern” housing structures, such as concrete floor and metallic roofs, and ownership of smartphones – “oh wow, so cool, you have the phone with the apple behind!” said to me a young man – and even sometimes access to internet. During an interview, the village chief declared: “It is not because we were hunters and gatherers before, that I cannot develop myself as an indigenous person that I cannot have money and that I cannot become rich. That limitation does not exist.”

A “pick and choose” approach to development projects

These perspectives on development were related to the way locals approached NGOs projects. Most communities’ members seemed to be in favour or neutral towards NGO interventions, as evidenced in a yearly renewed community vote on the continuation or termination of the partnership.

An interesting finding of the project was the selective participation of individuals in the project, only picking dimensions that were aligned with their lifestyles and aspirations. Some elements of the programme were particularly welcomed by participants. Especially, they mentioned that NGOs support had helped them to access new tools and equipment, making cacao growing and harvesting more manageable and less time consuming.

Other aspects of the projects were adapted by participants to fit into their daily lives. Interestingly, the increased importance of financial resources was not often associated with a profit-maximisation mindset. People were willing to invest time in productive activities, as long as it did not interfere with essential aspects of their lives, such as social interactions, family time or sports. Through our weeks of fieldwork, we understood that indigenous peoples tended to work around three or four hours per day, usually in the morning, and the rest of the day was dedicated to other activities. The director of a local NGO told us how he had proposed young indigenous men to come and help him on a Sunday for an event, offering to pay them double. They all refused because, “there was a football competition at the same time.” Therefore, participants did not work “full-time” in their field, in contrast to what most NGO local staff recommended to them. 

Finally, participants simply did not join parts of the project they were not interested in. For instance, most NGO projects included training and demonstration in one parcel so that farmers could reproduce some cultivation techniques in theirs. During our interviews with cacao farmers, we understood that it was common for participants to not attend those training sessions, because they had “better things to do or already knew about it.”

The way forward

In summary, our research did not reveal a rejection of NGO support but rather an agentic response of locals who could align their degree of involvement with their needs and aspirations.

It is important to mention that locals reacted in different ways to the projects, and participants displayed heterogenous levels of engagement. As it can be said of any community across the globe, varying preferences emerged, with some individuals being keener to engage in entrepreneurship while others displayed interests for other economic activities.

Therefore, despite individuals deriving benefits from the entrepreneurship for development projects, flexibility in types and delivery of NGO support appears essential to accommodate the varied needs and aspirations of indigenous peoples. Some NGOs have already embraced this idea, especially through the mechanisms of direct and unconditional cash transfer programs to individuals, that give locals the flexibility to use the money freely and independently, instead of proposing a “one-size-fits-all” entrepreneurship for development programme. Such approach is also gaining traction in the conservation world and piloted by conservation NGOs.

This blog post also relates to a forthcoming Routledge book with the provisional title “Postdevelopment from the Global South: Radical Alternatives or Ambivalent Engagements?”

The research was presented at the panel “Radical alternatives or ambivalent engagements? Development understandings from the Global South” at the recent EADI/CEsA Lisbon Conference

Léna Prouchet is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Exeter, her research is in collaboration and co-financed by Cool Earth, a conservation NGO collaborating with local communities to protect rainforest and tackle the climate crisis. Léna works on entrepreneurship for development projects, community-led development and human-rights based approaches to conservation. She collaborates with decision-makers and policymakers to translate her research findings into actionable recommendations.

Images by the author

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

2 Replies to “Embrace or Reject? Decoding Indigenous Perspectives on Development Programmes”

  1. Isn’t the insistence on entrepreneurship as a path out of poverty basically about continuing to propitiate the ghost of W W Rostow, the gentleman who was commissioned to write :The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-Communist Manifesto? I think, Prouchet shows the fault line of development programming clearly and convincingly with the lens of the indigenous people of Peru. Without questioning its structure, poverty cannot be ‘tackled’ effectively.

    1. Many thanks for your comment! The idea of “entrepreneurship for development” is indeed nothing new, I found Lee’s paper very helpful to understand its emergence (Lee, S. S. (2023). Entrepreneurship for all? The rise of a global “entrepreneurship for development” agenda, 1950–2021. World Development, 166, 106226.). Another paper of my PhD will explore the rational that local development staff develop to justify their failure to turn indigenous peoples into “super entrepreneurs” without questioning the essence of their work.

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