The World Bank Tribal Policy: Criticisms & Recommendations by Professor John H. Bodley
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N A T I O N A L C O N G R E S S
O F A M E R I C A N I N D I A N S
THE WORLD BANK TRIBAL POLICY:
CRITICISMS & RECOMMENDATIONS
John H. Bodley
Professor of Anthropology
Washington State University
(An earlier draft of this paper was presented
at the Australia New Zealand Association for
the Advancement of Science annual meeting in
Perth, Australia in May 1983. Also see Bodley
TESTIMONY PREPARED FOR THE HOUSE COMMITTEE ON
BANKING, FINANCE & URBAN AFFAIRS, SUBCOMMITTEE
ON INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT, INSTITUTIONS &
FINANCE. HEARINGS ON THE WORLD BANK, JUNE 29,
1983, WASHINGTON, D.C.
The official policy statement of the World Bank, "Tribal Peoples &
Economic Development" (Goodland 1982) is intended to minimize the adverse
impact on tribal peoples that might be caused by World Bank funded
development projects. However, this humanistic objective may actually not
be easily realized because the policy as it now stands contains serious
contradictions and represents a single philosophical approach that may
not always provide the best defense for tribal peoples. Furthermore, this
policy would preclude alternative approaches that might in many cases be
more appropriate. One of the most serious problems with the World Bank
policy is that it does not allow tribal peoples the opinion of rejecting
a threatening development project. At the same time the policy takes a
dangerously optimistic view of the benefits of such projects for tribal
peoples and of the feasibility of safeguarding tribal cultures after a
project has been initiated.
The issues that the Bank is addressing are extremely important
because national development projects constitute one of the most serious
threats to the continued survival and well-being of traditional tribal
peoples and cultures throughout the world. While the Bank's concern with
these issues is certainly appropriate and timely, in my view the present
policy statement is inadequate and in need of major revision. No specific
criticisms and recommendations follow.
BASIC ASSUMPTIONS UNDERLYING BANK POLICY
The following questionable assumptions appear to provide the
philosophical basis of the World Bank's tribal policy:
1). all tribes will inevitably be developed;
2). development will benefit tribal peoples;
3). tribes will be allowed a choice;
4). tribes must become ethnic minorities.
Some of these assumptions represent 19th-century colonial approaches
toward tribal peoples that conflict with both the spirit and the letter
of UN declarations on human rights and various international resolutions.
Other assumptions seriously misrepresent the complexity of the
development process as it relates to tribal peoples and cultures. In the
following sections I will examine each assumption, showing where the Bank
policy represents it and why it should be rejected or modified.
1. THE INEVITABILITY OF DEVELOPMENT
The first assumption of the World Bank policy is what I have
elsewhere called the "inevitability argument" (Bodley 1977: 34-36). It is
expressed clearly on page one of the policy as follows: "Assuming that
tribal cultures will either acculturate or disappear..." This phrase is
strikingly reminiscent of the words of Herman Merivale (1861:510), the
English expert on colonial policy, who declared in the mid-nineteenth
century: "Native races must in every instance either perish, or be
amalgamated with the general population of their country." Implicit in
this, is the notion of the superiority of industrial civilization and its
moral right to incorporate what it considers to be obsolete cultural
system. The World Bank explicitly states that, "tribal populations cannot
continue to be left-out of the mainstream of development" (Goodland
1982:3), but we are not told why this is the case.
There are many serious problems with this assumption. In the first
place it confuses changes in general level of cultural complexity, such
as from tribe to state, with the adaptation of specific cultures to
specific environments. Anthropologists have designated the first kind of
change, general evolution (Sahlins 1960), and there does seem to be an
inherent inevitability in the direction of change, hut there is no
inevitability that all cultures will go through the changes. Actually
there is ample evidence in the archaeological record of great cultural
stability for tribal cultures that have adapted to specific local
environments. Australian Aborigines for example, maintained a basically
tribal way of life for 50,000 years or more until the British colonial
intrusion in the late 18th century.
The point is that the incorporation of tribal peoples into national
economies is the result of the expansionist policies of industrial
states, it is not an inevitable process initiated by tribal cultures. The
real danger is that if the inevitability assumption becomes the basis of
World Bank policy it will become self-fulfilling and will preclude the
possibility of tribal independence.
2. THE BENEFITS OF DEVELOPMENT
The World Bank clearly assumes that development projects can be
designed to both protect tribal cultures and bring them the "benefits of
civilization." The policy refuses to recognize that tribal cultures may
be so different from national market societies that forced development
will unavoidably destroy their most important features. The Bank
acknowledges that in the past national development projects have
invariably harmed tribal peoples, but it prefers to blame these failures
on inadequate planning (Goodland 1982:3).
The problem with this assumption is that it does not start with a
clear concept of what tribal cultures are like. The definition of tribal
that the Bank uses describes tribes as ethnically distinct, small,
isolated, non-literate, unacculturated, cashless, impoverished ("the
poorest of the poor" p.iii), and dependent on local environments. In
order to evaluate the effects of development it would be more useful to
emphasize that tribal cultures are economically self-sufficient,
egalitarian systems that are designed to satisfy basic human needs on a
sustained basis. They are politically sovereign, small-scale societies
that control their natural resources on a local, communal basis, and
manage them for long-term sustained yield.
It must be emphasized that the kind of large-scale development
projects that the World Bank would normally fund would take away the
political autonomy of tribes and undermine their economic self-
sufficiency, by imposing national political authority and forcing them
into the market economy, These changes would in turn undermine social
equality and would make local management of tribal resources for
sustained yield, difficult, if not impossible. In the end, tribal peoples
often do become impoverished by development while only a few may benefit.
3. DEVELOPMENT CHOICES
The assumption that tribal peoples can make free and informed
development choices is presented as a fundamental principle of Bank
policy. For example, page one declares that the Bank will not support a
...it is satisfied that best efforts have been made to
obtain the voluntary, full, and conscionable agreement...
of the tribal people... (Goodland 1981:1)
The problem with this is that the actual procedures for obtaining
consent are not outlined and it is clear that there will actually be many
cases in which the Bank will fund projects that tribal peoples oppose.
Furthermore, the Bank refers to its procedures for "involuntary
resettlement" (Goodland 1982:20) for those cases in which tribals resist
It should also be clear that while the Bank officially endorses what
it calls "Cultural Autonomy" (Goodland 1982:28) and "freedom of
choice"(1982:27) for tribals, the Bank's policy of cultural autonomy is
very different from the "Cultural Autonomy Alternative" that I have
advocated earlier (Bodley 1975:168-169, 1977:43-46). The Bank's version
of cultural autonomy superficially resembles my own, and even borrows
some of my wording, but the Bank deletes local political sovereignty of
tribal peoples and would allow them only temporary control over access to
tribal land. These are such critical issues far the future well-being of
tribal peoples that the two versions of "cultural autonomy" deserve to be
compared in detail, and they are quoted side by side below to highlight
WORLD BANK CULTURAL THE CULTURAL AUTONOMY
AUTONOMY POLICY ALTERNATIVE
(Goodland 1982:28) (Bodley 1975:168-169,
1. National Governments & 1. National Governments &
international organizations international organizations must
must support right to land recognize & support tribal rights
used or occupied by tribal to their traditional land,
people, to their ethnic cultural autonomy, and full local
identity, and to cultural sovereignty.
2. The tribe must be provided 2. The responsibility for
with interim safeguards that initiating outside contacts must
enable it to deal with rest with the tribal peoples
unwelcome outside influences themselves: outside influences may
on its own land until the not have free access to tribal
tribe adapts sufficiently. areas.
Significantly, the form of Cultural Autonomy that I advocated far
tribal peoples corresponds closely to the position that tribal political
spokesmen have consistently taken over the past decade in Australia, New
Guinea, Canada, Colombia, Peru, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
A further difficulty with the World Bank policy of "free and
informed" choice is that tribal peoples may not always be "informed"
about the long-range consequences of projects. This is particularly the
case when many consequences can not be adequately foreseen by the project
planners themselves. This point is specifically acknowledged by the Bank,
but the policy suggests that careful planning will minimize unforeseen
consequences. In my view, this is dangerous optimism that only serves the
short term interests of those who will immediately benefit from the
implementation of development projects.
4. ETHNIC IDENTITY OR TRIBAL CULTURE?
The explicitly stated objective of the Bank policy is for tribal
peoples to become "recognized and accepted ethnic minorities" (1982:28),
and "to minimize the imposition of different social or economic systems
until such time as the tribal society is sufficiently robust and
resilient to tolerate the effects of change" (1982:27). The substitution
of "ethnicity" for an autonomous, self-sufficient tribal way of life, is
really at the very heart of the World Bank policy. It should be made very
clear, that while this approach may prevent large-scale depopulation as
tribal areas are developed, and some vestige of tribal identity may be
maintained, unique cultural systems will still be destroyed. Replacing
tribal culture with ethnic identity by forcing development on unwilling
recipients is in direct opposition to article 21 of the United Nations
Declaration on Racism & Racial Discrimination of 1978, and clearly
opposes the spirit of the UN 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.
I must clearly disassociate myself from this approach because the
Bank policy concludes with a paraphrased quote attributed to me that
makes it appear that I endorse the Bank policy of turning tribal peoples
into ethnic minorities, whereas I see this as one of the least desirable
alternatives. Again, the two passages are placed side by side to
highlight the differences:
a tribal culture...
"can continue to be ethnically "can still continue to be an
distinct if it is allowed to essentially Primitive culture if
retain its economy and if it it is allowed to retain its self-
remains unexploited by out- sufficient, subsistence economy
siders." (in Goodland 1982:29) and if it remains unexploited by
outsiders." (Bodley 1975:125)
The difference between an "ethnically distinct" culture and a Primitive
or tribal culture is critical, as is the distinction between an economy
and an economy that is a specifically tribal economy. The UN Declaration
on Racism and Racial Discrimination of 1978 specifically:
"endorses the right of indigenous peoples to maintain
their traditional structure of economy and culture...and
stresses that their land, land rights and natural
resources should not be taken away from them" (article 21)
The World Bank policy would grant tribal peoples an economy and an
ethnic identity, but not necessarily their traditional tribal economy and
traditional culture. This position has a certain logic, because the World
Bank also rejects the retention of local political sovereignty by tribal
peoples, and without local autonomy a traditional tribal economy and
culture can not be maintained in the face of an intruding national
society because tribal lands and resources will not be secure.
ALTERNATIVE POLICY APPROACHES
The basic aim of the World Bank tribal policy is clearly to
accommodate tribal peoples to national development goals, while
minimizing deleterious side effects. This is a reasonable objective where
disruptive development programs are irrevocably underway, but it is
certainly not the only approach. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for an
organization such as the World Bank, which is in a position to shape
development policies through its funding decisions, to exclusively take
this approach. Other viable alternative policy approaches should not be
precluded when projects are still in the planning stage. Alternative
approaches would include helping tribal peoples that are already
partially integrated with the national society to mobilize themselves
politically in defense of their basic right to maintain their way of
life. This would, of course, mean supporting local tribal political
autonomy and tribal control of natural resources, and it could delay or
divert specific development projects. This is no doubt the reason that
the World Bank rejects such an alternative, but if there is no real
intent to respect tribal rights than the Bank policy should not pretend
otherwise. Another policy alternative would be to recognize cultural-
environmental sanctuaries far isolated, fully traditional tribal peoples
where no development would take place. The Bank specifically rejects this
In conclusion, I will list my main arguments against the underlying
assumptions of the World Bank tribal policy, and will include several
specific recommendations for revisions in the policy.
1. THE INEVITABILITY OF DEVELOPMENT
The incorporation of tribal peoples into national economies with the
loss of tribal self-sufficiency, results from specific national
development policies. It is not a "natural, inevitable process" that
cannot be avoided.
2. THE BENEFITS OF DEVELOPMENT
Development policies that weaken the political autonomy of tribal
peoPles and reduce tribal control over resources will almost
certainly lead to detribalization and resource depletion.
3. DEVELOPMENT CHOICES
The World Bank policy does not insure freedom of choice for tribal
peoples, and they should not be asked to approve development
projects when the long-range consequences for them can not be
adequately foreseen by project planners.
4. ETHNIC IDENTITY OR TRIBAL CULTURE?
The preservation of ethnic identity and the creation of "successful
ethnic minorities" should not be equated with the defense of tribal
cultures, and may not always be the best alternative in a given
1. The World Bank should not fund projects that would disturb or
displace isolated, fully traditional tribal groups.
2. The World Bank tribal policy should include a full discussion of how
partially-integrated tribal peoples will be allowed to choose
development projects. There must be mechanisms for tribal peoples to
reject threatening projects and negotiate specific details of the
project as it affects them.
3 The international hanks should not fund projects in states where
tribes are denied a political voice within the national government
and where state governments deny tribes full communal control over
their traditional resource base.
4. A revised World Bank tribal policy should be subjected to critical
review by a panel of tribal political leaders from throughout the
world and by other recognized authorities - representing a wide-
range of viewpoints.
Bodley, John H. 1975. Victims of Progress. Menlo Park, Calif: Cummungs
1977. Alternatives to Ethnocide: Human Zoos, Living Museums, & Real
People. In Elias Sevilla-Casas, (ed.), pp. 31-50. Western Expansion &
Indigenous Peoples. The Hague & Paris: Mouton.
1982. victims of Progress. Second Edition. Palo Alto, Calif: Mayfield
Goodland, Robert 1982. Tribal Peoples & Economic Development: Human
Ecologic Considerations. Washington, D.C.: World Bank
Merivale, Herman 1861. Lectures on Colonization & Colonies. Landan:
Green, Longman & Roberts.
Sahlins, Marshall 1960. Evolution: Specific & General. In Marshall
Sahlins & Elman Service (eds.), Evolution & Culture, pp. 12-44. Ann
Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
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