Physician heal thyself

While the dynamics that affect indigenous peoples are complex, the common denominator is discrimination, bias and stereotyping. Although the interests of actors are very different, the one thing that virtually every group shares is a readiness to substitute their own values, opinions and judgements for those of indigenous people in determining a course of action. Ironically, those actors that seek to promote "the best interests" of indigenous peoples are often just as guilty as logging companies and large institutions of perpetuating negative sterotypes and undermining the right of indigenous peoples to decide for themselves. Although humanitarian actors are in the position to establish best practices that place indigneous communities at the center of their programs, time and again local organizations, INGOs and international agencies design and implement programs without asking intended beneficiaries whether their initiatives are useful, desireable and responsive to priorities established by the community itself.

Most actors, in fact, develop strategies, design programs and implement activities without the foggiest notion what specific communities really want. As a result, most programs that "serve" indigenous communities do so through a process that continues to perpetuate descrimination and marginalization by sending the message: "We know whats best for you, so cooperate and be grateful for whatever you get." Although intentions may be good, processes that treat human beings as objects are intellectually dishonest and practically ineffective. Humanitarian organizations that value their own missions and mandates more than they value the genuine desires and aspirations of people do so because of what is the nearly universal human tendency to assume ones own values, beliefs and attitudes are also valid for others. Combined with power over resources, humanitarian organizations effectively place themselves above communities, substituting their desires and ideas for those of the people they are meant to serve. Because such actions are motivated by what is generally a sincere concern and desire to help, most humanitarian organizations have a difficult time recognizing their own processes and approaches as expressions of discriminatory attitudes.

Before actors can change discriminatory attitudes in society-at-large, they must - REPEAT: MUST - be willing to take a critical look inside their own shops and ask hard questions: How do we know what we think we know? Where are our blind spots? Does the composition of our staff reflect our commitment to indigneous peoples? Does our overall beneficiary profile represent the commitment to also serve indigenous peoples? Naturally, this can often be viewed as a threating exercise and many organizations will rush to explain why actions may not measure up to words. In working with indigenous peoples, excuses are common, but real understanding is extremely difficult.

The truth is that working with traditional forest-based hunter-gather populations is challenging, particularly since leaderships structures and decision-making processes are often unlike the structures and systems of most organizations. In a bid to work with communities, organizations have often insisted that traditional societies organize themselves in a way that better suits third-party actors, but these imposed leaderships structures not be consistent with actual social dynamics, traditions and belief systems of communities and can damage social fabric and compromise a communities existing coping strategies.

Humanitarian actors facing such dilemmas must learn to do so openly. Only by acknowledging our own deficiencies can we identify and analyse potential solutions in way that is objective and not reactive or defensive. One way to do this is by gaining a better understanding of the psyco-social dynamics of discrimination itself. The reference attached to this commentary does not speak specifically to discrimination and indigenous peoples and humanitarian actors - but provides an analysis of xenophobia and the role of media in changing public attitudes. As program managers open dialogue with staff members, it is sometimes more productive to address potentially challenging discussions in a way that does not directly confront, but provides a framework for understanding like processes. Xenophopia is in many ways the opposite of the the issues of "first peoples" but the underlying psychological component of discrimination is the same. This reference, which explores the role of media, not only provides information about a relevant mechanism for public advocacy, but can also gently encourage reflection about staff members' own attitudes in a way that is non-threatening.

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