Bank’s new approach to Indigenous grants

Jerry Reynolds

After study upon study showing what not to do in Indigenous development and the costly mistakes that come of doing it anyway, the World Bank has devised a new approach to Indigenous grantmaking. The Grants Facility for Indigenous Peoples initiative will make small grants to Indigenous community organizations to support sustainable development projects based on their own aspirations.

Unprecedentedly, the grantmaking process recognizes that Indigenous communities have their own definition of development, which rests on the communities striving to conserve their resources for the use of subsequent generations. The new approach acknowledges the need for an Indigenous development strategy that translates this tradition into projects which create economic opportunity, and at the same time help revitalize cultural traditions, develop new leaders, and nourish the hope of youth to inherit a culture which is both prosperous and recognizably their own.

It could also herald a rethink of the whole of international Indigenous development funding, according to Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of the US-based First Nations Development Institute. Adamson has advocated for local Indigenous involvement in grant decision-making for more than 20 years, and lobbied World Bank chief James Wolfensohn for the demonstration project that became Grants Facility.

Mapping the issues

Through a survey developed by its international department, First Peoples Worldwide (FPW), and case studies of its projects spanning almost 25 years, First Nations will frame a research agenda to inform Grants Facility funding decisions. Findings and examples of best practice will be brought before international grantmaking organizations like the Asian Development Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the Inter-American Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development.

‘By helping these organizations to expand,’ says Adamson, ‘we can enhance their ability to work with Indigenous people and increase the level of resources going directly to Indigenous communities.’

In carrying out the survey, FPW has consulted Indigenous leaders, leading economists, philanthropists and academics. The precept which guided its design is that control of community assets is fundamental to wealth and development. The survey will look at the land tenure and other property rights of Indigenous communities, their territorial borders, who is in charge of the community assets – ranging from honeycombs and berry patches to oil and gas reserves – who are the decision-makers in the community, and its capacity to manage an economic development project. Ultimately, the survey will offer grantmakers a detailed view of the crucial issues facing Indigenous communities.

Supplementing this will be the case studies. One of these, the Lakota Fund on the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, began as a project of First Nations in the mid-1980s, achieved independence in the early 1990s, and continues to thrive today. From inception, its primary mission has been to assert Indigenous control over community assets in the traditions of Lakota culture through micro and small business lending and technical assistance. FPW will apply to this and the other case studies the Elements of Development, an evaluative framework refined and tested by First Nations, which will provide appropriate, measurable data and examples of best practice.

What next?

The World Bank will support the Grants Facility initiative for three years before turning it over to an appropriate – probably Indigenous – organization. The successor will be identified by a Grants Facility Board, half of whose members are selected by Indigenous peoples.

According to Navin Rai, Indigenous Peoples Coordinator at the World Bank, Grants Facility is not so much a new departure as an accentuation of Indigenous-inclusive poverty reduction efforts that began with Indigenous recognition at the Bank in 1991. It is different, he added, in two ways: its grants are exclusively for Indigenous peoples and government may object to, but not veto, Grants Facility projects.

FPW’s guiding recommendations for the World Bank initiative will stress the need to establish Indigenous-controlled grantmaking institutions. This has long been a cornerstone of First Nations’ thinking and, through FPW, it has been instrumental in creating such foundations in Australia and Canada. In the longer term, a more global Indigenous-controlled foundation is a possible outcome of the Grants Facility initiative.

Jerry Reynolds is the Washington DC correspondent for Indian Country Today newspaper.

For more information about First Nations Development Institute, contact or visit

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Analysis to read

Where every day counts

Alliance magazine