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Native economic development programs go unused

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Nearly half the federal economic development assistance programs available to tribes went unused by them between 1997 and 1999, said a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Even after conducting its survey, required by the 2000 Omnibus Indian Advancement Act, GAO concluded "little is known about (economic development) assistance as it relates to Indians."

The report, released last December, underlined the importance of sovereignty and culture as keys to Native economic development, but had few optimistic findings about the government-to-government assistance provided by the federal government. GAO is the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress

According to the report, 46 of 100 federal economic development programs went untapped by tribal entities during those three years, although tribal individuals or Indian country for-profits may have used them, and tribal entities may have used those programs in years not studied, GAO said. Of the 54 programs that were used, 433 tribal entities reported using at least one, and 198 said they used three or more.

GAO had trouble tallying how much assistance in the 54 programs went to Indian country, since many of them are open to multiple types of users and they did not break out tribal use. But of the 20 programs used by 15 or more tribal entities (12 of which are targeted specifically to Indians) $853 million in assistance went to Indian country during those three years. Nearly half that amount, $419 million, came from one program, the Tribal Self-Governance program run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But GAO further qualified these amounts by saying some of the funding could have gone for purposes other than economic development. It also noted that the Department of Commerce Office of Native American Business Development, mandated by legislation in 2000, has not been funded yet. Nor has Commerce implemented a proposed five-year plan on Indian economic self-sufficiency.

GAO noted the following concerns from tribes about federal economic development assistance:

o Trouble meeting matching fund requirements, because of lack of access to capital

o Lack of flexibility;

o Lack of staff to handle paperwork and onerous bureaucratic requirements; and

o Programs expiring before projects can be carried through.

GAO also briefly noted the importance of sovereignty in "creating institutions that can plan and develop economic policies and projects that are appropriate for the culture and history of the tribe." And it cited a report from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development that listed three keys to growth: sovereignty, culture, and institutions that can separate business decisions from tribal politics.

The majority of the federal programs in use was concentrated in five agencies: the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Interior (parent of BIA) and the Small Business Administration.

The report concluded that "establishing a single office to coordinate federal programs relating to Indian economic development has the potential to improve Indians' access to federal programs" The Omnibus Act has called for the establishment of that office.

GAO did, however, find some bright spots out in Indian country, where federal funding was used to support business development. They include:

o The Lakota Fund on the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. This micro-enterprise fund has used the SBA's microlending program and the USDA's Empowerment Zones Program.

o The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, which used an SBA program to develop a commercial printing business.

o The Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma "used funding from HUD's Indian Community Development Block Grant Program for the construction of a golf course."

GAO also cited a HUD program, Native EDGe, an Internet site that acts as a clearinghouse to support Indian ED. Since the web site started up in 2000, 36,000 individuals have visited it, generating 625 potential projects.

According to the GAO, BIA reported that in fiscal 2000 it provided funding for 41 businesses, created 409 jobs, and "sustained" 434 jobs. These numbers, though, fell short of the bureau's goals.

Other BIA accomplishments noted in the report include the Forestry on Indian Lands, a program that helped reforest 14,000 acres in fiscal 2000, generating revenues of $100 million; the Agriculture on Indian Lands, a program that funded noxious weed eradication on 80,000 acres of trust land; the Minerals and Mining On Indian Lands Program, which facilitated more than $200 million in annual income to tribes and individual Indians.