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World Bank aims for growth

WASHINGTON - An interim board began to screen the first 708 proposals eligible for funding by the World Bank's Grants Facility for Indigenous Peoples initiative.

The project's first-year funding budget of $350,000 won't go far with 708 proposals on the table (almost 150 more applications came in but were found outside grant-making guidelines for one reason or another). But the number and quality of applications had an impact within World Bank, according to Rebecca Adamson, founder and president of First Nations Development Institute in Fredericksburg, Va. At a meeting in Washington Jan. 16, Adamson won a commitment from World Bank Chief James Wolfensohn to put his leadership behind millions of dollars in second-year funding for the program.

Adamson has advocated for local indigenous involvement in grant decision-making processes for more than 20 years, and directly lobbied Wolfensohn for the demonstration project that became Grants Facility.

Navin K. Rai, Indigenous Peoples coordinator at World Bank, in an interview Jan. 15, acknowledged that $350,000 is a modest sum for the bank's direct indigenous funding, but added that it was deliberate figure and that a large increase in second-year funding would be forthcoming "shortly." To judge from the approach of many other grant-making programs, the meaning here seems to be that World Bank decided to fund Grants Facility incrementally - in modest amounts for starters, until evidence of fundable projects reached a "tipping point" that called for a more realistic commitment of funds. That indeed seems to have happened.

For all that Rai described the project as an accelerated continuation of the indigenous engagement that has gone on at World Bank since 1991, in several respects Grants Facility marks an unmistakable departure for the West's pre-eminent governmental development lending agency. In contrast to the many mammoth poverty-reduction projects of the past that have damaged indigenous interests with the blessing of national governments, Grants Facility projects will be based on indigenous views of their own local interests. In addition, the grants will go directly to indigenous grantees, rather than through national governments as in the past. Finally, national governments may object to Grants Facility funding of indigenous projects, but they cannot veto the funding.

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Rai agreed that all this makes Grants Facility "a little bit different" and more direct than past World Bank engagements with indigenous groups, which have often focused on safeguarding indigenous rights and interests. With Grants Facility, World Bank is supporting proactive indigenous efforts to realize their own economic development aspirations, Adamson said.

Through an indigenous-specific survey developed by its international department, First Peoples Worldwide, as well as case studies of First Nations projects spanning almost 25 years, First Nations Development Institute will frame a research agenda that will inform Grants Facility funding decisions. Research findings and best practices will be brought before such additional international grant-making organizations as the Asian Development Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the Inter-American Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Adamson said.

"By helping these organizations to expand, we can enhance their ability to work with indigenous people and increase the level of resources going directly to indigenous communities," Adamson said.

Of course, such exposure casts a long shadow and therefore raises the stakes of success or failure. Rai sounded a cautionary note in saying that indigenous organizations and the Grants Facility board "must make the right grants" if Grants Facility is going to flourish. Among other things, this would mean rising above provincial and regional considerations, he said.

As for the indigenous organizations applying for grants, and of indigenous non-governmental organizations generally, he said they must move beyond making demands and leveling criticism to crafting solutions. "It's not enough to tell us to recognize land rights," for instance. Instead, strategies must be developed that empower indigenous communities to credibly assert their legal land rights - and persuade national governments to recognize them.

"We hope that we can continue to be the donor" after the initial three years of Grants Facility, Rai said. "But others must come forward with grants," he added. Like other banks, World Bank will provide grants to special projects - but not indefinitely as the sole donor, for as a bank its main activity is making loans.