Charting Global Civil Society: An Indigenous Lens

By Oyundari Batbayar and Niko Malkovich

“Indigenous peoples are at the frontline of the climate emergency, and we must be at the centers of the decisions happening here. We have ideas to postpone the end of the world. Let us stop the emission of lies and fake promises. Let us end the pollution of hollow words, and let us fight for a livable future and present. May our utopia be a future on Earth.”

— Indigenous Activist Txai Surui at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference

With 476 million people spread across 90 countries worldwide, Indigenous people represent 5 percent of the global population. They are stewards of 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and two-thirds of its languages. Yet in the realm of philanthropy and traditional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), they are historically underserved.

As an intermediary for donors and global civil society working to build a more equitable world, TechSoup has seen significant and growing interest from our corporate partners and institutional funders in expanding the types of organizations we serve. In the course of our global research and through conversations with partners across the network, we identified many “nontraditional” categories of civil society actors — especially those organizations that operate for public benefit but, for various reasons, fall outside of the standard “NGO” legal framework. In the case of Indigenous communities, we noted that many of these groups with the most impact operate outside of traditional, colonial legal systems. These groups play a key role in civil society, yet many donors exclude them — often inadvertently — based on technicalities of legal form and status.

In an effort to bridge this gap, TechSoup’s in-house Global Eligibility team conducted comprehensive research on the Indigenous landscape using a global lens. It is our hope that this work will help inform a new global “standard” for identifying Indigenous groups that merit attention from donors.

We are pleased to share our results. (See the full paper.)

Our Research Scope and Findings

We began with an initial set of 10 jurisdictions, taking care to represent all regions of the world. As shown in Figure 1, our geographic sample included Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Greenland, Guatemala, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Northern Europe, and Tanzania.

Figure 1. Sample jurisdictions

As we mapped Indigenous groups across these jurisdictions, we identified trends, patterns, and recurring categories that helped inform a potential new global framework. Specifically, we observed the following categories.

Tribes and Tribal Governments

We encountered multiple instances of officially recognized tribes, tribal communities, and governments in countries like the United States, Canada, and India. For example:

  • United States — 574 federally recognized tribes
  • Canada — more than 630 recognized First Nations
  • Other “tribal entities” such as tribally chartered corporations or organizations established under nontribal law
  • Tribal government entities receiving special tax considerations

However, in other jurisdictions, even basic recognition of Indigenous groups can be a challenge. This results in many groups operating informally. Our research suggests that especially where barriers exist to formal recognition, supporting these informal groups is as important as serving formally recognized tribes.

Non-Indigenous Government Agencies

In a number of jurisdictions we surveyed, we saw instances of state, provincial, and national government agencies serving Indigenous individuals, communities, and organizations. For example:

  • Tribal Research Institutes in India
  • Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in Australia
  • Ministry of Māori Development in New Zealand

These types of government bodies are not typically considered part of traditional civil society. However, in the Indigenous context, are some exceptions warranted where government agencies serve as partners or direct resource providers with tribal communities?

Indigenous-Focused Educational Institutions

Education can also play a key role in supporting Indigenous communities. Throughout our research, we identified three types of educational institutions that work in Indigenous communities:

  • Schools formed and administered by the communities themselves (e.g., in Canada, First Nation communities own First Nation schools, which are independent of the Canadian school system and do not operate under the authority of the Ministry of Education)
  • Schools that function as part of state or national education systems but operate primarily in Indigenous communities (e.g., New Zealand public educational institutions that specialize in Māori education)
  • Private organizations providing educational services to Indigenous communities.

For-Profit Enterprises

Enterprises are not typically considered part of the social benefit sector. Yet, Indigenous businesses create jobs, generate wealth, and strengthen autonomy for local communities.

In Australia, research shows that Aboriginal businesses generated 20,000 new jobs and recorded an all-time high of 115 percent increase in gross income in just 12 years from 2006 to 2018. In Kenya and Tanzania, we observed individually owned and community-based Indigenous tourism businesses contributing significantly to the development of their local communities.

All of these findings suggest that supporting Indigenous businesses is a crucial part of serving Indigenous communities because it promotes both economic welfare and independence from government programs and non-Indigenous workplaces.

Informal Projects and Groups and Projects Vetted by Third-Party Intermediaries

Informal organizations may operate in ways that more closely reflect their people’s heritage, culture, and community values, as members decide for themselves what kind of governing structure, positions, and processes they want to have. In fact, a significant portion of Indigenous organizations involves informal groups who unite under a specific vision and who deliberately choose not to take the road of legal establishment or registration.

One way of supporting nontraditional groups is through projects that have been identified and supported by trusted intermediaries in the field. Rather than forcing Indigenous groups to conform to the mold expected by legal systems or traditional funders, we see promise in relying on specific “third-party intermediaries” that fund within Indigenous communities. Using this “vet the vetter” approach, we effectively assess the expertise and standards used by each third-party intermediary to determine whether we are comfortable relying on their funding standards.

We have emerged from this exercise with a broad understanding of “Indigenous civil society,” including country-specific details and a framework that can be applied to jurisdictions worldwide. So, now where does this all take us?

Next Steps

We see this work following two promising paths:

  1. Taking our framework further and applying it to other jurisdictions.
  2. Designing a pilot program that allows interested TechSoup donors to serve Indigenous organizations that fall outside of the traditional NGO framework. The pilot program will involve both (a) jurisdictions where official structures exist and (b) jurisdictions where lack of formal recognition poses challenges.

For additional details on these next steps, please see the full paper.

Our research is one small but important step toward building a more inclusive concept of “civil society.” We welcome you to join us in our efforts to build trust and overcome legal barriers as we strive to become a stronger bridge between critical resources and deserving communities in need!

If you’re interested in engaging with us around this work, please feel free to comment below, or reach out to Oyundari Batbayar at obatbayar@techsoup.org for questions or comments.

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