Indigenous peoples, social inequality and human development. The indigenous quest for social justice in Bolivia

Agotnes, Hans Jakob; Ytrehus, Line Alice (2014). 'Indigenous peoples, social inequality and human development. The indigenous quest for social justice in Bolivia' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

This article addresses the central connections between social inequality and human development, focusing particularly on the indigenous peoples as one of the groups most exposed to poverty, by analysing how social processes sort out those who are to be included in human development and those who are not. Through a bifocal ethnographic and long-term historical perspective on the case of Bolivia, the aim is to explore poverty as a cause and an effect of social inequality and exclusion. 

Generally, in states with the largest gap between rich and poor, access to resources and poverty usually follow ethnic differentiation lines. Ethnic differentiation functions through cultural markers, but tends to coincide with social and economic divisions. To understand the exclusionary mechanisms and how social and cultural differences are intertwined, a society must be analysed empirically in its historical context. Bolivia is an interesting case. Firstly, because of the economic cleavages, secondly because it has recently been doing substantial progress on poverty reduction, thirdly because of its great cultural diversity,  and finally because of the political and social mobilisations among the indigenous and poor, which mean that they are voicing their concerns and needs with unprecedented loudness and clarity. While Bolivia has many traits in common with other developing countries, the mobilisation process which has taken place especially after 2000 has actualised important aspects of human development, expanding the political capabilities of formerly marginalised groups (Ytrehus 2013). As the marginalised demand both equal rights as full-worthy citizens and inclusion on the basis of recognition of their culture and ways of living, they point to structural defects in the Bolivian society affecting and victimising them.

The capability approach instigates an alteration of the research attention from (lacking) economic growth to (lacking) human flourishing and from poverty as a resource deficiency to poverty as social exclusion and deprivation of the freedom to lead the life one values. HDCA usually has the individual capabilities as the point of informational focus. This has led some researchers to conclude that the capability approach is based on 'methodological individualism.' [1] Our approach stresses the collective agency. Qualitative methods, rather looking for qualities and connections than dispersion, are feasible to look for both individual and collective capabilities, as well as to reveal adaptive preferences. As Sen recommends in The idea of justice we will do comparisons concerned with social realisations in the societies involved, i.e. focusing on removal of the manifest injustice (2009:9).  We look for functionings indigenous people in Bolivia achieve, but also for the real capability opportunities people have, which permit a certain degree of contrafactual history.

In order to structure the investigation we will to some degree utilise a comparative perspective by drawing on our knowledge about the Norwegian state and its organisation of welfare distribution (Bjørnhaug et al. 2000, Heiret et al. 2003), as one of the countries ranked at the top of the Human Development Index. We ask what differences can be seen between relevant processes of rejection and recognition, exclusion and inclusion, in the two countries.

Most researchers on the Norwegian welfare state would agree that three agents have been particularly important in establishing the welfare state in Norway: the government, the organisations of business and industry employers, and the employees represented by their trade unions (cf. Bjørnhaug et al. 2000, Bjørnson and Haavet 1994). These three agents were negotiating their different interests through different constellations of allies. We explore how this has been functioning in Bolivia: What values did the different agents pursue, and which choices did they make, achieving which functionings and capabilities? Exploring the government as one of the important agents means that also inequality in access to, and quality of, e.g. services in health and education is discussed. In Bolivia foreign investors have been very important, and thus we include them as a fourth agent. As a working hypothesis, we are thus trying to identify these four main agents at different points of Bolivian history, but also to search for other potentially important agents, and with a comparative look to Norway as a way to diagnose. As the objective is wide, we will focus in particular on two sectors within the case that are fitted to discuss the overall theme: The Bolivian peasant economy and the mines.

Our methods are derived from history, ethnography and analysis of official statistics. After a short presentation of methods, sources and our adaptation of the Capability Approach, we will analyse the production of social inequality in Bolivia, by focussing on four important stages in the timeline of Bolivian history:

  1. About 1900 – as a point of departure: This stage represents a time in which both Bolivia and Norway were independent countries, rich in resources but with a majority of their peoples living in poverty.

  2. Post revolution 1952 brought along a land reform, nationalisation of the most important mines, universal suffrage, compulsory schooling and an abandonment of serfdom in Bolivia. At this point Norway was in a stage of reconstruction after the WWII, with increasing human wellbeing and distribution of welfare. Both in Norway and Bolivia the indigenous people were subjected to forced assimilation policies.  

  3. 1992: After ten years of democracy transition, and before the huge social riots and new laws transformed Bolivian society, this is a period of neoliberalism and structural adjustments. Norway´s HDI value is 0.978 (rank no 3)[2], while Bolivia´s HDI value is only 0.394 (rank no 109)[3]. The Norwegian economy is fuelled by hydrocarbon resources. In the early 90s both Norway and Bolivia ratify the convention on indigenous people.  

  4.  2013: represents a period with indigenous government in Bolivia and the indigenous people's quest for social justice and social reforms. Bolivia has one of the world´s largest resources of natural gas which is fuelling the economy. The social movements in Bolivia are compared with the social movements in Norway, contemporary and historically. Bolivia´s HDI value almost doubled to 0.675 (rank 108) HDI Value) and Norway´s HDI value is 0.955 (rank 1).
scroll to top