Native tribes and people, historically the poorest of the poor in this country, “own” substantial assets but often do not control them. Many lands and natural resources are held in trust by the federal government, which has been a woefully inadequate trustee.
For 20 years, First Nations Development Institute has been committed to Native-American economic development that begins with control of assets through policy reform, regulation changes, or judicial intervention. First Nations also provides grants and training to develop financial management and literacy skills, organizing expertise, and organizational capacity that will help Native organizations use those assets and create new ones.
Focusing on assets is a psychological shift away from the usual emphasis on the problems of poor communities, and it provides more comprehensive, long-term, empowering solutions. But for the very reasons that asset control is desirable, it is also more complicated to evaluate.
For example, a tribe can opt to take over the management of its forestry operations from the government. Then it works to enhance its management, marketing, and financial skills to derive more income from the asset, and uses this increased income to purchase a sawmill, creating a new asset. The sawmill adds value to what was previous only a raw product, increasing income again. The workers receive more income and are able to build or purchase homes, also creating assets and new wealth.
All of these changes can be quantified in a numerical or financial manner, and most would be captured by traditional evaluation frameworks. But a traditional evaluation would miss many of the results of the tribe’s control of forestry operations. For example, this tribe can now enhance the health of the forest and protect sacred sites. It can also allow tribal members to seek traditional plants for healing there. And it can be assured that the forest will continue to exist for future generations because it can make choices with that in mind.
Traditional economic development evaluation misses these kinds of impacts because it focuses on a limited set of effects – usually incomes, jobs, and businesses – rather than trying to get at all the important results of the underlying change in asset control. No existing framework seemed to account for other critical concerns of Native communities, such as culture, kinship, spirituality, and a concern for the environment. So in 1991, First Nations developed its own framework for planning and measuring economic development.
The framework contains 15 “elements” of development – areas that are potentially affected by development and should be considered in planning and evaluating it. They are: kinship, personal efficacy, spirituality, income, trade and exchange, productivity skills, vibrant initiative, responsibilities and consequences, health and safety, political and civic participation, social respect, cultural integrity, choices and vision, hope and future orientation, and environmental balance.
At the beginning of each grant, First Nations leads a discussion with the grantee about the elements. Then various indicators are chosen that the group will track. Once these indicators are formulated they are compared back to the framework to see if anything is missing. The framework becomes a reference at every stage of the evaluation to make sure that the process is on course.
When groups are only asked about job growth, they sometimes come to focus on only job growth, even though that was not their only original intention. Having a formal system that validates other important, but less easily quantified, goals allows organizations to more explicitly notice, plan for, and evaluate those aspects of their work.
In one very small effort First Nations supported, Tohono O’odham Community Action in Sells, AZ, redeveloped a lost agricultural tradition. Using the elements as a guide, the group recognized that beyond the total amount of acreage put into production and the value of the produce they created, the revival of a harvest ceremony that had been nearly lost was a significant result of the project. Thanks to the First Nations framework, an important but oft-overlooked aspect of economic development was recognized.