Political Representation, Policy & Inclusion

Article excerpt

Does the increased representation of Indigenous and Afro-descendants in national congresses make a difference?

Social inclusion is a buzzword for politicians these days. Whether deployed as part of a campaign platform (as Ollanta Humala did in Peru last year) or used as a catch phrase to describe the root of malaise (as Barack Obama has done in the United States), the idea of promoting inclusion of disenfranchised groups has entered the public discourse, and, in many cases, become a goal in itself.

Yet social inclusion, defined as equality of opportunity for all groups (across socioeconomic, racial, gender, and sexual orientation lines) to participate in the economy and society, requires political inclusion to be comprehensive and sustainable. For example, the civil rights of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities cannot be viewed as secure if they have no representation in formal political processes. Neither can rights be enforced without legal mechanisms.

Similarly, groups at a chronic economic disadvantage are unlikely to overcome inequality without public policies that target the causes of that inequality, such as lack of access to education, health care, affordable housing, and labor markets.

In Latin America, conquest, slavery, economic feudalism, and racism have left a post-independence legacy of systematic exclusion of Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Even today, despite recent improvements in tackling inequality, poverty lines still fall along racial and ethnic ones, with Indigenous and Afro-descendant populations disproportionately represented among the poor.

The transitions from military rule to democracy in the late 1970s and 1980s brought in their wake race- and ethnicity- based social movements, civil society groups and even formal political parties inspired by a newfound sense of civic participation. At the same time, growing public awareness of the needs of Indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples was fueled by international support-most notably, by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Assisted by institutional and legal reforms in individual nations, Indigenous and Afrodescendant representatives began to formally participate in local and national politics. Today, the region boasts numerous elected Indigenous and Afro-descendant mayors, municipal councilors, state and national legislators, governors, and even presidents in the case of Peru and Bolivia.

But are representatives elected from Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities better at representing the demands and serving the interests of those populations?

To answer these important questions, we conducted fi eld research in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Guatemala. All four countries have sizable Indigenous and/or Afrodescendant populations; experienced a measurable increase in elected national representatives from those populations; and approved a broad set of legal or constitutional reforms intended to expand political inclusion.

We found that there is a long way to go before greater numbers of Indigenous and Afro-descendant representatives in national legislatures ("descriptive representation") translate into legislation and policy outcomes that benefi t their communities ("substantive representation"). In short, low levels of meaningful political representation persist. And as long as they do, so too will social exclusion.


Today, self-identification by Indigenous and Afro-descendants in Latin America is at an historic high. In Central America and the Andes, Indigenous peoples make up a signifi cant share of the population: 62 percent in Bolivia and 41 percent in Guatemala (although unoffi cial estimates put Guatemala at about 60 percent). In Ecuador and Colombia, Indigenous peoples represent a smaller share of the population (7 and 3 percent, respectively), but both also have substantial Afrodescendent populations (7 and 11 percent, respectively). …