The mission of the Highland Support Project is to innovate transformational models of development that break cycles of dependency. We support Highland indigenous communities of the Americas to live on their land, in their community, and with their culture. Highland Support Project’s participatory model of long-term transformational development works within indigenous pueblos (villages) to foster agency by organizing communities, providing educational opportunities, and supporting social entrepreneurs to create change from within. We understand poverty as a process rather than a state of being. A process can be associated with a place, but if you change a certain process, you will see different results.

This process can be seen in the history of indigenous nations who have been marginalized by a colonial system that continues to trap families in a web of dependency. Frequently, poverty is not due to a lack of resources, but rather the distribution of these resources. The Highlands of Guatemala is an example of a region endowed with vast mineral and energy resources as well as some of the planet’s most valuable agricultural land, yet suffering the consequences of unequal distribution. The pre-conquest achievements of the Mayan civilization clearly demonstrate that contemporary conditions are not a consequence of low intelligence or cultural inferiority. Furthermore, even a brief visit to a Highland Maya community will dispel any notion that this population lacks a work ethic. If these common misconceptions cannot explain poverty in the Guatemalan Highlands, then what can?

The answer lies in the historical processes that continue to shape the lives of the Highland Maya. A social system of conquest was developed during re-conquest—a system based on slavery, on the taking of other people’s wealth and labor, and the creation of a system of dependency fostered by the church and the state. While Guatemala achieved independence from Spain, there was no social evolution—no transformation of the relationship between indigenous populations and Europeans. Those relationships have been frozen in 16th century feudalism. In Guatemala and other Highland regions of the Americas, this antiquated colonial process continues to impede the development of indigenous nations. Systems and institutions sustaining the colonial process stripped indigenous populations of their political and religious autonomy and fostered a system of dependency. Therefore, to alleviate conditions of poverty, there must be a transformation in this system.

Dependency is a complex system that must be understood as affecting both individuals and entire nations. Dependency is defined as a lack of “agency,” where agency means the capacity of individuals, communities or nations to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities. This system is partly psychological—as many indigenous women in particular often lack hope, confidence, or the vision and tools necessary to identify both problems and solutions. It is also cultural and systemic, perhaps best exemplified by a shift in cultural norms that has given added value to western materialism at the expense of traditional indigenous culture. In looking at the process of dependency, we see both issues that evolve internally within a community as well as structural issues that are international in scope. Dependency significantly inhibits the ability of people to participate directly in the search for solutions to economic, political, and ecological problems.

Highland Support Project utilizes three theories of dependency to understand and design programming: rational choice, expectancy, and culture. When utilized in combination, these models help to examine the causes and effects of dependency. The dominant model in economics and policy analysis is rational choice theory. This theory explains human behavior as individuals making choices that maximize their individual benefit. According to this theory, if individuals have the knowledge of how to escape poverty, they will choose to do so.

The expectancy theory is drawn from the field of social psychology. It explores the experiences of individuals in a system and how those experiences affect their behavior. Expectancy theory is concerned with both the expectations drawn from past experiences as well as the amount of control people feel over their own lives. Individuals who have experienced failure can become frustrated to the extent that they no longer effectively identify resources or take advantage of opportunities. Individuals who do not have a sense of control over their destiny tend to exhibit two opposing reactions: anger and antagonism, or passivity and discouragement.

Lastly, cultural theory is drawn from the field of anthropology. It explores the evolution of values and norms and how they mold the behavior of individuals in a system. As cultural norms shift, so too do reactions to outsiders and incentives to engage in the community. All three of these theories must be considered in a holistic approach to tackling the culture of dependency that has trapped many communities in a state of perpetual poverty.

For example, the civic participation component of our grassroots women’s association, AMA, exemplifies our holistic approach to combating dependency. This program provides rational, viable opportunities for women to escape poverty following the rational choice model. It also gives members the tools to recognize these opportunities, and take full advantage of them. In order to combat the expectancy model’s feelings of self-doubt and lack of control, AMA guarantees the success of community-generated projects. The women witness themselves generating success, and through the process they gain valuable leadership skills that empower them for a lifetime.

Culturally, the process of civic engagement breaks down traditional norms and ideas that women are best contained within the domestic realm. The civic participation component is thus a critical example of how all three understandings of dependency can guide effective, transformational development. Contemporary aid and development models targeting indigenous communities focus on giving resources and services to marginalized groups, a charity paradigm which replicates dependency. HSP’s model understands the underlying inequities and discrimination faced by indigenous people. We endeavor to create models that are participatory, inclusive, and focus on empowerment, building leadership, and creating agency.