Icefi study shows discrimination in government spending on Maya communities

Commentary from the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (Icefi)

The Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (Icefi) presented its study “Atlas of public investment in indigenous communities” in Guatemala City in July. The study’s alarming findings show deficient public spending on indigenous communities. Approximately half of Guatemala’s population, around eight million people, identifies as indigenous. The presentation forum included a representative from the Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism (CODISRA) and two representatives from civil society, who reacted along with members of the public to the alarming statistics. The Icefi initiative was supported by the international NGO Support Mechanism for Indigenous People, Oxlajuj Tz’ikin 2014-2017.

For every quetzal invested in non-indigenous communities, the Guatemalan government invests only 45 cents in indigenous communities.

Senior Icefi economist Enrique Maldonado led the presentation and described the socioeconomic situation of indigenous communities in Guatemala. The study analyzed poverty statistics by age group, and found that 60% of young indigenous children live in poverty. The consequences of poverty hit hardest during those first years of life for indigenous children. Further, the study broke down poverty indicators by ethnicity and linguistic group, and showed that poverty is disproportionately present in indigenous communities, especially the Uspanteko, Ch’orti, Ixil, and Q’eqchi’ communities.

The study also analyzed the Guatemalan government’s 2015 Federal Budget, and found that Q31.997 billion (approximately $4.27 billion in 2015 US dollars) of public spending went to the mestizo/ladino (non-indigenous) population, while Q10.647 billion (approximately $1.42 billion in 2015 US dollars) went to the indigenous population. This shows that for every quetzal invested in the non-indigenous population, the Guatemalan government invests only 45 cents in the indigenous population, though it makes up roughly half the country. Further, detailed analysis of that spending found that Q4.5 billion (approximately $600 million in 2015 US dollars) went to education in indigenous communities, with the majority going to primary education.

This coincides with low rates of graduation from middle school and high school in indigenous communities (25.7% and 12.5%, respectively). Analysis of other socioeconomic indicators and of government spending on health and housing yields very similar findings of indigenous communities in especially precarious situations.

These studies will help express the situation of indigenous communities in the language of politicians and economists, ‘who often see us simply as numbers.’

The analysis confirmed racial economic discrimination against indigenous communities. On this point, Andrea Ixchíu, spokesperson for Prensa Comunitaria and Red Tzikín, said during a panel discussion that this kind of structural discrimination against indigenous communities disproportionately affects indigenous women even more severely. Ixchíu explained that these studies will help express the situation of indigenous communities in the language of politicians and economists, “who often see us simply as numbers.”

For her part, social scientist Francisca Gómez Grijalva analyzed the state of education in indigenous communities in Guatemala. Low public investment prevents these communities from receiving education in their own languages. She said, “It’s through our language that we transmit our history, customs, and knowledge,” which means that the deficiencies in bilingual education have grave impacts on the culture of indigenous communities.

Finally, José Dionisio Canahuí, the CODISRA representative and an international study specialist, also agreed that in government there is structural discrimination against indigenous communities. He also commended the study and affirmed that it “fulfills the requirements to present it to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination,” of the United Nations.

To end the forum, the panel accepted comments from the public. Attendees from various linguistic communities expressed their opinions about the data in the study, and agreed on the importance of presenting the information not only to relevant governmental authorities, but also to the different regions of the country. As a result of the comments, Icefi committed to organizing more presentations, and, along with the Finance Ministry, which also took the opportunity to comment, committed to sharing the study’s data openly so that other parties can do further analysis.

In August, presentations will take place in Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán.

If you would like access to the study’s statistics database, write to

Francisca Gómez y Andrea Ixchíu en la presentación del estudio “Atlas de la inversión pública en pueblos indígenas”. Foto cortesía de Icefi.