An Entervention Ethical Framework of Social Work Practice with Indigenous Communities

Archives > Volume 19 (2022) > Issue 2 > Item 07

DOI: 10.55521/10-019-207

Angelito B. Meneses, RSW, DSD
Associate Professor, Department of Social Work
University of the Philippines Diliman

Meneses, A. (2022). An Entervention Ethical Framework of Social Work Practice with Indigenous Communities. International Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 19(2), 78-100.

This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the authors and advance notification of IFSW.


Interventions come in various forms of development projects being implemented in the indigenous communities. However, development has been equated by indigenous peoples as exploitative and destructive. Development interventions would mean the imposition of outsiders’ norms over and against the indigenous peoples’ culture and value system. The indigenous peoples started to raise their collective voices to assert that the development process should be more responsive and inclusive to culture. This article presents an ethical framework for working with indigenous communities in the Philippines based on the concept of entervention. Community entervention emphasizes that all development processes should be focused on the people rather than the problem, and that the start of an ethically bound helping relationship is pakikipagkapwa (sharing identity with others) and entering the loob (inside) of the person. The community entervention is a culture-responsive ethical framework that reiterates development should be defined together with the indigenous people; should start from where they are and build on what they have and on what they already know, should be directed in helping them in their continuing capability-building, empowerment, and self-reliance and it should affirm their identity and culture.

Keywords: Development, ethical framework, indigenous communities, kapwa, loob


Development interventions have become intrusive and have done so much past and continued harm to indigenous communities (Corpus, 2010; Easterly, 2006; Corbett & Fikkert, 2012). The word development to some indigenous people is a foreign concept and it means disorderliness or confusion (Bamba, 2010). In the Philippines, like in many parts of the world, indigenous peoples suffer from a history of aggression (Bennagen, 1996; Corpus, 2010) brought about by the dominant development models (Meneses, 2016). Thus, development interventions have further pushed indigenous communities to the peripheries of the larger society in which they exist. As a result, their distinct cultures were undermined and their spiritualities and values diluted as they are being assimilated into the mainstream development models (Corpus, 2010; Shimizu, 1992). 

Social work practice with indigenous communities is focused on the use of the community organization method given the collective identity of indigenous people. The community intervention model of social planning (Rothman, 1995) is predominantly the strategy used by social workers from government agencies. In the social planning mode, indigenous peoples are perceived and thought of as consumers of services (Rothman, 1995). For instance, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) launched the Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services- Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (KC-PAMANA) project which seeks to empower indigenous communities affected by or vulnerable to conflict. This project further seeks to engage indigenous communities as active partners in development by involving them in culture-and gender-sensitive processes of identifying community needs, planning for and implementing appropriate sub-projects, and participating in monitoring project outputs and results (DSWD, Memorandum Circular No. 34, Series of 2020). Social workers from non-governmental organizations favor using the locality development or community development (Manalili, 2017) mode of intervention. Social workers employing the locality development approach to development intervention view indigenous people as active participants (Manalili, 1990) in the development process and who possess considerable strengths and capabilities (Rothman, 1995).

Some faith-based organizations and political organizations utilize the social action mode. In the social action approach, indigenous people are seen as victims of development aggression (Corpus, 2010) and systemic oppression (Rothman, 1995). However, an overlapping use of intervention modes can be observed from the academic institutions doing community engagement and extension services among indigenous communities. While all these community intervention modes are intended to bring about social development, there is an apparent lack of ethical guidelines on how to apply them in the context of indigenous peoples’ identity and culture.

From the legal perspective, a development intervention that is imposed without proper and necessary consultation is a violation of the law. Culturally undermining development initiatives can cause injustice. The Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) is aimed at correcting these historical injustices emanating from development interventions inflicted upon indigenous communities. These development intervention modes can only be considered culture-sensitive and identity-responsive if they lead to promoting the right to ancestral domains and lands, the right to self-governance and empowerment, the right to social justice and human rights, and the right to cultural integrity (Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997).    

Responding to the lack of an alternative ethical framework for the development process among indigenous communities, this article discusses a context-specific and culture-responsive ethical framework for working with indigenous communities in the Philippines. The framework emphasizes that to do ethical development intervention among the indigenous people, should be guided by the Filipino core values of kapwa (Enriquez, 2018) and loob (Alejo, 2018). In any form of social work practice, values and ethical principles must be integrated into practice, especially because social work takes place within the context of interactions with other individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. In helping professions, in which building relationships are essential, truthfulness and authenticity are foundational (Heydt & Severyn, 2022). According to Heydt and Severyn (2022), this relational approach requires fair, equitable, and appropriate treatment with equals treated equally and equally treated unequally (p. 56). Thus, social workers should not frame interventions within welfarist and need-based paradigms (Banks & Nøhr, 2012) but perform strategies grounded on affirmation, equality, and inclusive practice (Ribers, 2022).

Development Intervention, Ethical Issues, and Indigenous Communities

The term development has acquired a negative connotation for indigenous peoples even if this is called sustainable because their histories are replete with traumatic experiences through development projects, policies, and programs. Mainstream development is regarded as one of the root causes of their problems (Corpus, 2010, pp. 119-124). In the name of development, the lands of the indigenous people are taken over, their homes destroyed, and nature is raped and ripped. 

Development aggression refers to the imposition of so-called development projects and policies without the free, prior informed consent of those affected, under the rubric of modernization and nation-building (Corpus, 2010). In addition, the change of worldview and values can also be attributed to development aggression because what comes along with it are the values of the global development model. As Corbett and Fikkert (2012) asserted,

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes-and the poverty of being economically poor-their feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates-albeit unintentionally- that we are superior and that they are inferior. In the process, we hurt the poor and ourselves (p. 62).

There is a Filipino adage that states, ang gawaing sinimulan ng tama ay halos kalahati na ang nagawa, meaning that when a work is done right from the beginning, the work is almost done. In a similar context, development interventions should be started right. What makes an intervention unethical is that it has become a dominating process where the destinies of indigenous peoples are shaped according to the development model imposed by practitioners. As a result, development interventions had greatly undermined the culture and distinct identity of the indigenous people (Corpus, 2010). Likewise, according to Tapiata (2008), indigenous peoples developed a sense of marginality because of colonization in the guise of development assistance and interventions.

The notion of working for justifies the mission of development effort to improve the quality of life of the indigenous people. The ethical principle of self-determination should be set as the primary frame of development intervention (i.e., to work with rather than for the indigenous people). It has been observed that the goal of development intervention is to transform indigenous people into the image and likeness of the practitioner and to transfer the realities of the ones providing the development projects. Since one of the supposed characteristics of indigenous peoples was that they could not use their minds and intellects. In other words, they are uncivilized and not fully human (Smith, 2000; Corpus, 2010). As Paulo Freire observed,

It appears that the act of extension in whatever sector it takes place means that those carrying it out need to go to another part of the world to normalize it, according to their way of viewing reality: to make it resemble their world (as cited in Chambers, 2003, p. 56).

Furthermore, an equally damaging effect of development intervention is associated with the power to define. With the intervention philosophy of the White man’s burden (Easterly, 2006), indigenous people’s knowledge systems were not respected and recognized. Merata Mita (as cited in Smith, 2000) argued, “we have a history of people putting Maori under a microscope in the same way a scientist looks at an insect. The ones doing the looking are giving themselves the power to define” (p. 61). The ethical way to development intervention is to define development together with the indigenous peoples (Manalili, 2017).

Ethical Issues in Intervention

This situation calls for a reflective social work practice with indigenous peoples on whether to continue employing a generic community organization method or to become creative in applying the community practice principles. Indigenous people are not passive victims of development aggressions brought about by the various interventions. They have altered their strategies to pursue their interest amid the incursion of mainstream development models. They have articulated the self-determined development or development with identity and culture worldview of development (Corpus, 2010). This indigenous notion is the basis of the formulation of an ethical framework for working with indigenous communities. Thus, an ethical practice should be grounded on building and gaining relationships of trust (Müller et al., 2022). According to Doran (2021), a relational approach to the ethics of practice centers on social justice.

Social workers in a community practice setting require interpersonal skills (Klimczuk, 2018) to prepare them when they encounter ethical dilemmas in practice (Hardina, 2004). One such ethical dilemma social workers in community practice face pertain to the generic problem-solving strategy which is a linear planned-change process that begins with the identification of a problem and terminates with the evaluation of the change effort (Hardcastle, 2011). Often development interventions would result in development aggression that makes it unethical. Corpus (2010) reported, “in the Philippines, the indigenous peoples, in particular the Igorot peoples in the Cordillera region, advanced the concept of development aggression to refer to the way our human rights are violated by the State in the development process” (p. 123). Similar to the ethical issue of development aggression is welfare stigma. According to Schmidt (2022), welfare stigma poses the biggest threat to dignity as it defines people dependent on welfare arrangements and professional help as undeserving that leads to questioning their worth as a person. The problem with these ethical issues in intervention is that it tends to be individualized that excludes the accountability of the community in the intervention ethics (Ribers, 2022).

Social workers in community practice should be equipped with ethical principles in working with indigenous peoples. The ethical framework should be anchored on the basic understanding of indigenous ways of being as Dominelli (2012) articulated,

Indigenous ways of being, perceiving, and acting in the world are closely linked to their notions of spirituality and the close and valued connections they have between people, other living things, inanimate objects, and the rest of the ecosphere, including its water, air, and land. They seek a symbiotic relationship in their dealings with the natural world, not the exploitative one that often features in Western modernity’s models of industrialization (p. 414).

The Outsider-Insider Relationship

One of the compelling reasons to set ethical standards in working with indigenous communities is the concept of an outsider-insider relationship. In this kind of interaction involving human agencies, civility is expected (Pe-Pua, 2018). It connotes differences in terms of value systems. The taga (side) will distinguish the role of the taga-labas (outsiders) and taga-loob (insiders) in community practice. The outsiders are the non-members of the community who must request an entry into the community. They may be individuals, groups, or organizations who intend to establish a working relationship with the insiders through assistance or services, projects, and programs aimed at improving the lives of the people in the community. The outsiders’ motives to help may be driven by advocacy, mission, vocation, and self-interest but approaches will depict the sincerity and genuineness of the motives.

The working relationship also differs according to the perceptions of the outsiders to the insiders and vice versa. According to Chambers (1993), “outsiders’ view of the poor is distorted. They see the poor as improvident, lazy, fatalistic, ignorant, stupid and responsible for their poverty” (p. 103). Indigenous peoples are perceived as not fully human, not civilized enough to have systems, illiterate, and their languages and modes of thought were perceived as inadequate (Smith, 2012). Some outsiders are talking of empowering the insiders, but the actual practice is community service which, still leads to dependency. Further, some outsiders speak of self-reliance, but the approach is community welfare. Some claim they are doing community development, but if we scrutinize the actual implementation, we still could not see the genuine participation of the insiders in the process. The most common tendency of the outsiders is to dichotomize the concept from practice.

The insiders are the residents belonging to one community, who share the common social condition, are affected by common problems, and live their lives as guided by common values, norms, traditions, ideologies, politics, and beliefs. Often the outsiders see them as hapless and helpless due to economic constraints to live a quality life. These perceptions usually commence with planned interventions to alleviate the condition of the insiders being perceived as poor and marginalized by the outsiders.  The concept of an outsider can further be described like what Easterly (2006) called the planners and searchers,

Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them. Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom…a planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answer will solve. A searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors (p. 6).

As implied, social workers in community practice with indigenous people should shy away from the more interventive outsider-planner character and endeavor to become an outsider-searcher. Thus, the outsider performs a great role at the beginning of the working relationship with the insiders, but as it goes on, the outsiders’ role starts to lessen while the insiders’ start to become bigger, until such time the insiders are performing all the roles. According to Manalili (2017), social workers should not organize the indigenous people, they should only assist them to organize.

Levels of Ethical Rapport and Participation

According to Crocker (2008), ethical commitments are lenses that reveal or highlight the moral dimension of human actions, institutions, and their consequences. Thus, the social workers in community practice with indigenous people should endeavor to ensure that in all aspects of practice they are treated as active participants (Bennet & Green, 2019). The experiences of indigenous people in contact with outsiders can be categorized into four levels of ethical rapport and participation.


This level can be illustrated when a social worker from a development agency enters the indigenous community to implement a project. The indigenous people are passive objects of development interventions. The ethical relationship at this level is the uppers-lowers relationship (Chambers, 2003). The community practitioner possesses the feeling of entitlement to directly manage and administer the project. The outsider is coming from a more advantaged position and imposes upon the indigenous people the project goals. The indigenous people are seen as mere recipients of welfare assistance. The ethical issue of participation revolves around passive participation where indigenous people participate by being told what is going to happen (Kumar, 2002).


This level attempts to see and feel the situation first before developing an intervention plan. The social worker may arrange exposure trips to indigenous communities to determine the needs and issues of the indigenous people. However, the needs will be evaluated based solely on the result of observation. The ethical rapport at this level is an observer-observed relationship. Indigenous people are prospective beneficiaries of the agency’s existing programs and services. The ethical participation of indigenous people may orbit between passive participation and participation in information giving (Kumar, 2002).  


A deeper level of ethical rapport and participation is immersion. Before the planning of any project intended for the indigenous people, immersion activity should be done to better understand the realities of indigenous communities. In the process, the social worker becomes grounded. A partnership is promoted and not a client-patron relationship. At this level, the social worker aims to achieve the interactive participation type (Kumar, 2002) where indigenous people participate in joint analysis, development of action plans, and formation or strengthening of indigenous peoples’ organizations. Participation is seen as a right, not just the means to achieve project goals (Chambers, 2003; Kumar, 2002).  


This level of ethical rapport is the operationalization of the positive and equal relational concepts of kapwa and loob. The social worker becomes integrated and rooted in the very conditions and situations being experienced by the indigenous people. The social worker is not treated as ibang tao anymore. The social worker is now part of the indigenous ways of being. At this level, the social worker seeks to assist the indigenous people to become self-mobilized. In the self-mobilization type of participation, indigenous people participate by taking initiatives independent of external agencies to achieve development. They may seek external resources and the technical advice they need from partner agencies, but they retain control over how resources are used (Kumar, 2002). Integration is the more important level of ethical rapport to establish as the foremost step towards community entervention where indigenous people can transform themselves from passive objects to active subjects of development (Manalili, 2017). Each of these aforementioned levels of ethical rapport are further communicated in Table 1. 

Table 1: Comparison of the Levels of Ethical Rapport in Working with Indigenous Communities

Kapwa and Loob: Core Values of the Ethical Framework

The concept of kapwa provides the foundation of the ethical framework for working with indigenous people. According to Enriquez (2018), kapwa is the basic Filipino social interaction. As a theory, it assumes that in the course of interaction, we become aware that we are interacting with hindi ibang tao (one of us) and with di ibang tao (not one of us) (Enriquez, 2018, Clemente et al., 2018). Enriquez (2018) emphasized that we should treat both the hindi ibang tao and ibang tao as our kapwa. Thus, kapwa is the recognition of shared identity or shared inner self. The use of kapwa model suggests that any development intervention should be relational. It should be a relationship that is positive and equal. The closest English equivalent of kapwa is others. However, Enriquez (2018) argued that kapwa is very different from others because kapwa is the unity of the self and others. So, the kapwa input into the ethical framework is the antidote to the tendency of social workers to commit othering in thought, attitude, and action against the indigenous people. Indigenous communities have been othered, alienated, and excluded away from the development process.

The next equally important input in the construction of an ethical framework in working with indigenous communities is loob. According to Alejo (2018), loob has many interpretations, such as inner self, subjective worlds, a cave that contains Filipino thought, common humanity, and the actual personal feelings of the self. The loob should be explored and understood to make any development intervention effective. According to Alejo (1990), the most ethical approach to entering the Filipino home by a visitor or a stranger is the utterance of tao po (is there a human at home). It means that a human lives in the house and that human should be treated with utmost respect. The expected response to tao po is ano po ang kailangan nila (what is it that you need). When the need to enter the house has been established, then the human at home will say tuloy po kayo (please come in). Tuloy po is an invitation to the visitor to enter the loob ng bahay (inside the house). Thus, loob replaces development intervention with a new term entervention.

Community entervention focuses on the person rather than on the problem. The beginning of an ethically bound helping relationship is entering the loob of the person. Alejo (1992) asserted that the social worker needs to have kababaang loob (humility). In other words, the social worker needs to understand what is inside of the person and how to get to know the culture. The method of understanding the loob is not always rational but relational (Meneses, 2019).

Phases of Ethical Framework in Working with Indigenous Communities

The ethical framework in working with indigenous communities is anchored on the social work values of human dignity and worth, social justice, service to humanity, integrity, and self-determination (Beckett & Maynard, 2005). The social worker in a community practice setting should consider the following phases of a culture-responsive ethical framework in working with indigenous.

Paglubog at Pakikiisa: Integrating with Indigenous Persons

A culture-responsive ethical framework starts with paglubog (immersion) and pakikiisa (integration) with the indigenous people. The social worker cannot become effective in helping the indigenous people without going through the integration process. The social worker must stay in the indigenous community for a longer time. The integration may start with the host family (Manalili, 2017). During the integration, the social worker tries to establish rapport and build a trust relationship with the indigenous people. Doing household chores like washing the dishes and joining the indigenous people in their production processes during hunting and gathering are ways to do the integration. The social worker gets to know them better until during integration. Through integration, the social worker gains a deeper understanding of the problems and challenges that indigenous people face daily. The social worker endeavors to become part of the indigenous community. This phase of the ethical framework would lead to the social worker appreciating and recognizing their innate potentials and capacities to chart their path to development (Meneses, 2016).

Defining Development Together with the Indigenous Community

Studies of the worldviews of indigenous people about development reveal that every ethnic group has its meaning of development encapsulated in their native language (Meneses, 2019). Will (2015) reported that development for Yakan is called Kaelluman hap, an equivalent to flourishing. The Sama-Bajaus’ notion of development is kasungan which means happiness (Milambilin, 2018). Ayta groups in Central Luzon articulate their development as katsighawan for the Mag-antsi Ayta, kainomayan for the Sambal Ayta (Meneses, 2011) and kahampatan for the Ambala Ayta (Meneses, 2016). Common to these indigenous worldviews of development involves the interconnectedness and harmony of all beings.

Interestingly, indigenous notions of development in the Philippines resonate with indigenous peoples in the other parts of the world, such as the sumac kawsay, buen vivir and lamanlaka (Cunningham, 2010). These indigenous definitions of development embody communal living and the ethical norms and practices of reciprocity, collective property, living in communion with nature, social responsibility, and consensus (Meneses, 2019). This phase of the ethical framework in working with indigenous communities provides the social worker with a more appropriate perspective of development with identity and culture where the planning of development assistance will be based. 

Collaborative Efforts with Indigenous Communities

The entervention approach provides the social worker the humility to enter into the lives of the indigenous people. The purpose of this is to bring out the best in themselves. Starting from where they are, means adapting to their own pace and respecting their concept of time and space. Building on what they have is recognizing the use of their community resources and developing a sense of collective ownership of the positive results of their self-determined development. Likewise, building on what they already know means affirming their indigenous knowledge system (Corpus, 2010) and their intelligence agency as human beings (Smith, 2000). In this phase of the ethical framework in working with indigenous communities, the social worker engages the indigenous people in becoming active participants in the development process.

Building Capability

The focus of this phase is to help the indigenous people strengthen their organization through continuing capability building (Manalili, 2017). Capability building may include activities like the provision of technical support and enhancing networking skills. For instance, the experience of assisting an Ayta group in Zambales through functional literacy has led to positive result (Meneses, 2011). The functional literacy program was implemented to address the problem of illiteracy among the Sambal Ayta. This Ayta group had expressed their desire to learn how to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. Learning basic math, they become confident in negotiating the price of their produce. Before the middle man dictates the unjust price for the produce. For instance, he gives one can of sardines in exchange for one whole bunch of bananas. Through the functional literacy project, this exploitative scheme has been addressed successfully (Manalili, 2017). The social worker in this phase may look into the issues of the indigenous people, then may conduct skills development training to help them address the problem themselves.

Affirming Self-Determination 

According to Corpus (2010), self-determined development for indigenous peoples is not a grand paradigmatic, generic alternative to mainstream development. It is simply part of the indigenous people’s assertion of their right to self-determination and to remain as diverse and distinct cultures and communities. The self-determined development paradigm captures the essence of the indigenous peoples’ struggle since colonization to define their development within the framework of their inherent rights. It is an attempt to protect whatever remains of their indigenous cultural, economic, and political systems and values they want to sustain. Self-determined development could only be realized if it is rooted and emerged from the indigenous people themselves. It is an initiative undertaken by and for the indigenous people. Outsiders could support by offering alternatives, shared experiences, or facilities (Bamba, 2010) and not dominate or co-opt them to civilize and normalize them. They become molders of their development when their self-determination is affirmed (Manalili, 2017). Figure 1 communicates a culture-responsive ethical framework for working with indigenous communities.

Figure 1: A Culture-Responsive Ethical Framework in Working with Indigenous Communities

Problem-Intervention or Person-Entervention

Ethical dilemmas confront social workers in community practice with indigenous peoples on whether to focus the intervention on the problem or enter the loob of the person (Pe-Pua, 2018). The application of the three models of community practice have been examined to be problem-oriented (Callahan, 1997). A government worker, for instance, using the social planning mode will start the work by formulating a community profile. Problem identification will justify the implementation of pre-packaged projects with pre-determined goals. The social action mode, where the social worker plays the role of an activist, incites and mobilizes the indigenous people for policy change (Gutierrez & Grant, 2018). Locality development is applied to facilitate the problem-solving process. But common to the three modes of community practice is that development interventions are offered as a solution to the problems faced by the indigenous peoples (Gutierrez & Lewis, 1998).

Table 2: Comparison of the Two Treatments: Treating the Problem vs. Treating the Person

For instance, a social worker will ask the beneficiaries, “how is your pig doing?” instead of “how are you doing?” The entervention ethical framework in working with indigenous communities treats the person rather than the problem alone (Meneses, 2011). A comparison of these two methods is highlighted in Table 2 (see above).


This culture-responsive ethical framework of social work practice with indigenous communities has been developed to provide a guide to practice. The framework was built upon the assertions and articulations of indigenous people on the notion of development with identity and culture. The word entervention was coined to emphasize the Filipino concepts of kapwa and loob in a culture-responsive ethical framework in working with indigenous communities in the Philippines. In an ethical practice, social workers should focus on affirming indigenous worldviews of development that requires a non-directive approach. The non-directive approach goes along with cultural competency in social work practice with indigenous communities. Social workers should define development together with the indigenous people, start from where the indigenous people are, and build on what they already have and know. Thus, an ethical social work practice should start with community integration and not with bringing in pre-packaged, pre-determined goal development projects.

This entervention framework reiterates the role of the social worker as a searcher who looks for the potentials and strengths of indigenous people to find solutions to their problems as opposed to the usual role of a planner that often excludes the indigenous people in the development process. Through the community entervention framework, social workers will work out the kind of development process that is responsive and inclusive of indigenous people by integrating their indigenous knowledges and distinct culture in any conduct of activities and programs using the method of social work community practice with indigenous peoples.


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