Five years ago, I published a post here on FP2P considering the role of dignity in development. Back then I wrote: “Development aims to give people better lives. In doing so, we mainly aim to increase wealth and health – in part because we can measure those outcomes with ease. But there’s more to a good life than spare cash and extra years.” Dignity is the moral worth or status of all persons – inherent, inalienable, and unearned.
At that stage, we were just setting out to define our terms, still considering the need for measurement tools, and just beginning to conceptualize how measuring dignity might transform the development sector.
The dignity agenda has come a long way since then. We’ve seen deep partnerships with organizations to deepen their cultures of dignity – at GiveDirectly, The Life You Can Save, Indus Action and Shining Hope for Communities. We’ve conducted studies all across the Global South, and learned a great deal. Meanwhile some things haven’t changed very much at all. Here’s where we think dignity’s place is now in development.
Political context: The biggest thing that has changed is the political context in which this work takes place. Even if many people in development had long spoken out about the iniquities of the development system, it took the events of 2020 for the sector as a whole to belatedly start to take action. Now proposals for localisation, decolonisation, inclusion, and progress are on everyone’s lips. We hope dignity is contributing to keeping that conversation focused on those who development seeks to serve. As the years come, we will work to maintain the radical power of this idea, and guard against it submerging into another buzzword.
Actor power: Another equally big change we’ve seen is a rallying of dignity’s allies. Previously scattered in different institutions and disciplines, they are now far more likely to be comparing notes with one another! We joined forces with IDinsight in 2021, and since then other dignity-focused initiatives have kicked off at the University of Notre Dame, the Wharton School, UNICEF, Dubai Cares and others. We held an academic symposium in 2022, and will hold one focused on dignity for development practitioners later this year. Dignity can move much farther across development, with a stronger cohort supporting it. Many of IDinsight’s partners and funders have been keen to collaborate to deepen their practice of respect and dignity, standing alongside other longstanding allies of dignity such as Partners in Health.
Research agenda: There is a huge and long-standing literature on dignity, but for a long time it was locked into disciplines like philosophy that rarely intrude upon the day to day work of development. One win we’ve seen is a more organized research agenda that still tackles the thorny and never-ending debates about definitions, but also yields practical tools for development organizations to use in their work, like the Dignity Self-Assessment Tool or this validated survey measure, which is now used in programs serving 11 million people. Better definitions and a study of ideas of dignity across the world have allowed us to define three pathways to respecting people’s dignity, that seem to turn up in all different traditions.
Those three pathways are: recognition, agency and equality. Where these are present, people will most likely feel their dignity is being affirmed. When they are absent, people notice fast. How they manifest, and the balance between them, will vary among cultures, people and situations – but they are always a good starting point for considering where ‘dignity hotspots’ might lie, where the promise to respect people needs to be more fully upheld.
Disrespect: For all this progress, many people still encounter disrespect when they meet the shaky bureaucracies of aid distribution. Even when they receive the material help they need, far too often these encounters are bruising and laden with prejudice. The power balance of global development is fundamentally not that far from what it was five years ago, for all the well-intentioned desire for change. We’ve got plenty more to do!
Why all this matters: When people meet the rickety bureaucracies of international development service delivery, they should be treated in the right way – in a way that shows they matter. People all across the world tell us this matters to them, it is central to our values, and the evidence suggests it also unlocks other kinds of impact. At the top of this post is the image of a young Kenyan woman, Faith Kasina, protesting for “dignity for all”. She was marching as part of Kenya’s Social Justice Movement, which has taken dignity as a central value. In interviews with members of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, they told us that they experienced the Kenyan state as imposing unpredictable, violent systems and processes upon their lives, affronting their dignity and disturbing their ability to show respectful care for those around them. One contributor told us “We wish we could have respect…unfortunately these things only happen to the rich people.” We have a duty to do better than that – and increasingly the right set of tools with which to do so.
Tom Wein leads the Dignity Initiative at IDinsight. If you want to discuss any of this, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.