Linking Dignity & Development: Where have we got to?

May 4, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Tom Wein, Director of the IDinsight Dignity Initiative

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.

Photo credit: Calvin Ochieng/The Dignity Project. Faith Kasina marches against police violence in Nairobi.

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.

Credit: The Dignity Initiative at IDinsight

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

May 4, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Love this piece! We have been discussing what the balance between diversity and shared values should be as we seek to transform unequal systems. I think dignity is probably a unifying value that is required among all actors seeking change.

  2. Attention to dignity is great. And yet, I wonder how much is lost — including the possibility of things becoming worse not better — in the event that dignity is bureaucratised. I guess it should be bureaucratised in some basic way — to pick up and put obstacles in the way of bad practice.

    But looking round at various ‘tools’ like I worry about how bureaucratically intensive it could be. We know this is a huge problem in human services systems (my own experience is in systems for the vulnerable in developed countries like out of home care for abused and neglected kids).

    For instance take these requirements.

    “You avoid pulling back bedclothes of an older person without asking first.

    “You always ask an older person before touching or moving them.”

    Always? People get to know each other in such facilities. If you are a nurse and you know a patient and you know they don’t want to be asked, you should not be required to ask “always”. This may seem like a trivial thing.

    But things turn into their opposite in bureaucracies. In a hospital one is constantly asked to recite one’s birth date — in Australia anyway. Whenever anyone comes up to you they ask you. This is to avoid mistakes and also in some cases check cognitive state. But it doesn’t take long before you know that everyone is on autopilot. They’re not doing this with any regard for how it feels as a patient — how stupid and mechanical it feels.

    In the couple of tools I’ve read on line since reading this blog post — in the situation in which we are in they seem like a good idea. But they’re not, themselves dignity — they are routines that we associate with dignity. And institutions are amazingly good at validating the legible, and ignoring the substance.

    Further, these tools seem very managerial. I’d like to see some more attention given to the role of ‘users’ or putative beneficiaries of these systems in the governance of those systems and their experience.

    1. Post
      1. Nicholas, I really appreciate this thoughtful response.

        In some ways healthcare has gone further than other fields in taking dignity seriously, but I think it has often been in quite a protocol-ized, bureaucratized way. You can see that too in the measures that have been developed in healthcare, which are often checklists of actions done or not done.

        It’s something that I’m wary of. In the work I’ve done on developing survey measures, we tried to focus on subjective experience rather than lists of actions. Right now I’m working on a first pilot of a dignity training module for frontline workers in India, and we’re trying to think about how to convey that this is about the *spirit* in which things are done, at least as much as specific actions taken or not.

        Still, there are always going to be temptations to turn things into step by step manuals – it’s a lot easier to follow that at scale. We’re not there yet, and I do think it makes sense to try to identify practices that are consonant with dignity for now, but there is an underlying challenge implied by this dignity agenda, in that the answer eventually has to be about rethinking the design of bureaucracies and services so that they offer mutual relationships of care.

    1. Post

Leave a Reply