Why do we keep forgetting about dignity? 4 Ways to Address Dignity in Development Programs

March 23, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Annabel Dulhunty, building on this 2018 post from Tom Wein

The idea of human dignity frequently appears as a lofty overarching goal for development agencies and programs. Dignity is fundamental to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet practical ways of addressing and measuring the dignity of program participants are frequently overlooked. For example, the preamble to the Sustainable Development Goals mentions dignity, but there is no mention of dignity in the specific goals.

Why do we not look at dignity more closely in development programming?

One reason may be that it conjures up uncomfortable images – of slavery, exploitation and degradation. Particularly when we think about who has dignity and who doesn’t. It requires a far greater level of community participation than merely distributing aid.

So why is the idea of dignity important in development policy and programming?

Dignity can be thought of on two levels – first, we can consider dignity in relationships between donors and program participants. Here we must address the legacy of colonialism and the way that aid can be used for colonial interests.

But we also need to consider dignity at the individual level and question how our policies and programs affect the dignity of the most marginalised.

The experience of indignity: of shame, of humiliation and of feeling constantly unworthy is too great a consequence for us to ignore.

Consider Dalit women and Dalit feminism in South Asia. Dignity is at the core of their demands for social change. Their primary experience of caste discrimination is one of humiliation. It is not enough to address the demands of these women by addressing practical needs– water, housing and education– though that must be part of it. Programs also need to consider how they are aiding or diminishing Dalit women’s possibility for advocacy, for collective action and for gaining respect in their communities.

Dignity also needs to be addressed in humanitarian programs. While the rapid pace of a disaster means that program teams are rushing to provide the fastest response possible and key infrastructure, this is no excuse to ignore the dignity of program participants.

Simple measures can be taken, such as consulting the marginalised in affected communitiues about the dangers and risks in disaster situations and by ensuring that there are robust feedback and compliants handing mechanisms. It is for this reason, that CAFOD, CRS and Caritas Australia developed the ‘Protection Mainstreaming Framework’ with Caritas Internationalis. CAFOD further refocused their entire programs on safety, access, dignity and inclusion. These tools and resources helped teams to set up child friendly spaces, to set up referral channels for survivors of abuse and to link program participants with advocacy efforts.

One way of understanding dignity is to draw from philosophy. Despite the renowned sexism and other problematic views of the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant, his work on dignity still provides insights for development programming. According to Kant, a person with dignity is treated as ‘an end’ in oneself, not as a means to an end. A person has dignity if they are seen as a full human being, not as a resource, or as a ‘tool’ for others.

Of course, Kant’s sexism meant that he did not adequately address the issues of women’s dignity and there are some excellent philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum and Carol Hay, who provide brilliant critiques.

Over the centuries following Kant’s work, human dignity has increasingly been recognised only in the public sphere. For example, women are respected if they gain an income, or paid employment, or a parliamentary seat. But where is the respect for unpaid work in the private sphere?

To address human dignity more holistically in a development program, there are four key areas that are useful to address:

Point 1. Does the program encourage inner dignity?

Does the program focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised in a community – addressing the needs and strengths of those who have experienced humiliation and indignity? This will differ depending on the country and community, but some examples include: single mothers, people living with disabilities, Dalit and tribal communities, ethnic minorities, people living with HIV/AIDS. Once the program focuses on this group, it should ask ‘does the program make participants feel worthy and feel proud of themselves?’

Point 2. Does the program promote holistic dignity, beyond masculinist notions of ‘public’ dignity?

Are women and other carers recognised for the care work and work at home that they do? Dignity and respect should not be founded on earning an income or other public measures.

Point 3. Does the program enable dignity from others?

Does the program increase respect from others towards the marginalised in the community? Of course, this is not always possible, but the program should provide participants with the means to advocate for respect. It should also address attitudinal change amongst the powerful.

Point 4. Does the program enhance equality of dignity through redressing power imbalances?

Dignity should not only be for some members of a community. How are the most marginalised included in leadership roles? How is discrimination addressed at the community level? Development programs must consider these questions.

Instead of ignoring this most fundamental need of human beings, let’s design development programs with the dignity of participants front of mind.

Annabel can be contacted at annabel.dulhunty@anu.edu.au

March 23, 2022
Duncan Green