What does ‘Dignity’ add to our understanding of development?

Guest post from Tom Wein, of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, based in Nairobi.Tom Wein

Is your program respectful? How, exactly, do you know that? Did you ask people?

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. We’ve made strides in measuring wellbeing, capabilities, and even stress. If there is something important to people’s lives, we should measure it. After all, donors will fund only what we can measure.

One glaring hole stands out to me: we often ask each other if our programs respect people’s dignity – but do not ask those who actually use the program. When it comes to dignity, we could develop measurement tools to make that easy – but we haven’t, at least not yet.

What do we mean by dignity?

One reason we don’t yet measure dignity is a glut of clashing definitions. It’s a tricky philosophical concept, and everyone from Augustine to Eleanor Roosevelt has an opinion. After spending more of my Christmas break reading Kant than I would care to admit, and with the caveat that this is a work in progress, here is how I currently conceptualize dignity:

  • Dignity is a universal, characteristic quality of every single person.
  • Simply because each person has dignity, they are entitled to respect. You can make a claim on others that you be treated with respect.
  • Dignity is inalienable. Your dignity can be offended against, but it cannot be lowered or taken away, no matter how badly you are treated.

This is one of the two main ways of talking about dignity – a ‘moralized’ version of dignity. The other way of talking about dignity is the ‘merit-based’ conception. When we describe some lordly ruler as having dignity, we are using the merit-based form. We make an appraisal, and decide how much respect they are due. In the merit conception, this ruler could be stripped of their dignity, and we would owe them no respect at all. The moralized form I’m talking about is different – everyone has it, it cannot be reduced or removed, and respect is always due.

Much of this draws on Remy Debes’ excellent book, ‘Dignity: A History’, and especially the chapters by Oliver Sensen and Stephen Darwall. There are a whole host of issues they discuss, and that deserve more reflection, but that perhaps is for a later piece of writing. For now, let’s say that if we can arrive at a good definition, we have the seeds of a measurement strategy.

What would measuring dignity do to development?

Get this right, and I think it changes our programs. Constant claims are made, that some program or other is specially respectful – or degrading. That is particularly true of cash transfers. Cash advocates say it is a uniquely respectful form of aid, because it confers agency. Detractors fret that it has patronizing echoes of Victorian alms-giving. A good measure of the impact of cash transfers on dignity would go some way to solving that debate.

Measuring dignity should make for programs that work harder to give aid recipients agency, equality and individuality. We could let people choose how often or where they receive aid. We could hire more from the communities we seek to help. And where we can’t – where there are good reasons of scale and efficacy for delivering aid as we currently do – we would have a better idea of the damage done. That damage is real already – it’s just that right now we don’t count it.

More discussed than defined – a collection of recent dignity headlines
More discussed than defined – a collection of recent dignity headlines

Can you help?

At the Busara Center, where I work, we’ve used a first draft of a dignity measure. That was for Jeremy Shapiro’s new paper, ‘The impact of recipient choice on aid effectiveness’. Now we want to develop that into a series of more careful questionnaire scales. Any measure is surely imperfect, but equally surely a flawed measure beats not trying at all.

To do this right, I’m going to need some help. There are four big questions in my mind, and an awful lot of brainpower among the readers of this blog. If you could help me answer them, I’d be very grateful indeed:

  • Is this a good idea? Is measuring dignity important in development? Are there more urgent measurement challenges we are missing?
  • What conceptual or logical problems did you see in my description of dignity?
  • Is this description of dignity relevant everywhere, or specific to some cultures? What contextualization, translation or local cultural problems might this work face?
  • What measurement challenges do you foresee? What measurement ideas do you have?

I look forward to hearing from you – to chat about dignity, or behaviour in development, you can write to me at tom.wein@busaracenter.org

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


20 Responses to “What does ‘Dignity’ add to our understanding of development?”
    • Agreed.

      Why should it be the role of development programs to show measurable impact on dignity in the first place?
      As a gut reaction, I think I would feel rather undignified were on the receiving end of an external intervention to empower my dignity. Is dignity not a premise, a reason for empowering people’s agency, capabilities, etc., rather than something to raise in and of itself?

      • Thanks Shaz. I think this is a point that gets to the heart of my argument – a whole range of programs may fail to respect people’s dignity, including programs that supposedly aim to empower. Right now, we don’t know, because we don’t have the tools to ask people – which is why we have to rely on gut reactions.

    • Thanks Matt. I’ve tried to answer this in the concept paper, linked below. I think I could phrase this more sensitively as ‘if something is important to people’s lives, then efforts to improve those lives should take account of it’. Quantitative measurement happens to be what I work on, and has a good chance of being accepted by a development industry that presently does not take much account of it, but it is obviously on one tool for helping us do so.

    • Thanks for the pointer Naomi, I’ll take a look and see if I can incorporate his work. I hope I’m not making any claims of novelty – clearly people have been discussing dignity for a long time, and the main contribution I hope to make will be to develop tools of measurement.

    • It’s a somewhat separate debate, but you’re right. Cash transfers aren’t intuitively satisfying in the way medical supplies are. On the other hand, the careful evidence for them does help answer another frequent critique, that aid spending is wasteful. I doubt my project will have much impact on that more public debate about whether aid is useful at all, but I hope smart people are working hard on that side of it!

  1. lilych

    The concern aims to convince those needing to be convinced about the program, with evidence-based justification anchored on “dignity” Re your Qs:1) Philosophical concepts including respect, morals, equality, individuality, well-being etc are relative, culture bound. But these are like happiness — however with the benefit of identified indices for measurement among countries. Should be worth your while to pursue measurement. 2) I concur with your concept of universality/inalieanability. But there is the matter of relativism and context, hence the ‘do no harm’ esp in regard to cultural sensitivity that assumes the contrary/contradicts your premise(s). Hence, the need to prove the premises. 3) Contextual & cultural factors are society/culture-specific — have to understand the unique nuances, commonalities & differentiations. 4) There are challenges, but safe to begin with prior knowledge and available literature/studies. On the cash program, all good — if operationalized, implemented as planned/intended esp on targeting & actual recipients (the elderly, victims of disasters/conflicts, social safety nets for the vulnerable population — esp children of marginalized ethnic minorities/internally displaced peoples, those affected by unnatural circumstances to merit cash assistance etc).As they say, any intention is only as good as implemented.

    • Dear lilych, thank you for you comment. I think the points you make about context, relativism and expectations are important ones – it’s an issue I’ve tried to tackle in the concept paper, linked in the comment below.

  2. Jayakumar Christian

    Critical issues raised in the article. Always felt in my experience with World Vision if we should go beyond ‘dignity-justice-particpation-empowerment’ frame to explore ‘identity-self image’ (individual & community). Dignity-justice may only be a derivative of deliberate violation/ marring of the identity (#God of the Empty Handed; #Walking with the Poor) of those on the margins.

  3. Tim

    Very interesting thoughts.

    Is it a good idea? Well, not only is it a fantastic idea but ticks all the boxes through any ethical lens one was to use to view this.

    What conceptual or logical problems are there? I see this as the huge problem. in medical ethics you will find very few discussions based around “dignity” but much based around its corollary “Autonomy”. Leaving aside your merit-based definition of dignity and using only your moral base, it is clear that we don’t “give” someone dignity, but that they have dignity independent of their interaction with us. And that implies…. autonomy. Why is that such a huge problem? Try introducing “autonomy” into any structural system of government, politics, aid etc. By their very nature, they strip autonomy and replace it with a menu of choices for consumption and a limited menu of choices for political change or independence.

    Is your definition global or inter-cultural. My immediate reaction is that it is an ethical definition and therefore normative…. ie, to the culture.

    Slipping back to the medical ethics problem, the measure of autonomy is not a metric rather than “more autonomy is always better so as long as we are moving in that direction….”

    Great stuff.

  4. Sam

    At the ICRC, to preserve human dignity is one of the main objectives, and it seems they get it at least regularly right (I did not conduct a RCT), paying sometimes for interventions that make no economical sense to preserve dignity (good). I agree dignity and respect should often be more important than other results (there is always a tradeoff)

    I would think it is more an attitude and mindset than a measurable outcome. I would rather put it in the TOR of an evaluation “new style” (one day more about this), rather than add one more gameable and senseless number to the long list of indicators (soo of course Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”, please do stop ignoring that gaming an indicator is nearly always easier than having the targeted impact.)

  5. Ken Smith

    How do the donors to ICRC react when it’s reported they have paid for interventions that made no economical sense but preserved dignity ? Do they accept this and continue funding ?

  6. Augusta Dwyer

    Hi Tom,
    A very interesting article. Have you checked out ‘Time to Listen:hearing People on the receiving End of International Aid’ by CDA Collaborative? I think it addresses some of the issues you have raised.

    • Jamie Pett

      Seconded. I was just about to suggest the same thing.

      There may be a case for a dignity measure for many projects not as a primary goal but as something to monitor/check. This would suggest that a simple heuristic is more useful in many cases than anything too detailed or labour-intensive.

  7. Thank you all for your comments – some helpful points and reading recommendations!

    I’ve tried to answer some of those points in a longer draft concept paper, laying out how I think we should think about the philosophy and definitions of dignity. I would love to get your thoughts. If we can get this right then that will give us a solid philosophical grounding for approaching the measurement.

    The online version of the concept paper is in the link below, and any and all comments are extremely welcome – what holes can you see, what seems jarring, what ideas are missing? How can we make this better?


    Thank you for your help.

  8. Jayakumar, Tim, Sam – thank you for your thoughts and encouragement, they are much appreciated.

    I think both Sam and Jamie make a good point about the need for light indicators that may not be the main focus of a program. Augusta, Jamie, thanks for recommending the CDA piece, it’s really useful.

  9. Dignity of Labor means that all occupation, whether involving intellect or physical labor, deserves equal respect and dignity. No job should be considered superior or inferior. Every job that is dutifully done with honesty and sincerity deserves appreciation.Every person has the right to choose his profession of his choice. A person should never be discriminated on the basis of his occupation.
    Read more on .

  10. Hi I just came across this mail thread and I notice that this is from 2018 largely but still adding my thoughts for all to consider. I am writing in from India, heading a non profit called Goonj and we have considered dignity of people as the center piece of all development work.. To me dignity is the sense of value a person has about himself/herself and in terms of development work one of the biggest issues is that there has been a ongoing narrative of thinking of people who are economically poor, as not having much value.. who therefore need some outside intervention, solutions, expertise, money etc to lift them out of their lives. So even though thes eso called poor people have an inherent dignity like the rest of us.. they have over a period of time being made to or forgotten that they have dignity an dvalue in this world. We run a Dignity for Work (DFW) intiative that begins with the supposition that people have something of value.. their wisdom, their efforts, their natural resources etc to offer to the world.. and when we move the power of decision makign from ‘us’ the development experts, governments other agencies to them, magical things happen. In our work just in FY 2018-19 people in the far flung villages of India took up 6000 projects in their own areas; issues chosen by them, solutions designed and implemented by them.. on diverse issues from water, agriculture, infrastricture, sanitation, education enviornment etc. every day they surprise us with what they do.. no money paid, no outside expertise. we play the role of mobilising, motiavting and empowering them.. and stand by them to fill any gaps.. http://www.goonj.org is the website, many stories on https://www.facebook.com/goonj.org/?epa=SEARCH_BOX