This week, we share a Q+A with IDinsight’s new Director, Tom Wein, to find out what inspired his dedication to dignity in development.
Tom Wein is the founder of The Dignity Project, a campaign for more respectful international development practices. Last month, Tom joined IDinsight and will be leading our work to support leaders in upholding the dignity of the people they serve. It’s an initiative that builds on IDinsight’s commitment to using research to elevate the voices and perspectives of people, including past projects such as Measuring People’s Preferences, which redirected funding based on people’s values. Tom previously worked with Raising Voices and the Busara Center. His first book, on dignity in the marketplace (with Cait Lamberton and Neela Saldanha) is due to be published in 2023.
Q: How do you explain what you do to your friends and family?
When we think of interacting with ineffective bureaucracies – through call centers or visa lines or to get a driver’s license – we tend to imagine long lines, unmotivated employees, and unhelpful or confusing guidelines that don’t take account of your specific situation. This is a simple form of disrespect, and we all know how maddening it can be. It’s the feeling of a bureaucracy refusing to see you as a full, complicated person. Yet this treatment can go far beyond inconvenience, especially for the most marginalized people and those who are discriminated against. One young activist in Mathare, Nairobi, told us “we would prefer to have respect…Unfortunately these things happen only to the rich people.” Building services and bureaucracies that see the full precious humanity of the people in front of them – that’s what I want to contribute to.
Q: Why does that matter so much? Why focus on dignity above other things?
Well, to me dignity matters for its own sake. But it’s worth noting that disrespectful treatment leaves its mark in myriad ways. Our research has helped show that when people are disrespected, they are less happy and less empowered. They are also less healthy, less willing to cooperate with one another, less likely to access services and less satisfied with them. When people respect one another, democracy functions better and people are less politically tribalistic, according to work by Jeffrey Paller and Mansur Lalljee. It’s a fundamental value, and to me, it’s one with an urgent moral force to it.
Q: What would “dignified” global development look like?
We would ask people whether we’re treating them in the right way, and designing programs in line with people’s priorities. The people who development seeks to serve ought to be the arbiters of how we’re doing – that’s the democratic principle. We’d be getting much closer to what Partners in Health call ‘accompaniment’, rather than the patronizing form of development that exists today. In the short term, I’d advise people designing services and programs to consider three ‘pathways’ to respectfulness: recognition, agency, and equality. Recognition means ensuring people feel seen, and can see themselves represented. Agency means having a choice and a meaningful chance to consent. And equality means that power differentials are minimized and people are treated as holding equal status as the service providers. There’s more to it than that, but those three pathways are a great place to start.
Q: What have you accomplished so far in advancing dignity and where do you hope to go from here?
In the first years of this work, I put a special focus on building the research base. We’ve tried to digest the immense amount of literature on dignity and lay out a research agenda. Just recently, fellow IDinsighters Heather Lanthorn and Torben Fischer and I published a paper empirically demonstrating the disjunctures between aid recipients, NGO staff, and donors when it comes to dignity. And Priyanka Khatry and I have worked to develop and validate a new survey measure of Felt Respect for Dignity.
We’ll always keep learning, but now we want to be more focused. How does what we’ve learned feed into specific, actionable recommendations to help organizations keep their promise of dignity? What works to be more respectful? How can we help our clients build out this agenda? And how can IDinsight be an exemplary home for all the many allies of dignity across development? These are the questions on my mind, right now. Last year I got the chance to give evidence to the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee on these themes, and I want to make sure our research reaches everyone it ought to.
Q: What attracted you to IDinsight? What would you want others to know about the organization that may not be immediately apparent?
I’d love people to know that IDinsight has long been a place that has put its values first. This dignity initiative might be a crystallization of that, or a more public face to that, but everyone I’ve spoken with here has started from an attitude of service and social impact. You can see that in the work – especially the methodologically brilliant but also deeply empathetic work to measure people’s preferences. I’m just adding to a deep commitment that already exists.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
When I’m not going on about dignity, I’m most likely watching the England cricket team find new ways to lose. Or reading poetry – everyone should know about the simple beauty of Annie Katchinska’s poem ‘Bergamot’.
If you or your organization is committed to upholding the dignity of people and want to ensure this value is reflected in your work, Tom would love to hear from you. Reach him at email@example.com.
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