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Defining and operationalizing ‘Dignity’

Photo credit: Calvin Ochieng/The Dignity Project

We have seen through our work that upholding dignity is vital in international development. But what does “dignity” really mean? The team at IDinsight’s new Dignity Initiative have been working to  define it and draw out some implications from that definition in our new research brief and longer working paper.

 Dignity has intrinsic value; it is important in its own right and valued globally – we should be respectful of people’s dignity because of that inherent value. In addition, treating people in a way that respects their dignity helps advance other outcomes that improve lives and wellbeing – things practitioners in aid and development deeply care about.

Despite its importance, there is still little practical agreement on how to define dignity and how to operationalize it. Without these components, as well as a more nuanced understanding of how to incentivize approaches and behavior that respect people’s dignity, we remain in a world of rhetoric rather than action. 

Defining dignity: 

Our definition: “A trait universal to all humans, which is inalienable, inherent, and unearned. Recognising the dignity of a person requires us to treat them in a way that respects their dignity. When we fail to show that respect for dignity, the disrespected individual can appeal to the wider society for redress.”

We call this our ‘workhorse’ definition – it’s not perfect, but we think it is practical. There are a lot of concepts packed into that definition; they are discussed more fully in the research brief.

What does this mean for development? Four big conclusions

Dignity shows up all across social and economic development. We call this the ‘dignity chain’. It shows the relationship between the groups who fund, design, and deliver aid, and the groups who end up receiving the aid. At the interface of this interaction, those groups receiving aid may or may not have respectful experiences. In the full working paper, we report the results of three experiments that provide supporting evidence for the relationships we illustrate in this diagram.

This evidence drawn from studies of nonprofits, donors, and Kenyans leads us to four big conclusions:

  1. What ultimately matters is the subjective dignity experience of those receiving the aid, not the good intentions of those financially supporting or operating them. 
  2. When people participating in social or economic programs are treated in a way that respects their dignity, this unlocks other kinds of impact.
  3. There are opportunities all across the aid system to incorporate a dignity lens in order to improve that subjective experience – including in fundraising, program design and delivery.
  4. Feedback loops across the sector are inconsistent. We need high quality data on people’s dignity experiences to make and test the right changes.

What can organizations do to build a dignity lens?

We believe that there are three pathways to showing respect for people’s dignity: representation, agency and equality. These seem to show up across different traditions of dignity around the world.

  • Representation means any person with less power seeing themselves represented in their interaction with an aid-giver and, in turn, feels seen.
  • Agency means people have relevant choices and a meaningful chance to consent.
  • Equality means all people are treated in accordance with their equal moral status, and power differentials are minimized. 

Right now, IDinsight’s Dignity initiative is developing a method for ‘Dignity Audits’ to help organizations identify where in their process they are upholding or breaking their dignity promises. We have developed and validated a survey measure that assesses people’s dignity experiences. We’ll be publishing lessons from five organizations that have done a great job building cultures of dignity. And in September, we are convening scholars from around the world to lay out a research agenda to support this work. If you would like to keep up to date with developments across the dignity community, sign up to our newsletter here.


It’s easy for our sector to talk about upholding dignity but we want to make certain that this leads to real impact on people’s lives resulting from their perspectives being heard. 

To do so, we must begin with clarity about what upholding dignity means, and about how (dis)respect appears. These concepts provide a foundation for all the work done by IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative.