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Operationalizing dignity in humanitarian aid

Lessons from an unconditional cash transfer program in a refugee community in Uganda

IDinsight Manager Rico Bergemann in conversations with enumerators part of the GiveDirectly project in Kiryandongo, Uganda. ©Heather Lanthorn/IDinsight

Dignity is universal, inherent, and unearned by all human beings.1 Refugees, in particular, find themselves in vulnerable situations due to the conditions faced in their home country, compelling them to leave and find alternative habitation. They may fall outside legal protection categories and sometimes fail to enjoy full rights as citizens.2 Their new status makes them susceptible to violations of their dignity, especially when accompanied by a sense of dependency, lack of choice, and control over aspects of their daily lives. 

GiveDirectly provided a one-time unconditional cash transfer (UCT) of 1,000 USD via mobile money to all households registered in Kiryandongo refugee settlement (~10,000) plus ~5,000 nearby Ugandan (host community) households over three years.

GiveDirectly has taken up IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative measurement tool to ensure it upholds its values in respecting beneficiaries’ dignity. In our impact evaluation of the UCT, we included a qualitative study interrogating recipients’ experiences and their perception of the program’s respect for their dignity. We conducted 61 qualitative interviews and one focus group discussion with refugees from South Sudan and Ugandans drawn from refugee-hosting communities.

This blog further explores dignity in programs targeted at displaced communities, drawing examples from the Kiryandongo study.

Respect for dignity in action

“The idea is that it’s their dignity, it’s their choice on what they do.” Cash transfers are key to dignity-sensitive programming, and studies have shown that cash increases feelings of autonomy and respect compared to in-kind aid.3     – Rory Stewart, President, Give Directly

Our participants told us that GiveDirectly’s deep engagement with the communities they serve, for example, in “barazas”4 or individual home visits by the staff, makes the beneficiaries feel valued, listened to, and respected. Such engagements have helped address early challenges and misunderstandings among recipients worried about the obligations put upon them by this transfer. The organization has also investigated the beneficiaries’ preferences on frequency, size of payments, and the timing of transfers. This is all to represent recipients’ voices in their programming decision, and an intention to respect the dignity of the people they serve. It is this commitment to research that has enabled GiveDirectly to understand the impact of its work on people’s lives and tweak the model in place.5

Operationalizing dignity

As we interviewed respondents in Kiryandongo, they highlighted their experiences in three areas that they felt indicated that GiveDirectly respected and upheld their dignity: 1) enabling choice, 2) increasing representation, and 3) promoting equality.6

1) Enabling choice

This pathway to dignity investigates if the people have a choice and a chance to consent. Beneficiaries often take the aid offered; however, it is valuable and more respectful to work with communities to assess their needs and preferences as a routine part of program design. Choice may extend from what type of intervention organizations offer to how the intervention is delivered. One way to consider preferences is to investigate the type of aid needed, i.e., between cash and in-kind support. Other operational design choices include the cadence and frequency of transfers or the transfer modality (e.g., mobile money vs. bank accounts).

While there are operational limitations to how many choices there can be, identifying and understanding the preferences of communities along with flexibility in program design across different contexts may allow organizations to champion the agency of the people they serve in program delivery – and, with that, respect their dignity and achieve better and more sustainable outcomes.7 

Sentiments shared by some respondents, such as “organizations know better what we need,” may reflect an internalized passiveness in aid delivery and persistent denial of choice by organizations. GiveDirectly relinquishes control over the aid provided by empowering people participating in their program to choose how to use the money, and usually who to enroll in the family to receive the transfer. Many respondents valued the flexibility of cash as they could use it for various needs. One respondent shared. “I just execute whatever I feel is needed to elevate me to a better position.”

2) Increasing representation

Representation encompasses feeling seen by and seeing oneself in the organization delivering the aid. Organizations should set up accountability systems such as beneficiary feedback and complaint systems during the inception phase with scrutiny of their program’s respectfulness. If used effectively, these systems will boost respectful interactions that uphold dignity, improving the well-being of refugees. Failure to monitor staff’s actions may limit an organization’s ability to improve its respectfulness towards refugees. Organizations need to invest in systems that allow the people they serve to assess program delivery with a dignity lens. 

Respondents told us they felt valued, and appreciated small acts of respectfulness by GiveDirectly, such as greetings, use of polite language, honesty, and commitment to serving the community.

3) Promoting equality

This pathway to dignity ensures the beneficiaries feel treated as an equal and genuine efforts are made to reduce power assymetries. Organizations should communicate the targeting criteria to potential beneficiaries and give aid to those who fit such criteria to avoid misperception of the program’s fairness. In contexts with tensions related to politics, religion, ethnicity, etc., humanitarian organizations must be careful to avoid exacerbating such issues. Organizations can do this through a deliberate effort, such as holding representative sensitization meetings to ensure the community understands the program’s targeting, eligibility, and processes. Other case studies8 also highlight the importance of fairness and openness around targeting criteria and communication on aid allocation decisions. Organizations must be transparent and proactively share such information at the outset of programs to ensure acceptability and avoid raising tensions in often sensitive and politicized situations.

Respondents in Kiryandongo valued fairness in the distribution of support by aid organizations, especially programs free from corruption and those that did not discriminate against the recipients by tribe or refugee-host status. GiveDirectly used a public lottery approach to determine the enrolment sequence, which provided satisfaction, even among those with less desirable outcomes (e.g., later enrolment). We found the key areas of improvement for GiveDirectly include increasing transparency around processes such as selection criteria, operational choices, and any changes in the processes. 

Though not exhaustive or unique to humanitarian organizations, these themes provide ideas to practitioners keen to emphasize dignity in future programming. Our findings on dignity echo Mosel & Holloway (2019), where the ODI team concludes that “how organizations give aid is a greater factor in determining respectfulness than the type of aid; especially transparency in targeting, face-to-face communication, and cash-based aid.” Humanitarian organizations should continually seek to understand the meaning of dignity to those they serve and be accountable for upholding this dignity.

Read more on “Dignity and cash”  from our recent study on the respectfulness of GiveDirectly’s work in Kiryandongo here.

IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative aims to equip global development leaders with tools to measure how much they affirm people’s dignity and make their interactions more respectful. The dignity research agenda will guide organizations to reflect on their actions and know where to improve.

  1. 1. Wein, T., Lanthorn, H., & Fischer, T.(2022). First steps toward building respectful development require overcoming misalignments: three experiments on dignity in aid in Kenya and the United States. IDinsight (working paper). DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/RCWV2.
  2. 2. OHCHR | Migrants in vulnerable situations
  3. 3. Shapiro J. (2019). The impact of recipient choice on aid effectiveness. World development, 116, 137–149. https:// doi. org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2018.10.010 UN News.
  4. 4. Community sensitization meetings
  5. 5. Wein, T., & Wambua, J. (2022). Cultures of dignity are possible: Lessons on how to build organizations that respect humans. IDinsight.
  6. 6. Lamberton, Wein & Saldanha, forthcoming
  7. 7. Wein, T. (2022). Dignity and development: a review of the literature on its application, definition and measurement. The Dignity Project. (working paper). DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/8AVWY.
  8. 8. Mosel, I., & Holloway, K. (2019). Dignity and humanitarian action in displacement. (HPG Integrated Programme 2017-19. From the Ground up: Understanding Local Response in Crises). Overseas Development Institute.