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Three ways the humanitarian sector can make good on its commitment to dignity

Tom Wein 28 February 2023

Luta Del Norte, Philippines ©Jilson Tiu/IDinsight

Dignity has always underpinned humanitarian ethics. It is the foundation of human rights as articulated by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023. Yet, as the world experiences record-breaking numbers of displaced people, research suggests that refugees and internally displaced persons are often not treated with the level of respect for dignity they deserve. A study by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) with six different refugee populations found consistent experiences of disrespect. As one displaced person from Colombia told ODI, “They should not treat us as if we were children and decisions should not be made without consulting us. This is dignity.”

At the Dignity Initiative, we have learned that treating people with dignity has wide-reaching impacts. Evidence suggests that respectful interactions lead to positive outcomes for individuals (greater well-being and self-efficacy), for the programs they interact with (improved service uptake and satisfaction), and for wider society (through better functioning democratic spheres, greater cooperation, and reduced conflict).

So, what steps could the humanitarian sector take to do better? An update to the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability offers an opportunity to take action that could positively impact millions of people.

Launched in 2014 following a global consultation practice, the Core Humanitarian Standard laysout nine commitments designed to place communities and people affected by crisis at the center of humanitarian action. This thoughtful effort has ushered in a measure of accountability for humanitarian organizations, with verifications and data-sharing on the sector’s performance.

Since its writing, 170 humanitarian organizations have joined the CHS Alliance. 136 of them have agreed to undergo some level of verification –– and the results are not good. In none of the CHS’s nine commitments did the average score meet their targeted standard. That was true even though the bulk of the assessments –– 101 of them –– were self-assessments, which tend to be more positive than independent ones. 

It is clear that more progress is needed. As the CHS is reviewed and updated in 2023, IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative has provided input.

Three recommendations: Placing dignity at the heart of humanitarian action

Notions of dignity and respect were woven through the original 2014 CHS definition of humanitarian action and quality. A limited update in 2018 added some practical actions required under the overall commitments, including an expectation that humanitarian action would meet standards of inclusive representation, respectful communication, and feedback. 

The CHS’ Nine Commitments presently focus on actions taken by humanitarian actors, rather than the ultimate experiences of the communities and people affected by crisis. 

Here are some areas where we believe standards could be further strengthened:

1. Expect humanitarian actors to empower displaced persons to participate in their own governance

The current wording in the CHS commits humanitarian actors only to the minimal standard of knowledge of rights and entitlements, and access to information. A stronger standard would expect that some portion of displaced people participate in their governance and are properly equipped to do so –– with knowledge, access to information, trust and confidence in the process, self-efficacy, inclusion and more.

2. Expect complaints to be addressed, not just filed 

A dignity lens guides us to focus more on the subjective experience of those with the least power in these interactions. For instance, the CHS asks whether a complaint process is set up, but not whether it was done to the satisfaction of the complainant or their community. This implies some small but important rephrasing across all the quality criteria for all the CHS’ nine Commitments.

Of the nine commitments, humanitarian actors whose performance has been verified performed worst of the fifth: “welcomes and addresses complaints”. There is a particular need to do more in this domain. Again, this points to a wider issue.

3. Codify principles of equality into the standards

The Dignity Initiative’s research points to three pathways to respect people’s dignity: recognition, agency and equality. The 2018 standard places great emphasis on recognition and agency, but much less on equality. How are power differentials being minimized? How are we signaling that people are viewed as fundamental equals even when those power differentials persist? A renewed commitment to this should be made in future drafts, and pursued by humanitarian actors.

Cultures of dignity are within our grasp. In IDinsight’s research among South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, they told us that the cash transfer program they received had been conducted respectfully. IDinsight (together with the Busara Center) has profiled five organizations that have successfully built cultures of dignity for those they serve.

IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative continues to collaborate with actors across development and humanitarian aid, building tools to embed dignity in their work. We hope the lessons we are learning can help translate positive aspirations for dignity into real change for those who this work seeks to serve, who too frequently experience disrespect in their interactions with the bureaucracies of international aid.