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Working paper

A research agenda for dignity in international development

Tom Wein 4 December 2020

In this working paper, we outline a research agenda for anyone working on dignity.​ Dignity is much discussed in development, but only rarely investigated in any depth. This working paper highlights the major gaps in the literature and suggests a series of research questions and possible projects that might help address those gaps. It is intended as a resource to guide all those doing research on dignity and development. We highlight a need for more research in three areas: measurement, describing the operation of dignity and respect and testing acts that will increase respectfulness.

Mama Rahma distributes literature on IWD © Dignity Project

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Dignity and its relationship to international development should be studied in greater depth. It is an important concept in international development and aid, with a major role to play in debates around economics, displacement, conflict, gender, disability, and more. Dignity is also an essential concept in related fields, including law, medicine, and psychology. There are some indications of public support for more respectful international development, and the idea is related to many of the most important ideas in development discourse, such as capabilities, rights and wellbeing. There are extremely extensive Western and non-Western philosophical and popular traditions of using and interpreting dignity. All of this is covered in some detail in a previous narrative review of the literature on dignity by the same author (Wein, 2020). That review is an essential companion to this working paper, and should be read alongside this work.

If dignity is important, it is also under-defined and under-researched in international development (Wein, 2020). The very large philosophical literature has only rarely been brought to bear on the many uses of the word dignity, such that dignity is often used as an all-purpose repository for positive aspirations, employed without careful definition. There have been a few sustained interrogations of dignity among particular populations and in particular situations – for instance, the work on refugees by ODI (Mosel & Holloway, 2019), or on palliative healthcare (Chochinov et al, 2008) and maternal care (Kruk et al, 2018). These are noteworthy exceptions. There have been only a handful of attempts at measurement. Many places and popular understandings of dignity have received no academic attention. Only a handful of NGO programs have been evaluated for their respectfulness. There has been even less attention to the roles of governmental or commercial interactions (Wein, 2020).

There are countless approaches to defining dignity. Investigating those, and their variance across cultures is an important research question. However, for the purposes of this paper, in order to ground us in a loose common understanding, we borrow from the ideas of Remy Debes and others, to suggest that dignity is an innate kernel present in every person. It is inalienable; it cannot be increased or decreased or stripped away. Because each person has dignity, they can make a claim upon others that they are treated with a basic level of ‘recognition respect’. This differs from ‘merit-based’ conceptions of dignity, in which dignity and respect are accorded only to those who achieve a particular rank or feat or conduct themselves in a particular way. We may wish to give additional respect to those people, but in the first place, everyone has dignity, and deserves that basic level of respect (Debes, 2017). For an in-depth discussion of the different contributions to this vigorous philosophical debate, see Wein (2020).

Drawing on the previous literature review, we can identify five main research questions: (1) How is dignity to be defined? (2) How can respectfulness be measured? (3) How does dignity and respect operate? (4) What acts increase perceptions of respectfulness, and what are the consequences of that? (5) How does international development regard dignity, and what actions will increase support for a dignity agenda?

We can organise our approach to these research questions by employing Evan Lieberman’s handy research cycle model. Lieberman emphasizes the need to conduct and publish studies appropriate to the stage that the literature is at. In particular, he warns against skipping too quickly to causal identification, which is crucial but can come to dominate the literature on a topic, especially in economics and political science, to the exclusion of other vital parts of the research cycle. Lieberman suggests that we move progressively through six types of research: theoretical/normative reviews, descriptive, associational/predictive, natural experiments, early-stage experiments, and then late-stage experiments (Lieberman, 2016). We employ this approach below, with the addition of measurement as an important stage also.

In the second section of this paper, I summarise the state of the literature in respect to each of these research questions, highlighting the main relevant papers and the gaps. That work highlights the special urgency of research in response to the second, third and fourth research questions. In the following sections, I outline specific research projects that would address those gaps on measurement, describing the operation of dignity, and increasing respectfulness.

  1. 1. I owe gratitude to many, many people for fruitful conversations about dignity and research. These include Cait Lamberton, Neela Saldanha, Anisha Singh, ‘Dapo Oyewole, Ruth Levine, Ashley Whillans, Sakshi Ghai, Ariana Keyman, Nick Otis, Nick Owsley, Josh Dean, Sami Kassirer, Kerrie Holloway, Remy Debes, Jonathan Glennie, Lucia Macchia, Victor Rating, Wangui Kimari, Duncan Green, Tania Tam, Mwanahamisi Singano, Jeffrey Paller, and Chaning Jang. My particular thanks to Jeremy Shapiro, who set me on this path, and Rachel Strohm, who has been there for all of it. I have received valuable research assistance at different stages of this project from Paul Omondi, Debrah Anyango, Douglas Wanja, Jennifer Omae, Shelmith Kariuki, Jennifer Adhiambo, Ernest Hupuczi and others.