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Cultures of dignity are possible: Lessons on how to build organizations that respect humans

Joel Wambua Tom Wein 30 August 2022

Photo credit: Calvin Ochieng/The Dignity Project

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Summary

Dignity matters all around the world. The structures of aid produce disrespectful relations and processes. Even when people living in poverty are able to access the material aid they need, they frequently leave these interactions feeling unseen, unheard and maltreated.

Across the development sector, leaders tell us they want to respect the dignity of those they serve.

Yet we know that dignity can feel a vague topic. Some of these leaders tell us they are not sure how to get to grips with it. Others have said they worry that pursuing dignity will come at a cost to effectiveness.

To help address these concerns, we profiled five organizations that have worked hard to build dignity into their internal cultures. All are on a journey of constantly reinforcing that value, and we feel we have much to learn from their efforts.

The five are: Goonj, Partners in Health, All Together in Dignity Fourth World, Tostan and GiveDirectly

We take away six common lessons from this work:

  1. It’s not what you do – it’s how you do it. Respectful aid can be done at scale, but that brings real risks of dilution, and you’ve got to constantly reinforce your culture. Goonj’s second hand clothing donations might not be what we’d normally think of as respectful but they are getting it done in 27 Indian states.
  2. Dignity takes many years. Tostan commits to three years in communities; Partners in Health signed a 25 year MOU with the Liberian government. The time matters in itself, and because it allows you to build mechanisms of participation, feedback, and properly train genuinely grounded staff.
  3. Taking that much time required all these organizations to resist donor pressure – donor staff may care personally about this agenda, but they are constrained by their structures. All five organizations conceive themselves as humble challengers to the aid (and sometimes capitalist) status quo.
  4. The ultimate focus has to be on the individual you are serving – but to achieve that requires careful internal culture setting and equitable policies and structures.
  5. Dignity isn’t just about words. You can’t ever divorce it from politics and economics. There is no respectful care if you don’t have the right medicines in stock. Still, language matters a lot.

  6. Dignity is essential, but there are complicated tensions to navigate – you can’t provide everything and you have to liaise with governments. Sometimes you are trying to change social norms to ensure one group’s dignity is protected, and in doing so challenging existing power structures and traditions in ways that may feel disrespectful to some.