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Policy brief

Dignity in practice

An attempt to define and operationalize a complex construct

In this document, we build on our longer working paper to attempt to define dignity and introduce the dignity chain as a first, visual operationalization of this construct in the international development sector.

Dignity in practice

Credit to: Calvin Ochieng/The Dignity project

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Across the development sector–from the global to the local–there is broad rhetorical consensus that upholding and enhancing dignity is the right thing to do in designing, delivering, and seeking donations for aid. Dignity underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, features in NGO names and mission statements, and is part of 152 national constitutions (Wein, 2022).

Dignity has intrinsic value; it is important in its own right and valued by many around the world, so we should be respectful of people’s dignity for its own sake. In addition, treating people in a way commensurate with their dignity has instrumental value, with the potential to advance many other outcomes we care about in aid and development.

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

Defining Dignity

Dignity is “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.”

Operationalizing Dignity

The dignity chain illustrates entry points for respect for dignity across the various stakeholders in the development sector. It shows how we must move beyond good intentions in fundraising, design and delivery of aid programs, and understand the actual dignity experiences of those who development seeks to serve, when they access aid, and the consequences of those experiences.

Read the entire working paper here.