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The dignity report: Three years of research on dignity and international development

Three years of research on dignity and international development

Tom Wein 26 July 2021

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The Dignity Report charts 10 studies and three years of research on dignity and international development. We’ve learned why dignity matters, and how power is always present.

In that time, we’ve learned that:

  • Disrespect is common, and it is painful. That matters in itself, and also because it is linked with feeling less happy, less empowered, less cooperative, more tribalistic, less healthy, and less democratic.
  • Dignity matters to everyone and appears in every tradition, but it has a unique meaning in different cultures – Kenyan activists have told us how to them it is a feminist value, fraught with ideas of power and the freedom you have to be respectful. Around the world there are three common pathways for how to be more respectful: increased representation, better choices, and reduced inequality.
  • Properly incorporating ideas of dignity and respect, as Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have written, sets off “a profound rethinking of economic priorities.” And there is support for that reordering across the development sector. Those who aren’t considering ideas of dignity are getting left behind.
  • If we want to get started, there’s plenty of practical tools we can use. First we can add measures of respectfulness into our research, and discuss how to be more respectful in our work. Sometimes dignity can seem vague and intractable, but by pinning it down in these studies, we can make it a whole lot easier for you to take action.


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. Drawing on the previous literature review, we can identify five main research questions.

There is a strong base of research that approaches dignity philosophically, and there is a need only to apply that to international development, as Holloway & Grandi (2018) have done, and as Wein (2020) does. When it comes to measurement, there is some existing work to draw on, but little has been directly applied to international development. A good start has been made on conducting descriptive research among several populations, but the vast majority of the world has not yet been covered. No research has been identified on how to increase support for respectfulness, and there is consequently no base of research to begin to draw on.

Measuring respect

In development studies, there have been few attempts at measurement. Yet even among these, there is significant variation in topics covered even when measuring identical interactions in similar contexts. As yet, all the identified measures have been in the form of surveys, and there has been no published attempt to develop incentive-compatible measures. The Dignity Project creates open access, ready-translated tools to help people measure whether their program is respectful. We’ll have a new scale, carefully validated across cultures, coming soon.

Describing the operation of dignity

There are many opportunities to examine different social situations. When it comes to associational and predictive studies, there are a couple of major existing datasets that should be analysed. These could yield new understandings of what demographic and other features are associated with experiencing respect.

Increasing perceptions of respectfulness

When we are ready, there are plenty of ideas available to us, including better feedback and listening, different types of representation, different procedures for consent, and for accountability. We can replicate existing work. We can test strategies based on seeing people, giving them choices and treating them as equals. We’ll be investigating all this and more, as the Dignity Project progresses.

In understanding the relationship of dignity to international development, a profusion of possible studies offer themselves. Scholars of international development, political science and microeconomics have been paying increasing attention to dignity. As that circle of researchers expands, there is plenty of room for many more projects. We hope our work at Dignity Project will help guide them.

Beyond research

Beyond that, we need to start building cultures of dignity within organisations. We need to highlight those who are already doing good work, and create practical ways to do it yourself within your organization. Those who care about dignity need to come together to advocate for more respectful international development. Our work continues.

Read the full report.