From development to dignity: a profound challenge for international cooperation

People don’t want pity, they want respect. Why not put that challenge at the heart of decision-making?

Jonathan Glennie
3 November 2019, 8.01pm
All India Mahila Congress via Pexels/Pixabay. Pexels licence.

“Some people just don’t want to develop.”

During my years of work in international development I’ve heard this view expressed, implicitly or explicitly, by frustrated practitioners. It sounds bizarre, and demonstrates a monumental lack of empathy, but funnily enough it can often be right. Many communities don’t want to ‘develop’ according to someone else’s definition of that word.

To understand this point, we need to ask what ‘development’ really means. What does it look like? Who is it done by, to and for?

Many answers have been given to these questions over the years, but nowadays the most common approach is some variation of what’s captured by the UNDP’s human development indicators. It’s a kind of ‘bricks and mortar’ approach whose focus on health, education and living conditions seeks to ‘humanise’ the focus on economic growth that dominated in previous decades. Since the late 1990s, the work of Amartya Sen and others to define ‘development as freedom’ has encouraged further nuance and a focus on capacities as much as material outcomes in efforts such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

But, for me, something is still missing, something less tangible and harder to measure, but unfailingly present in almost all international cooperation activities from the most basic project in a village to political wrangling at the highest echelons of the United Nations: dignity – the conviction that all people are worthy of honour and respect, no matter their circumstances.

Development or dignity?

Indrajit Roy, an academic at York University, once wrote an article telling the story of a community of landless labourers in Bihar, the poorest part of India. Such labourers are considered ‘untouchable’ by the elite classes. Their habitations are congested and lack water and sanitation, but they have resisted all attempts to relocate them. Why? Not because they don’t realise the need for change - they do want better houses, but not at any price.

Change, says one of Roy’s interviewees, is when we can look our landlords in the eyes as equals, not as inferiors. Roy called his article “Development as Dignity.” The labourers wanted ‘development’ but not at the cost of their equality and self-worth - the inherent right to decide on their own futures and priorities.

In a great book called Time to Listen a group of researchers led by Dayna Brown asked aid recipients about their experiences and received similar feedback from across the world. This example comes from a project in Bosnia-Herzegovina:

“We heard from people who felt that they were treated without much respect or consideration. Such treatment was an insult to their dignity…A few people said that international agencies claim to be “partners” with their beneficiaries or local organizations, but then behave as the owners/bosses. One local NGO representative talked about walking out of a presentation by an international organization – she found it so arrogantly and condescendingly presented that she could not bear to stay.”

That experience can easily be generalised. Dignity is a word that’s used constantly in reports and speeches about aid and cooperation, but it always seems to be secondary when the work gets going, or when money is spent and progress measured. It’s an afterthought, something nice-to-have but not essential.

But what if dignity was placed at the heart of all development work, from planning, through implementation, to evaluation of its impact? If a failure to honour other people’s dignity is often what leads to failure in development projects, then centralising dignity could be the key to success. How so?

Centralising dignity in development.

Framing development as dignity doesn’t provide a satisfactory response to all the problems of development, but it does add a rich perspective that could fundamentally alter decisions and approaches. Here are some preliminary ideas on why dignity matters so much.

First, centralising dignity implies that development outcomes are as much about power relationships as about the kind of human development indicators that are enshrined in the MDGs, SDGs and almost all modern development projects. The conventional wisdom is that empowerment is a means to an end. When a community is ‘empowered’ it can reach its real goals which relate to material benefits: better health, food and education, and higher incomes.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if health, education and incomes are the means to the real ends of development work such as leadership, autonomy, dignity and the reconfiguration of power, equality and voice? That would mean asking totally different questions at the beginning of any project or process of decision-making, and setting out different strategies for change.

For example, I once worked with displaced Afro-Colombian communities in the north-west of Colombia who were campaigning to return to their remote homelands, knowing that schooling might be harder and incomes lower there than in the urban locations to which they had been removed. Nevertheless, they decided to prioritise the autonomy and political agency associated with their place in the world over indicators that would fit more neatly into a UNDP or World Bank table.

Second, a dignity-centred approach implies a focus on process as much as outcomes, on ‘means’ as well as ‘ends,’ the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ (something Jennifer Lentfer emphasises in her blog How Matters). The decisions made by the landless community studied by Roy make little sense in traditional economic terms, according to which people are effectively ‘walking wallets.’ But increasingly, communities, social movements and politicians recognise that, while most of us do, of course, pursue material security, few people operate solely at that level.

Some things are seen as more important than money and material wellbeing – like dignity. That’s why people leave jobs where they are being mistreated, despite the hit they take to their earnings, or take a stand against racism and injustice, fully aware of the potential consequences for themselves. That’s why the NGO representative walked out of that aid presentation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

You might think it would be hard to measure the ‘dignity’ of a process, but while it may not be obvious how dignity fits into a spreadsheet, it’s at least an attribute that is eminently knowable. No-one really understands development. Everyone understands dignity. Dignity is perhaps the one thing that human beings across the globe, in myriad different contexts, most instinctively recognise and long for. The good news is that engaging with people in a dignified way will make it more likely that the material outputs of any project will be successfully delivered – so it should be a ‘win-win’ all-round.

Third, centralising dignity would mean an end to categories like ‘developed’ and ‘developing.’ For too long those working in ‘development’ have propagated a binary divide between countries that call themselves ‘developed’ and those that are supposedly ‘catching up.’ This attitude, whose roots are firmly planted in the colonial era, may finally be on its last legs.

Since dignity and its absence are universal ideas and experiences applicable across the world, such binaries are meaningless. For example, an organisation called ATD 4th World works alongside poor communities all over the globe with exactly the same philosophy: “Poverty cannot be resolved through charity,” they say, “and aid should not destroy the dignity nor the creativity of recipients.”

In the UK, a British MP called Alison McGovern has written about the value of putting the concept of dignity at the heart of British politics. “Rather than seeing improving public services solely through the prism of increased spending levels,” she argues, “a state that prioritises dignity would rethink how politicians relate to public servants, and how public servants relate to the people.”

Fourth, the approach I’m recommending would overturn the fallacy that ‘development’ has an endpoint. The struggle for dignity is timeless, as evidenced by the fact that human indignity exists in all societies. This realisation should transform our ambitions as an international community, with actions framed around long-term solidarity gradually replacing the traditionally short-term acts of charity or foreign aid.

Gradually, more and more people are pushing the language of dignity. Since I first suggested that this idea could become an alternative framing concept for development a few years ago, academics, campaigners, community leaders and development practitioners from across the world have gotten in touch, recognising in this word a pathway that leads beyond the contradictory and often harmful aspects of contemporary development discourse and practice. In particular, this short book by Barry Knight and Chandrika Sahai was inspired by those seeds.

But it is still early days. What we really need is a movement to advance dignity throughout the international development community, backed by more than good intentions. I hope you’ll join it.

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