What does ‘Dignity’ add to our understanding of development?

February 7, 2018 18 By Duncan Green

Guest post from Tom Wein, of the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics, based in Nairobi.Tom Wein

Is your program respectful? How, exactly, do you know that? Did you ask people?

Development aims to give people better lives. In doing so, we mainly aim to increase wealth and health – in part because we can measure those outcomes with ease. But there’s more to a good life than spare cash and extra years. We’ve made strides in measuring wellbeing, capabilities, and even stress. If there is something important to people’s lives, we should measure it. After all, donors will fund only what we can measure.

One glaring hole stands out to me: we often ask each other if our programs respect people’s dignity – but do not ask those who actually use the program. When it comes to dignity, we could develop measurement tools to make that easy – but we haven’t, at least not yet.

What do we mean by dignity?

One reason we don’t yet measure dignity is a glut of clashing definitions. It’s a tricky philosophical concept, and everyone from Augustine to Eleanor Roosevelt has an opinion. After spending more of my Christmas break reading Kant than I would care to admit, and with the caveat that this is a work in progress, here is how I currently conceptualize dignity:

  • Dignity is a universal, characteristic quality of every single person.
  • Simply because each person has dignity, they are entitled to respect. You can make a claim on others that you be treated with respect.
  • Dignity is inalienable. Your dignity can be offended against, but it cannot be lowered or taken away, no matter how badly you are treated.

This is one of the two main ways of talking about dignity – a ‘moralized’ version of dignity. The other way of talking about dignity is the ‘merit-based’ conception. When we describe some lordly ruler as having dignity, we are using the merit-based form. We make an appraisal, and decide how much respect they are due. In the merit conception, this ruler could be stripped of their dignity, and we would owe them no respect at all. The moralized form I’m talking about is different – everyone has it, it cannot be reduced or removed, and respect is always due.

Much of this draws on Remy Debes’ excellent book, ‘Dignity: A History’, and especially the chapters by Oliver Sensen and Stephen Darwall. There are a whole host of issues they discuss, and that deserve more reflection, but that perhaps is for a later piece of writing. For now, let’s say that if we can arrive at a good definition, we have the seeds of a measurement strategy.

What would measuring dignity do to development?

Get this right, and I think it changes our programs. Constant claims are made, that some program or other is specially respectful – or degrading. That is particularly true of cash transfers. Cash advocates say it is a uniquely respectful form of aid, because it confers agency. Detractors fret that it has patronizing echoes of Victorian alms-giving. A good measure of the impact of cash transfers on dignity would go some way to solving that debate.

Measuring dignity should make for programs that work harder to give aid recipients agency, equality and individuality. We could let people choose how often or where they receive aid. We could hire more from the communities we seek to help. And where we can’t – where there are good reasons of scale and efficacy for delivering aid as we currently do – we would have a better idea of the damage done. That damage is real already – it’s just that right now we don’t count it.

More discussed than defined – a collection of recent dignity headlines

More discussed than defined – a collection of recent dignity headlines

Can you help?

At the Busara Center, where I work, we’ve used a first draft of a dignity measure. That was for Jeremy Shapiro’s new paper, ‘The impact of recipient choice on aid effectiveness’. Now we want to develop that into a series of more careful questionnaire scales. Any measure is surely imperfect, but equally surely a flawed measure beats not trying at all.

To do this right, I’m going to need some help. There are four big questions in my mind, and an awful lot of brainpower among the readers of this blog. If you could help me answer them, I’d be very grateful indeed:

  • Is this a good idea? Is measuring dignity important in development? Are there more urgent measurement challenges we are missing?
  • What conceptual or logical problems did you see in my description of dignity?
  • Is this description of dignity relevant everywhere, or specific to some cultures? What contextualization, translation or local cultural problems might this work face?
  • What measurement challenges do you foresee? What measurement ideas do you have?

I look forward to hearing from you – to chat about dignity, or behaviour in development, you can write to me at tom.wein@busaracenter.org