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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Finding Humanity in Development: Compassion and Dignity Intersecting

There is always something you can do to draw dignity into greater consideration - to see people in front of you a little better - in international development.

Tom Wein

In this conversation, I am gaining Tom Wein’s perspectives on dignity in his work in international development. We talk about how compassion and dignity relate and what dignity practices look like in the sector. As international development professionals we want to create an experience and interaction out of respect, dignity and compassion for others — so what structures get in the way and how might they be challenged? These are some of the questions that Tom delves into.

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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


Tom Wein is a director at IDinsight in Nairobi, where he leads the Dignity Initiative.

Overall, Tom works to advance justice and support citizens through useful research; he believes research is most useful when it grapples with questions of power.

Before joining IDinsight, Tom founded The Dignity Project, a campaign for more respectful development. He has also led the Violence Against Children department at Raising Voices in Uganda, and worked for the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. He has a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden, and an undergraduate degree in War Studies from King’s College, London.

When not researching, Tom reads poetry, loses himself in the rhythms of test match cricket, and tweets more than he should @tom_wein.


SJ: What resonates with you around the topic of compassion in the international development sector?

TW: The idea of compassion seems like a good characterisation of people’s intentions in international development. It has strong ties to the concept of dignity, which also lies at the core of people’s work in this sector.

As international development professionals, we want to create an experience and interaction out of respect, dignity, and compassion for others.

I am interested in how bureaucracies, systems and processes get in the way or distort the intended interaction and why our good intentions sometimes don’t yield the results that we hope for.

SJ: How are the notions of “compassion” and “dignity” different in international development?

TW: While both concepts speak to the relationship between a person working in international development and a person receiving aid from development, I think the focus is different.

Compassion leads us to focus more on the experience, motivations or heart of the person working in development. Dignity leads us to focus more on the experience of the person on the receiving end of aid.

From a research perspective, while both concepts may lead to the same types of interventions or prescribed actions the outcome measurement is different. Ultimately, I am most interested in how this leads us to understand what “right” or “good” kind of international development is.

SJ: Has there been a particular moment that has sparked your passion and curiosity around dignity?

TW: I recall my mum returning from a doctor’s appointment where she hadn’t been listened to. When she got a second opinion from a different doctor, the message was the same, but the emotional experience was completely different. She had felt listened to and respected. The contrasting experiences of the appointments stayed with her for weeks.

We probably all have experiences where we have felt disrespected. Perhaps we have felt it in a visa queue. Maybe we remember that one teacher who truly saw us and another teacher who passed a judgement on us too quickly. It is common to feel disrespect, even though most people aim to treat one other in a reasonable way.

SJ: What has led you to focus on dignity as an area of interest in international development?

TW: Dignity fits more easily into the professionalised idea of international development than a concept like compassion perhaps — for better or for worse.

Dignity is particularly helpful as a concept because it is practical.

Dignity is a less radical ask to make of institutions as the word already exists in numerous reports and speeches. The U.N. Secretary-General, Ambassadors and administrative powers for example talk about dignity. When approaching organisations, it is easier to make the case that they already are committed to dignity on paper, so now they just need to follow through.

In general, when we try to do things at scale in public policy, the individual experience gets obscured and flattened. These challenges are even more acute in international development because developing countries additionally have i) more outsiders trying to set up bureaucracies, ii) shorter timelines due to the processes of project funding and iii) greater power inequities than in richer countries.

SJ: What is an example of a project you have come across that has been successful because dignity was embedded?

TW: One of the most remarkable examples I have seen of scaling solutions differently is an organisation called Goonj in India, which centres on second-hand clothing.

We often think of second-hand clothing donations as an “outdated” approach to development. Instead, giving cash or giving recipients the choice of what they need is deemed a fairer and less disruptive approach. However, Goonj has taken dignity to its heart and developed a genuine relationship of mutual obligation between the person who formally owns the clothes and the person who now owns the clothes. It is offering a service for both parties, where interchange happens on an equal basis.

They even include dignity in how the materials are treated in their production centre in Delhi, recycling with care and generosity clothes that cannot be used anymore for generative purposes. The scale of their operations is impressive, operating across 25 Indian states and serving almost 9 million people last year.

SJ: It sounds like it may not necessarily be the solution (in this case second-hand clothing) that is the challenge then, but rather how the solution is implemented with dignity. What do you think?

TW: That seems right to me. There are of course some sectors that may need particular attention when it comes to dignity such as for example sexual or reproductive rights or WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) among others.

As an advocate for incremental changes, I think there is always something you can do to tweak your processes, to draw dignity into greater consideration, to see people in front of you a little better in international development. This will always be valuable to me.

SJ: What makes you go “ah, that is dignity in action”?

TW: We have interviewed several non-profit organisational leaders including from Goonj, Partners in Health and ATD Fourth World to understand dignity in action. They consistently share that dignity is not a technocratic tweak or tick-box exercise. It is a stream that runs through the culture of an organisation.

While every culture and tradition have its own idea of dignity and how people ought to be treated, we do see three pathways that are common across moral traditions.

  1. Recognition — where people feel seen by the organisation they are interacting with and see themselves represented.

  2. Agency — where people have choices and a meaningful chance to consent about whether they want to partake in the interaction with the organisation.

  3. Equality — where ideally, power imbalances are eradicated. Where that is not possible — and often that is not possible in international development — then minimise power balances and put effort towards creating an equal footing.

These areas have been consistently useful to look at to brainstorm with organisations on how they are putting dignity into practice.

SJ: I wonder what becomes possible once recognition, agency and equality is present. What does this pave the way for?

TW: This is a fascinating and important area of research.

Many of us care about dignity as an end goal. But what happens next? It unlocks all other types of impact.

We have descent research showing a range of benefits including:

  • Individual benefits — people feel a greater sense of well-being and greater sense of empowerment after they have had an interaction that respects their dignity.

  • Programmatic benefits — people are more willing to return to a program, more willing to recommend it and more willing to pay for it which an international development program, private company or public service would care about.

  • Societal benefits — when people are experiencing respect or find themselves in an environment of respect for dignity, they are more cooperative with one another, more civically engaged and less politically partisan. We notice less conflict.

SJ: What is getting in the way of creating and maintaining dignity then?

In international development, we particularly see challenges around dignity where bureaucracies are underfunded and struggling with overworked employees trying to cater for vulnerable and intimate issues of individuals.

Take for instance the case of humanitarian actors responding to an emergency — the work must be done fast, but that can easily lead to chaos. In research by ODI, South Sudanese refugees in Uganda reflected that “It is hard to gain sustainable livelihoods here. Food distribution is not in order. People line up for food the whole day, and sometimes get it the following day. It is particularly hard for pregnant women.“

While there are individual factors that matter — such as questions of bias and personality - I am overwhelmingly more interested in the structures that are likely to produce and sustain a culture of dignity. We need to create systems that do not require saints to create a culture of dignity.

For example, in conversations with Partners in Health, they shared how the great start-up work of their organisation was accompanied by a burnout culture because everyone wanted to give every scrap of energy they had — and more — to the project. They have since looked to structure their work, ethos, and culture so they can meet the same project standards more sustainably without looking to every member of staff to be superhuman.

The funding structure is also vital. If we have long term funding, we have time to learn and improve on the bureaucracies and structures we create. When we set up a bureaucracy in Europe, we don’t expect it to be perfect in the first year. We roll it out steadily and make improvements and learn along the way.

Many organisations in international development and more broadly have accepted the need to collect monitoring and evaluation data, but mainly perceive it as a tool to please donors rather than an active culture of learning, reaction, and adaptation.

An organisation that has admirable structures of listening, learning and adaptation is Sightsavers in Kenya. They are currently working with disabled employees and employers to secure decent and fair work. Every year in that work, they have committed to pause, rethink, learn and adapt so their program runs better the following year.

SJ: What would help bring forth more dignity in international development?

TW: While many things have been suggested for improving dignity and helping people feel respected, only a handful of them are backed by solid evaluation evidence. I am currently working with Paul Perrin, the Director of Evidence and Learning at the University of Notre Dame, to prioritise the interventions we would test first and the most urgent questions we want to examine.

A good starting point for organisations is to use our free dignity self-assessment tool which helps organisations do some self-diagnosis.

The tool looks at four domains:

  1. What is the evidence that the population you are serving with this program wants it? As an organisation, you may have identified a need, but is this truly a priority for the served population?

  2. What is the experience of those being served by the program and what evidence do you have that they are feeling respected? What specific steps have you taken to make sure they are treated in a way that respects their dignity?

  3. What steps have you taken to ensure that the staff within your organisation are participating in a culture of dignity and upholding it throughout?

  4. How are you committed to listening and learning? What feedback processes do you have in place to check in?

While this tool facilitates a great first step, the very first step is to start worrying about dignity and getting in on your agenda.

It is so easy to let your day be dominated only by how many people you have served. How can you think about the quality of the experience for the people you serve?

SJ: How would you get dignity on the agenda internally — and advance the agenda externally?

TW: If you start discussing dignity questions internally, I think people will quickly realise that other colleagues have similar concerns. Perhaps they even have stories and examples of places where their organisation did not get it right.

The question then becomes how you can strengthen the process of reflection and consideration. The self-assessment tool can support this process.

We have also developed and validated a survey measure at IDinsight, which can be included in monitoring and evaluation processes. It is five questions which allow an international development programme to measure dignity.

If you are going to measure it, then you have got a chance to take it seriously and have a conversation about the trade-offs.

Ultimately, to move the agenda and awareness around this area forward, we want to create deeper partnerships. This year, we have a conference for practitioners in development to help them think through questions on dignity.

SJ: I like how a sense of dignity also runs through how you want to explore the dignity topic and agenda. It can be easy when exploring these topics — such as dignity and compassion — to automatically slip into an expertise role …which is what we set out to avoid in the first place.

TW: I think this is the direction of travel.

Even if we don’t have the answers to questions about dignity — or about compassion — in international development, people are raising the right questions about what has been done so far, what their place is in the sector and about whether international development is embodying the right values and power balances.

Across the sector, people value hearing about these topics and are moving towards these types of discussions. Around the topic of dignity, we are seeing an interesting group of leaders picking it up.

A central guiding quote for our work at IDinsight is the following statement from a speech made by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, at the World Economic Forum a couple of years ago: “You’re counting the wrong things. You’re not counting dignity of people.”

SJ: What concluding thoughts do you have on these topics and our conversation?

Firstly, thank you for thinking through these incredibly thorny issues and bringing it into the practical processes of actions of development actors.

Secondly, on the risk of becoming a reserved, distant expert on these topics, I think good participatory research is the best cure. We worked with activists on a definition of dignity from a local organisation, Mathare Social Justice Centre, fighting for better conditions in an informal settlement outside of Nairobi.

One of the activists told us: “We wish we could have dignity. Unfortunately, these things only happen to rich people.”

This encapsulates the urgency around dignity — for this group of people in Kenya, as well as for a wide range of people across international development. It is a quote that has stayed with me and which guides my work.


This conversation is based on Tom Wein’s personal views. They do not represent the views of IDinsight or any organisation that Tom has worked for previously.

More information about the Dignity Initiative can be found here.


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