Development is more than just achieving outcomes – it implies a different way of seeing the world and fellow human beings

A Pakistani homeless man rests by a road in Karachi.
 A Pakistani homeless man rests by a road in Karachi. In a world of poverty and injustice, who are the undignified? Is it the poor or the rich? Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

It is not uncommon for “dignity” to be rolled out in the opening salvo of UN documents, but it is a concept seldom contemplated in depth. In this report, it is used as a title to gather the goals aimed at tackling poverty and inequality under one more manageable theme – those at the bottom of the economic ladder lack dignity, and it is the job of the rest of the world to help give it to them.

But that is actually a very limited interpretation of a word that, if understood properly, could mean fundamental changes to our ways of working, and the overall story we are trying to tell. The thing about dignity, and the reason it is a transformational concept, is that it knows no social, economic, gender or ethnic barriers.

Some of the poorest people are the most dignified. And some of the richest lack dignity. In a world of poverty and injustice, who are the undignified? Is it the poor or the rich? Is it the victim of violence or the perpetrator? Is it those who lose out to corruption or the corrupt official?

Dignity is a word that overturns traditional assumptions about north and south, developed and developing. While charity is bestowed by the haves to the have-nots, dignity does not work like that at all. If I fail to treat someone with dignity, it is me, not them, who is undignified.

The dignity lens introduces an irony whereby the “less developed” can actually be more dignified. In this way, development becomes a truly global endeavour, not by the “developed” for the “developing”, but by all, for all, to achieve the dignity of all.

And that is why I think we should embed dignity, properly understood, at the heart of the sustainable development goals and the post-2015 agenda. By casting global goals as universal (not to be met only by poor countries, but by all countries), this new agenda also seeks to end the rhetoric of us and them.

Don’t get me wrong. Extreme poverty is undignified – sometimes communities or individuals do find themselves helpless and in need of crisis or ongoing assistance. But that isn’t a sufficient understanding of the experiences of most poor people. Whether in city or countryside, very poor people tend to work for a better life.

I have worked with people driven from their land for the sake of mega-plantations or mineral resource extraction. Some became labourers, others moved to urban slums. Sometimes they may even have made more money than they did before, but they told me that, while they were poor they had their dignity, carving out a life for themselves with responsibility.

Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP

As former president of Haiti Jean-Bertrand Aristide has pleaded, rebuilding his country means “moving from misery to poverty with dignity”.

Amartya Sen (and others) transformed the development lexicon by defining development as freedom rather than just economic or even social progress, and the concept of dignity takes us a step further along that road.

It is said, quite sensibly, that if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it. But while it may not be obvious how to fit dignity into a spreadsheet, it is at least an attribute that is eminently knowable. While most poverty measures are disputed, dignity is perhaps the one thing that humans across the globe, in myriad different contexts, most instinctively recognise and long for.

Conceptualising development as dignity certainly does not provide a systematic response to all its problems – in fact it implies as many questions as answers. But it adds a further rich perspective.

In particular, it inspires us to think not only about the what of development but the how. Not just the end, but also the means. It makes development more than just achieving outcomes – it implies a different way of seeing the world and fellow human beings.

As I have argued elsewhere, it is quite plausible to reach certain development targets in ways that disregard some people or communities. Development and even poverty reduction can be excuses for some heinous crimes, by totalitarian regimes of both left and right set on the path to wealth creation or industrialisation and by the liberal capitalist hegemony.

Imagine if, as well as carrying out value-for-money analyses of interventions, we also just asked the simple question: is this dignified? Does this enhance our dignity and that of others?

I have seen a lot of poverty, and I have seen as much happiness in poor communities as in rich ones. The saddest thing in the world is not poverty per se; it is the loss of human dignity.

As we redefine development in this year of transition to the new, more inclusive sustainable development goals, let me throw this into the ring. Development is dignity or it is nothing. The opposite – development without dignity – is not worth having.