Off The Record #9: The benefits of development with dignity

Is disrespectful treatment of participants a pressing problem in aid?

Busara Center
· 4 min read

By Tom Wein of The Dignity Project, Shelmith Kariuki and Jennifer Adhiambo of the Busara Center.

Photo credit: Busara Center

Development promises to make people’s lives better. Yet in the rush to do good, we do not always listen to those whose lives are affected by our programmes. Whether it’s rude staff, long lines, intrusive questions or other offences against people’s dignity, government services and charitable distributions often come with demeaning hurdles.

As theoretical concepts, dignity and respect are widely discussed: in Western philosophy, and through qualitative work with populations across the world. Development actors talk about it often: Antonio Guterres has made it a centerpiece of his rhetoric, and it is a core principle for many humanitarian NGOs. It’s extensively discussed as a core principle of law and rights, and of medical care. People have tried to measure respectfulness in the lab, in maternal care and in interactions with government. Research by Jeremy Shapiro and Busara has shown that cash transfers are more respectful than other forms of aid, and we know that individual donors promise to give 60% more to charities that take care to be respectful.

What we don’t know much about are the consequences of respectfulness: what happens when you treat people more respectfully? Do small acts of respectfulness generate other positive changes, such as greater participation, altruism, self-efficacy or wellbeing? Dignity is surely entangled with other concepts, such as empowerment, but we don’t know how, just yet, or what respectfulness means to people. This quick “Off The Record” study is a first step on that road.

Our study design

We invited 2000 respondents from Kibera to the Busara Lab by text message, a day before the sessions. Participants were randomized into one of three groups:

  1. Control: they received the default invite message,
  2. Treatment 1: they received a message recognising them by name,
  3. Treatment 2: they received a message that included both their name and a choice of attendance time.

We sought to answer the following questions:

  • Do more people show up? Whether they attended the lab was our first outcome measure.
  • Are they more altruistic? For the 239 people that attended the lab session, we reinforced their treatment by reminding them of the messages they had received. Then, we looked at whether this increased altruism (in a Dictator game),
  • Are they more empowered? Measured via the proxy of self-efficacy
  • Are they happier? Measured via the proxy of wellbeing.

Finally, we also had them complete a survey on their ‘Life Experiences of Disrespect’, the emotions they associate with disrespectfulness, and their definitions of respectfulness.

What we learned

Our study participants routinely experience disrespect, and it is associated with lower wellbeing and self-efficacy.

Emotions listed when recalling disrespectful events

71% identified at least one social group who are not usually respectful towards them — from NGO workers to medical staff to police officers. When asked to recall the last time someone was disrespectful towards them, participants listed feelings of annoyance, disgust, boredom, anger and sadness.

Experiencing more disrespect was also associated with feeling less happy and less empowered; a one unit increase in disrespect score results in a reduction on the wellbeing scale of 0.2, and a reduction in the self-efficacy scale of 0.3 (both significant at p=>0.01).

However, small acts of respectfulness — giving choices over time and using names — do not affect participation, altruism, self-efficacy or wellbeing. As evidenced in this graph, being recognised by name or given a choice of what time to attend did not make people significantly more likely than those in the control group to show up. It did not make them significantly more altruistic, bring them higher self-efficacy or higher wellbeing.

Is respectful development valuable?

In this experiment, we did not find other benefits — small acts of respectfulness do not lead to greater effectiveness or positive results in these domains. We did however find that it is important to solve:

disrespect negatively affects wellbeing and self efficacy — and our participants experience that disrespect often.

The main takeaway

Everyone has dignity. Because they have dignity, we have a duty to respect them. We don’t need a reason to do so; it’s important in its own right. Researchers, NGOs, companies and governments should all keep working to find ways to be more respectful.


This edition of Off the Record was done in collaboration with The Dignity Project, a campaign for more respectful development.

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The Busara Blog

The home of behavioral science in the Global South.

Busara Center

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Busara is a research and advisory firm dedicated to advancing Behavioral Science in the Global South

The Busara Blog

The home of behavioral science in the Global South.

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