A return to humanity: three ways to uphold dignity in humanitarian settings

Start Network
Start Network
Published in
9 min readNov 16, 2022


By Helen Guyatt

“Despite its frequent appearance in humanitarian policy and programme documents, advocacy campaigns and donor requirements, dignity remains a word with positive connotations but little agreement as to what it exactly entails. Without clear agreement on what dignity means, it is difficult to know whether a particular response has upheld or undermined someone’s dignity. More specifically, unless the humanitarian community knows what dignity means to the people it aims to support, how can it ensure that its response is dignified? “

[Mosel and Holloway, 2019 — Dignity and humanitarian action in displacement]

The term “upholding dignity” is used liberally when speaking about humanitarian assistance, but as alluded to above, there is a lack of clarity on what this means in practice. As part of our continued work to decolonise evidence, Start Network’s Evidence and learning team wanted to investigate crisis-affected communities’ perceptions of dignity within their lived experiences, and how the humanitarian sector can use our findings to measure the success of their aid responses.

To better understand what dignity means, we spoke to 180 people (134 men and 46 women) who were recipients of humanitarian support provided by our member organisations in response to a heatwave in Pakistan this year. We asked them three questions:

  • How would you best describe dignity?
  • Can you tell us about an occasion when you were treated with dignity?
  • Do you feel you were treated with dignity during this response for heatwave and why?

Interviews were carried out in person by local researchers working with GLOW Consultants, with female researchers interviewing women. Researchers were chosen that could speak the range of languages spoken in the region, building on our learning that people prefer to speak in their native tongue and face-to-face.

From these three simple questions we gained some powerful insights into how to uphold a persons’ dignity.

  • Treat people equitably and individuals as your equal
  • Anticipate peoples’ needs and be discreet when providing help
  • Demonstrate empathy and make people feel comfortable
Female researchers conducting interviews with female respondents (Multan, Pakistan ©GLOW Consultants)

But first, what is dignity?

The story told below by a labourer in Multan provides a good example of how a person can feel dignified within their various relationships and through interactions in their community and family settings. It aligns with experiences of most people, since many of us reinforce perceptions of our self-worth and dignity from family, friends, and neighbours that look out for us, and provide us with love and respect.

…my loved ones like friends, family and siblings; they all give me respect and love me. They are always there in my hard times and do not look at me as some person who is lesser than them. But on the other hand, people from our community treat me like some servant or slave because I am a labourer and I can’t afford luxuries like big house and a good car. People look at me with pity and always try to make me feel lesser from them. They want to get treated nicely but when it comes to me, they don’t respect me or give me my rights. [40-year-old male labourer interviewed in a regional language, Saraiki]

Two words that were used by researchers while inquiring about dignity are Izzat and Waqar (both connoting dignity and respect in Urdu, Saraiki, Sindhi, Pashto and Balochi). Many interviewees described dignity as being about self-respect, self-esteem, honour, personal worth or feeling valued. However, even more interviewees chose to focus on the ways of behaving towards another person that can reinforce dignity.

They used a diversity of words from being polite, to being fair, to being humble. They spoke about the importance of “considering all humans as equal” and being “made to feel comfortable”. Interestingly, no one mentioned words directly related to being accountable or having inclusive decision-making or power and agency, the terminology often used by humanitarians when referring to upholding dignity.

Words used to describe actions, feelings and behaviours related to upholding dignity include: Accommodating, Affection, Appreciate, Caring, Compassion, Courageous, Equality, Fair, Friendly, Happy, Helpful, Honoured, Humble, Kindness, Loving, Nice, Polite, Respect, Trust, Understanding and Well-mannered.

Following the research carried out by our partners, discussions around dignity led us to extrapolate three main lessons.

  1. Treat people equitably and individuals as your equal, regardless of their social, economic or cultural position

To illustrate what dignity means to them, many interviewees wanted to share examples of when they were not shown dignity by their employers who have power over them, or by the community if they are poor. People spoke about being judged by how much money they have, and that it was “normal for people with low socio-economic status to be treated with less dignity than others”. One person mentioned that to show dignity and “not look down upon others” requires people to be courageous. In describing dignity, many emphasised the importance of being polite and humble, and the sense of conferring honour and respect.

People like me, labourers and rickshaw drivers are always seen with disgust and hatred. People use harsh words and make us feel inferior to him. But when someone speaks nicely with us, we like them I would best describe dignity as…. Treating everyone equally… [33-year-old rickshaw driver interviewed in Saraiki]

People also spoke extensively about fairness and equality as important aspects of dignity, and that the way they were provided with assistance during Start Network’s heatwave response was dignified because they were “treated the same”, “independent of caste” and “with no discrimination”.

The staff here were very polite and kind. They didn’t let the poor people like me feel an outcast, rather treated us equally like all the other people who were there… [39-year-old male porter working at a bus station]

2. Anticipate peoples’ needs and be discreet when providing help

Another aspect that came across quite strongly during the interviews was that having to ask for help or being seen to receive help, were both undignified. Many interviewees described dignity as a state of being independent from others; not relying on others for help. Some respondents suggested that you can help others while still upholding their dignity if this help is discreet and is provided without the person having to ask for it. This stands uncomfortably alongside many humanitarian programmes that request people in need to come forward for help or distributions of assistance that require recipients to line up in public spaces. Understanding how to deliver assistance to those in need without them having to ask — and providing assistance in a way that doesn’t expose people as being in need — should be a major consideration for those designing and implementing humanitarian programmes.

I think I have always been treated with dignity. This can be related to the fact that I never ask anyone to help me — no matter the situation… I would best describe dignity as … not waiting for others to help. [39-year-old female handicraft trader interviewed in Saraiki]

Yes, there are a number of occasions in my life when I am treated with dignity. My friends are very helpful and caring whenever I am the need of something and they always keep it to themselves when they are helping me. This is a very dignified way of helping others…. I would best describe dignity as…. getting help without being asked… [30-year-old male fruit trader interviewed in Saraiki]

3. Demonstrate empathy and make people feel comfortable

Many people used words such as love, kindness, compassion, and understanding to describe dignity and some specifically spoke the importance of demonstrating empathy with a person. There is a narrow, but crucial difference, between empathy and sympathy. Empathy speaks to the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another (idiomatically described as putting oneself in another’s shoes), whereas sympathy denotes feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. It was made very clear that people did not want pity or to be made to feel vulnerable.

I believe dignity is an act of kindness that comes straight out of one’s heart and deeply touches the other person’s heart. It is when you’re made to feel honoured and respected, not because of your money or bank balance but out of love and kind behaviour. [33-year-old dairy farmer interviewed in Sindhi]

I think dignity is when you understand other people’s needs and fulfil them without making them feel vulnerable. It is honouring someone selflessly and not as a transaction [32-year-old labourer interviewed in Balochi]

[Dignity is] when other people empathise with your pain and circumstances. Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and acting accordingly to decrease their pain is what I see as dignifying them. [41-year-old farmer interviewed in Sindhi]

Interviewees also spoke how dignity was upheld through making them feel comfortable. Dignity was demonstrated by researchers when they “talked to us in our mother tongue”; were caring and understanding or generally showed an interest in how interviewees were doing.

Staff members were so accommodating. They are not only interested in giving us the kits and providing us with logistics, they even ask if we are doing okay. That seems to be a nice gesture; being a woman, I feel secure at this facility. [31-year-old woman interviewed in Balochi]

During this response everyone around me was very supportive and caring. Female staff was very understanding and they tried their best to make us comfortable with them while providing us kits. [49-year-old woman interviewed in Balochi]

One striking and very simple finding was that greeting someone with a big smile and looking happy to see them can impart great feelings of dignity onto a person.

I get a dignified and respectful behaviour from the staff and I was excited that everyone was happy to see me here and I felt that I was one of the best persons of this city [45-year-old shoemaker interviewed in Balochi]

I was greeted with respect and a big smile whenever I visited the facility. The response was really good and dignified. [40-year-old van driver interviewed in Sindhi]

Final thoughts…

All 180 people interviewed felt they had been treated with dignity either as a recipient of a heatwave kit or as a user of cooling facilities because they were treated nicely — offered a seat and a drink of water — spoken to politely — and in a respectful manner. They highlighted the general attitude, behaviour displayed and the atmosphere that was created with quotes such as, “people were so kind during the whole time” and “were very friendly towards each other”. People spoke about “feeling safe” and being “treated like a guest” or as “family members”.

They were nice people, they honoured me. It is not just about providing stuff, it is also about the attitude. The people here have been quite empathetic towards me. That is something that really matters. [37-year-old labourer interviewed in Sindhi]

Yes, I am truly grateful to the service providers for a team of such polite staff members. They treated me with so much respect and provided me with cool water. Despite of the intense heat, they all were in a fresh and pleasing mood. [42-year-old shepherd interviewed in Balochi]

Dignity is key to the best response and I saw people here who were really respectful and caring. They were working for betterment of humanity. [35-year-old clothes trader interviewed in Sindhi]

This is a first step on Start Network’s journey interrogating what dignity means to people and how that knowledge can not only be useful for humanitarians providing assistance, but also for those helping to evaluate how well a humanitarian intervention performed. Accepting that dignity may mean different things to people in different contexts, decolonising our evidence and measuring success from community perspectives, will require continuing to explore the concept of dignity in different settings.

Our main finding that dignity is more about how assistance is provided than what is provided is similar to that of researchers working with refugees, internally displaced people and returnees in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Lebanon, the Philippines and South Sudan, suggesting that this aspect of imparting dignity should not be underestimated.

When asked what dignity means in a humanitarian response, interviewees placed more emphasis on how aid was given, rather than what was given.

[Mosel and Holloway, 2019 — Dignity and humanitarian action in displacement]

Our work also suggests that simple, more nuanced questions such as asking people whether the assistance was provided discreetly, whether the staff treated them politely, or whether they felt safe and comfortable may help build a better picture of whether their dignity was upheld, in comparison to asking broad questions often found in post-distribution monitoring tools. These include whether recipients of assistance were satisfied with the response or whether the quality of the response was good.

[Dignity] is the best humanity. It means talking in a nice way and using polite words with polite gestures. In other words, treating everyone with respect and equality, making them feel safe and not making fun of their disabilities. [18-year-old female student interviewed together with their teacher in Urdu]



Start Network
Start Network

An international network of NGOs, catalysing a new era of humanitarian action, with proactive financing, innovation & localisation to transform the system.