Pondering the Nexus of Poverty, Human Dignity and Development

We often oversimplify poverty – a complex, multidimensional condition – and define it solely on the basis of material well-being. In doing so, we seem to suggest that poverty is a technical concern that may be addressed by means of a straightforward solution. In this view, governments or philanthropic donors possess the capacity to carry out well-designed programs aimed at assisting those in poverty that employ appropriate technology and result in reasonable measurable outcomes (Wallace, 2007). What is missing from this neat equation, however, is the social reality of the poor (Schaaf, 2013). I want here briefly to highlight the paramount importance of human dignity as an element of that too often ignored reality. Additionally, I offer a reminder that self-respect binds humanity together – rich and poor – and is, at some level, irreducible. In what follows, I consider how anti-poverty programs might be designed if their architects started with the daily-life realities of those they seek to assist and developed initiatives accordingly.

About 15 years ago, the World Bank published a well-researched report, Voices of the Poor, that thoughtfully argued that the definition of poverty among those experiencing it includes important psychological dimensions, including their awareness of and vulnerability to rudeness, voicelessness, powerlessness and humiliation (Narayan, 1999). This reality suggests that poverty alleviation is not a simple linear problem subject to a like solution. Indeed, these dimensions suggest that indigence is far more complex than our prevailing assumptions and models acknowledge.

The Guardian, a leading London newspaper, recently published an article by journalist Jonathan Glennie, “The saddest thing in the world is not poverty; it’s loss of dignity” (2015). The essay struck a chord with me for at least two reasons. First, Glennie’s commentary served as a reminder that a majority of Americans have only seen pictures or video footage of the living conditions that characterize deep poverty. We have never experienced anything even approximating such situations. Images, it is said, are worth a thousand words, but as powerful as they may be, such depictions cannot adequately capture the lives of those they address. The photograph that serves as the cover of Katherine Boo’s gripping chronicle of life in a Mumbai slum, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012), for example, while doubtless haunting, does not capture the nuanced relationships, discord, joy, hope and misery of the individuals her book so richly treats. Glennie’s effort raised a second issue as well—the idea that dignity is more important than wealth. This contention particularly, challenges the common American obsession with consumption, a predilection that often makes it difficult for many in our nation to relate to others, especially the poor, as anything other than the “stuff,” the material possessions, they represent or lack (2015).

Put somewhat differently, how is it that poverty, defined materially, has become the saddest outcome for human beings that Americans can conceive? Neoliberalism, our nation’s regnant public philosophy, argues that the market should serve as our principal vehicle for social choices and that efficiency should serve as our collective primary evaluative yardstick of how to assess value. This view also assumes that economic growth will yield happiness and will, by definition, allow those experiencing poverty to overcome their condition. Advocates of this perspective contend that the sole metric of domestic and international success is growth in a state’s Gross National Product (GNP). This dominant theme mistakenly leads us to assess human value and happiness solely in economic terms. If one is poor therefore, irrespective of whether a resident of the United States or another nation, this logic leads its adherents to view such individuals as somehow “less than” because of their obvious lack of economic success.

If our development aims focus exclusively on efficiency, markets and GNP, however, the social realities of those we aim to serve will likely remain opaque, unaddressed or both. As an alternative, the human development approach, embraced by Glennie (2015) and Sen (1999) before him, asks Americans to consider first and elementally, the dignity and humanity of others in our development plans. That is, we ought to engage at the outset in a “systematic examination of … how human beings in each society live and what substantive freedoms they enjoy” or lack (UNDP, p. IV, 2010). Even after adopting this lens, however, many differences will remain between Westerners in developed nations and those populations they seek to assist in other cultures. Yet, as Geertz has observed, the similarities are “far too substantial for an easy other-beasts, other-mores relativism to dissolve” (Geertz, 1983, p. 41). And it is when we note these likenesses that our concern for those experiencing poverty evolves into something more complex than the material, to include the question of dignity and a desire to ensure that our actions do not undermine its possibility in either ourselves or among those we would assist.

This seems to be so for two reasons. First, dignity represents a sought-after state of healthy emotional being in which individual and collective actions are congruent with thoughts, hopes and dreams for the future. In such situations, populations thrive. In this sense, dignity is a quality all individuals possess and from which they, too, can envision the future with others accorded the same standing. The second way one may come to understand the power of dignity is by pondering those times when we have been treated as if we did not possess it. This mental exercise can remind those who are materially rich that it is not just those “others” at the “bottom of the economic ladder [that] lack dignity,” but that all individuals may be robbed of their sense of their own intrinsic worth when treated as inferior, for whatever reasons (Glennie, 2015).  All human beings have surely behaved in ways that treated other individuals with contempt and have experienced such disdain themselves (Glennie, 2015).  In such times, when one’s actions did not align with one’s (presumptive) aspirations, those affected, whether individuals or nations have felt not just disappointed, but deeply dissatisfied with their behavior. In fact, in many cases, they may become hopelessly saddened by what they have experienced and/or perpetrated. It is the recognition of this gap between hoped-for character and result and actual behavior and outcome that deepens empathy and underscores a desire to understand and ensure dignity for all, regardless of their material circumstances. As nice as it may be, a donation of $100 will not ensure my (or anyone else’s) dignity. That is, self-respect cannot be captured by market concepts. As Glennie observed, “The thing about dignity, and the reason it is a transformational concept is that it knows no social, economic, gender or ethnic barriers” (2015).

According another person dignity requires that one listen to him/her actively, openly and empathetically.  In his powerful Voices of the Poor Narayan (1999) quoted three individuals from different nations who highlighted some of the central implications of poverty for human dignity:

You know good but you cannot do good. That is such a person knows what should be done but has not got the means —Ghana 1995a (p. 32)

Poverty is lack of freedom, enslaved by crushing daily burden, by depression and fear of what the future will bring. —Georgia 1997 (p. 31)

Poverty is humiliation, the sense of being dependent on them, and of being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help. —Latvia 1998 (p. 26)

The impoverished, irrespective of where they live, speak of a deep sense of shame and humiliation when describing the impacts of poverty in their lives. Each time we fail to listen to those we would assist, or dismiss them as somehow “less than” and “different” from us or imagine that their complex lives can be reduced to linear logic models in which we enshrine efficiency as our cardinal value, we inflict humiliation and shame, and we corrode the dignity of those we would help.  It is not, as Glennie argued, that “we” possess dignity and “they”—the “others” (the poor)—do not. Rather, it is that we must ensure that our actions do not rob those we target of their self-respect or undermine our own, either through discrimination or misguided metrics or both:

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?

As Glennie properly concludes, “development without dignity – is not worth having” (2015). One might also say it is not worth pursuing in that case either.


Boo, K. (2012). Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York, NY: Random House LLC

Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Glennie, J. (2015, January 28). The Guardian, “The saddest thing in the world is not poverty; it’s loss of dignity: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2015/jan/28/dignity-sustainable-development-goals. Retrieved February 4, 2015.

Narayan, D. (1999). Voices of the poor: Volume I. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Schaaf, R. (2013). Development organizations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

D WhiteDanny White is a PhD student in Planning, Governance and Globalization at Virginia Tech (VT) with a focus on sport in development.  He has earned a B.S. from the University of South Carolina, an M.A. from Virginia Tech, and a graduate certificate in Collaborative Community Leadership from Virginia Tech.  Danny works full time as the Assistant Athletics Director of Student-Athlete Development at Virginia Tech, and is passionate about providing leadership and character growth opportunities for student-athletes.  He piloted and leads an annual study abroad course to the Dominican Republic in which VT students run a sports camp to serve the youth of Verón, an impoverished worker community near the resort community of Punta Cana.  He enjoys running, reading, surfing, good coffee, and spending time with his wife Meredith and their two children, Addie and Will.


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