Embedding dignity in development

A Day Without Dignity‘ was established to provide a counterbalance to the popular image of people in the developing world as hopeless, helpless, and in need of ‘saving’ by affluent Westerners. The latest of these images to be shared around the world are of Ugandans, apparently powerless against the warlord Joseph Kony, waiting for salvation from American high school kids in T-shirts that carry his name. Most Ugandans don’t recognise this image of their country, and have reacted angrily to it (if you’re going to share something on YouTube around, share this).

The ‘Whites in Shining Armour’ phenomenon is nothing new – Ivan Illich spoke to American students in Mexico about it in 1968. Yet over four decades on, people in developing countries are still commonly regarded, and reported, as victims with no agency and no clue. For various reasons many are desperate, without hope, in dire need of help, but to suggest that all development and aid is this way does a disservice to the many, many grassroots initiatives in the developing world that are bringing about real, sustainable change in their communities.

A mother and child
Mum and child, Bimma, Ghana. Once a week, community members in Bimma come out in force to do physical work around the village such as repairing roads or, in this case, filling in the foundations of their new kindergarten. This happens in many villages and is encouraged (and enforced) by chiefs and community leaders.

Images, videos and stories are being shared by development workers and grassroots organisations, celebrating local champions – the people working in their communities to address local needs. It’s also a good time to focus on how to ensure that local champions are heard in the wider development discourse.

There are so many great examples of local development initiatives and individuals communicating their work, and in some cases these are well-established projects working across vast areas. A few years ago I was privileged to meet Dr Cletus Babu, the founder of SCAD (Social Change and Development), an NGO working in Tamil Nadu. Cletus, a former Catholic priest, started working in the small town of Cheranmahadevi in 1985, and since then has built a formidable organisation that has so far served over 500,000 people, focussing on the empowerment of women and marginalised Dalit communities as well as agricultural work, environmental protection and other initiatives. At the other end of the scale are small organisations and schools like Jay’s School in Cambodia, set up in the spare room of a house and teaching local children languages, art and dance.

But not all successful locally owned initiatives have to have been started by locals. Soria Moria Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia was established in 2007 by a Norwegian couple, but from the very beginning had a clear mission to provide development opportunities for staff and the community. Soria Moria sources silks, crafts and other goods from other enterprises in the area, provides ongoing staff training, works with local NGOs to provide youth training and employment opportunities and engages with the community in several other ways. In May 2011, Soria Moria made its local staff majority shareholders and owners of the business. Soria Moria was just named a runner-up in the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards for Community Benefit.

A Day Without Dignity is more than just a counterbalance to the stereotyping perpetuated by the likes of #KONY2012 and TOMS Shoes – I hope it’s part of a wider shift in attitudes towards the developing world and people living in poverty. As we near 2015 and David Cameron is set to chair a panel to discuss what should come after the Millennium Development Goals, there is an increasing awareness of the changing shape of the developing world, the distribution of poverty (including poverty in developed nations), the roles of aid and trade, the contribution of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other emerging economies, the importance of well-executed social enterprises and the need to consult people about the decisions that affect them. Preserving human dignity can be an embedded principle which guides all of this.

Find tweets on this topic at #Dignity2012 and #LocalChampions, and see #Dignity2012 discussed on Al Jazeera’s The Stream.