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No sustainability without dignity

  • Published at 07:19 pm July 27th, 2015
No sustainability without dignity

In the summer of 2012, the floods were particularly strong in the Brahmaputra river islands, or “chars,” where we’ve worked for 10 years through our mobile hospitals and other services with an integrated development approach. These islands host the poorest of the poor of Bangladesh.

With the onset of the floods, the communities faced days of no food and no water. Donors offered funds for providing emergency relief. We felt that, instead of just giving this to the communities, we should first consult with them.

And so we did. Standing in knee-deep water in their house with water all around, and even their few livestock in danger of being washed away at any moment, they replied, “Not for now. We have enough food to eat for a week or so. If the flood continues for longer than that, then we shall need help, but not today.”

How does one evaluate dignity? The Schwab Foundation award is geared at promoting sustainable projects. When Friendship received the award in 2012, it was not because its projects would be financially self-sustainable; indeed, many of them are not, particularly in health.

Our work must have been found to be sustainable because, from the beginning, the one thread that wove our work together was to imbue self-respect into the communities we worked in so that they have the opportunity to live with dignity and hope -- only then could they reach the tipping point from where they would be able to take off by themselves.

Dignity cannot be given or taught. Dignity arises from a reciprocal action and emotion of giving and taking. It is one of the most needed elements of true and everlasting sustainability in development work.

In order for dignity to be preserved and to be where need is, restored by our interventions, we must ensure that the right support is given at the right time, that it meets a true need of the recipient -- as opposed to our availability of funds or donor wishes -- and that the way in which we deliver the service is respectful.

Otherwise, it creates a negative chain of money flowing in and out, without achieving any sustainable impact.

And it happens so easily and just too often that due to unconsidered giving, a previously dignified person loses self-respect and therewith her capacity to take off by herself again.

Over the years of servicing the ultra-poor, we have learned that the poor cannot afford poor solutions.

And that solutions are poor, not only where the quality of the service delivered is defective, but also where the mind-set behind the giving is poor.

And finally, that the recipients respond equally, building on the support they receive, only where the mind-set of the giver is one of truth and respect.

There can be no sustainable development without mutual respect and, therefore, dignity.