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When all else is lost, dignity remains

Dignity and a sense of self-worth builds strength, respect for others and independence. The stronger our own dignity, the greater our capacity to persevere in times of difficulty. Therefore, at HOST International we choose to act in ways that build and maintain the dignity and self-reliance of the individuals we work with.

I have come into contact with many people as a result of my work in Australia and overseas during the last 10 years who have been forcibly displaced. All have a common desire to find a new home where life can be rebuilt and where dignity can be restored. They may not use the word ‘dignity’, but they describe a strong desire to obtain a safe place to live, to secure meaningful employment and to independently pursue their dreams.

In an article published by ODI on the importance of incorporating dignity into humanitarian responses, they suggest the following six strategies for improving dignity:

  1. Invest time and resources in listening to the affected population.

  2. Use more face-to-face communication.

  3. Try to better understand the local culture and language.

  4. Invest in programmes that promote self-reliance.

  5. Seek complementarity between local, national, regional and international actors to harness their strengths and reach better humanitarian outcomes.

  6. Be more realistic about what humanitarians can and cannot do, and do not promise to uphold dignity.

We would agree but also argue that trusting communities to diagnose and find solutions to their needs builds respect, and by default, dignity. This means establishing programmes that share power with affected communities and leverage collective assets. Under this approach, the role of international organisations becomes one of facilitation rather than always doing.

So what?

You may say that this all sounds good, but have you stopped to reflect on whether this is actually what happens in practice? I find that the mistake often made by social workers or humanitarians is to assume they know what is best rather than respect the autonomy and capacity of individuals to choose their own path. We need to challenge the assumption that all refugees are traumatised or disempowered and in need of humanitarian rescue.

When dignity is enabled, I have seen displaced people pioneering solutions for themselves and others despite experiencing trauma and hardship. This includes refugees creating refugee schooling despite lack of legal rights or refugee women organising a safe space to access support and skills-training in Indonesia. It also includes the RECODE project in Malaysia that is seeking to empower refugees to meet industry IT coding shortages. For HOST, this is what we are seeking to inspire through an approach that puts human dignity and a belief in a better future (hope) at the centre.

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