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Dignity in displacement: a review of the literature


Written by Kerrie Holloway

Dignity is a pervasive concept in current international humanitarian discourse. Mentioned in all foundational human rights documents, it is central to humanitarian principles and is often invoked in the context of modern humanitarian action. Throughout the past two decades, it has appeared in most humanitarian policy and programme documents and in donor requirements; has been listed among key project goals; and has been used widely in advocacy campaigns.

Yet, rather than an ideological lynchpin, dignity is often used as merely a word with positive connotations; virtually no humanitarian organisations or aid donors identify exactly what it is, or how they are trying to support it.

This literature review explores conceptualisations of dignity in humanitarian action and its philosophical, legal and medical underpinnings, with a specific focus on dignity in displacement, and compares how dignity is understood in principle with how it is (or isn’t) implemented in practice. It also discusses whether, why and how the different meanings of dignity vary across different times and in different places, as well as between different aid donors, humanitarian responders and aid recipients. 

Ultimately this report seeks to provide a better understanding of what dignity means to displaced people in different places at different times, to help humanitarian action accomplish what it so often sets out to do – to uphold the dignity of the displaced.

Kerrie Holloway with Francesca Grandi