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Dignity and Displacement: Precarity and the Politics of the Humanitarian Aid Infrastructure
Lecture by Dr Romola Sanyal, Associate Professor of Urban Geography, Department of Geography and Environment.
The London School of Economics and Political Science
Dignity is a foundational human value. The idea comes from the Greek word ‘dignitas’ meaning worthiness. It is a term that has long been debated and analysed, yet, the precise meaning of it remains vague (Chapman, 2015). Dworkin (1977) in fact notes that the very idea of human rights depends upon ‘the vague but powerful idea of human dignity’. Thus, any interrogation of what is meant to be human is closely intertwined with the idea of human dignity and human ‘worth’. Dignity is associated with equality, liberty, autonomy, privacy, decent treatment of individuals by society and can be a powerful term in legal discourse. It is also subject to cultural interpretations and is intertwined with social and community practices and acceptance. In development practice it is generally acknowledged that the meaning of dignity has both individual and social dimensions and is culturally specific (ODI 2018; ODI 2019) thus opening the door to more vernacular and intersectional understandings of the term.
The idea of dignity has become increasingly important within various fields including humanitarian work, as considerations shift towards thinking about not just supporting those who are displaced and vulnerable, but also doing so whilst keeping in mind their sense of dignity. What does it mean to centre dignity as a key aspect of practice? How does that change the way we approach questions of aid and support? This talk interrogates this idea of dignity within contexts of displacement. Looking at histories of public housing and welfare and knitting it together with humanitarian practices, I examine the shifting politics of humanitarianism as it seeks to support vulnerable populations.
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