When it comes to dignity, location matters. Politics and identity, not so much. That’s the hint we might draw from secondary analysis of two datasets.
In 2019, AfroBarometer released its full Round 7 dataset. For the first time, this mighty public good included a question on respect. Between 2016 and 2018, they asked 45,823 people in 34 countries: ‘In general, when dealing with public officials, how much do you feel that they treat you with respect?’ Extending our analysis, we also looked at another dataset. Twaweza’s Sauti za Wananchi series regularly polls a panel of East Africans on social issues. In 2018, they asked 1,680 Kenyans: ‘In your opinion, do leaders in your community put enough effort into being respectful?’
In Twaweza data, 26% of Kenyans said ‘no’, their leaders did not put in enough effort into being respectful towards them. 33% of Kenyans said ‘yes’, their leaders did put enough effort into being respectful towards them. 35% said ‘somewhat’.
In Afrobarometer data, 19.6% said they were ‘not at all’ treated with respect, 24.6% said ‘a little bit’, and 29.4% said ‘somewhat’, 22.7% said ‘a lot’, and 3.8% replied ‘don’t know’.
We conducted a series of exploratory analyses on the relationship between this question and a whole bunch of other items. These, we hope, can help us generate new hypotheses for later studies. They can’t do more than that – we are reporting associations, without multiple hypothesis corrections. All we can hope is that they might prod us in the right direction when designing future studies.
When we examine the Afrobarometer data, there is some limited relationship between country and feeling that public officials do not treat you with respect (x2=.27, p=<0.001). Participants in Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi, Cameroon, and Liberia seemed particularly to feel that they are not treated with respect – while participants from Cabo Verde, Lesotho, Sao Tome and Principe, Niger, and Tanzania seemed particularly to feel that they are treated with respect – than would be expected had the two variables been independent.
We find similar results in the Twaweza dataset. Here there is some limited association between both language and region, and believing that leaders in your community do not put enough effort into being respectful (x2=.3 and x2=.26, both p=<0.001). The region result was principally driven by respondents in the North East of Kenya, many more of whom felt their leaders did not put enough effort into being respectful than would be expected had the two variables been independent.
What does this mean for future research on dignity? It suggests that (like ODI’s country-based studies) we should build up case studies of dignity in many countries and regions. We should be cautious about generalising between places, and provide especially strong theoretical and empirical support for any generalisations we hope to make.
There is some association between experiencing a problem and reporting that it was resolved, and believing that leaders in your community do not put enough effort into being respectful (x2=.35, p=<0.001). This result was principally driven by those answering that ‘no [their problem has not been resolved], and nothing is being done to resolve them nor in process of being resolved’.
In future, we might want to investigate whether lack of effort by public officials is particularly galling. We might consider an experiment, along the lines of Guy Grossman’s work on transparency ICT interventions, to see whether government officials communicating their efforts to solve a problem – even if they cannot solve that problem – enhances experiences of respect.
Is dignity a standalone concept?
A lot isn’t related to dignity. Political behaviours, social behaviours, and identity markers were all unrelated to experiences of respectfulness.
There is also no noteworthy relationship (x2=<.2) between feeling that public officials do not treat you with respect and a range of opinion variables, including: (a) belief that the country is on the right track; (b) support for democracy; (c) support for religious or secular laws; (d) assessment of the country’s economic condition; and (e) believing that ordinary people can fight corruption.
There is also no noteworthy relationship (x2=<.2) between feeling that public officials do not treat you with respect, and a range of identity markers and experiences of governance: (a) religion; (b) urban/rural location; (c) ethnic or national identity; (d) having a bank account; (e) gender; (f) race; (g) local road condition; (h) access to services; (i) assessment of present living conditions; (j) feeling unsafe in your neighbourhood; (k) sense of security; (l) being treated fairly in markets; (m) experiencing discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, ethnicity or disability. This was echoed in the Twaweza dataset, which found no relationship between experiences of respect and either gender or age.
There is similarly no noteworthy relationship (x2=<.2) between feeling that public officials do not treat you with respect and a range of social and political choices: (a) religious group membership; (b) membership of voluntary associations or community groups; (c) voting behaviour; (d) level of social engagement; (e) level of political engagement; (f) discussing politics; (g) fearing political intimidation or violence; and (h) having considered emigration.
This was echoed in the Twaweza dataset, where there is no noteworthy relationship (x2=<.2) between believing that leaders in your community do not put enough effort into being respectful and a range of political engagement questions, including: (a) belief that you can influence decision-making in your country; (b) ability to access information on county budgets, laws and projects; (c) attending a public meeting; (d) intention to participate in a public demonstration; and (e) ever participating in a public demonstration.
Dignity seems to be a unique, standalone concept – not just a proxy for something else. That seems to be in line with the ‘‘Off the Record’ experiment we did with Busara, in which small acts of respectfulness did not spark greater altruism, self-efficacy, or wellbeing. However, intuitions – and some qualitative data – suggest that men and women, richer and poorer people, and generally people with more or less privilege, ought to have different experiences of respect. This needs further unpicking.
If all this is right, then when we advocate for dignity, we cannot do so on the basis that respectful treatment yields other positive outcomes. Disrespect is associated with negative emotions, but we don’t have firm evidence that respectfulness makes people happier, or more empowered, or wealthier. If we believe dignity is important, then we need to make the case for its importance in its own right, not because it leads to instrumental benefits.
What are the implications of all this for future research on dignity? We need to learn across many countries and regions, and be cautious about generalisations from one place to another. When we make the case for dignity and respectfulness, we might need to do so on its own terms – not because it yields some other positive outcome. These are ideas that should inform the Dignity Project’s future research agenda.
Our thanks to Ernest Hupuczi for his assistance with the analyses. Analysis code and charts can be found here. Data for Afrobarometer is available here, and for Twaweza here. If you have something you’d like to explore with the Dignity Project, please get in touch.