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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

The Power of Compassion in Shifting Donor-Recipient Relationships

Compassion is not only up to you — it is a shared endeavour. How do we build compassion into a relationship and an engagement as equals?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay

Suvojit Chattopadhyay shares his experiences and perspectives on respectful interactions and relationships with government counterparts and the role of power. What is the role of compassion in breaking the traditional donor-recipient power dynamic? Is compassion a value, a method or a tool? These are some of the questions that Suvojit delves into.

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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


Suvojit Chattopadhyay is currently based in Nairobi, Kenya with Adam Smith International. As a development professional, Suvojit is interested in working on issues of governance and development practice. Suvojit works at the intersection of programme implementation and research — he considers this the perfect way to approach, and then deep-dive into key issues in international development.

Suvojit earned an undergraduate degree in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi, India, and masters’ degrees from Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), India and Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex, UK. He has worked primarily in South Asia and East Africa in a career spanning two decades.


SJ: What resonates with you about the word and concept of “compassion”? What makes it interesting for you to consider?

SC: For me, compassion is at the heart of the work we do in international development. Building trusted relationships is at the heart of everything I do — whether I work with government agencies, financing partners or my team members. In recent years, I have not worked directly with communities (people on the ground) and so I have been considering how it applies in other contexts where power relations aren’t unidirectional and come into play in many different forms.

Another question I find interesting is to consider how we can maintain empathy even when there are disagreements. In a leadership and management role, for instance, how does one maintain empathy and strike a balance when things are not going well?

SJ: What makes it important to have compassion in a work relationship for you?

SC: A genuine respect for diversity is a critical component of compassion because it is essential if you want to achieve meaningful change.

In the world of international aid, it is easy to fall into conventional power relations, where the donor provides funding and recipient government counterparts become passive beneficiaries of goods or services. Building compassion in this relationship helps break this power dynamic, allowing everyone to bring their true beliefs, ideas and needs to the table.

SJ: Can you say more about why compassion is crucial to achieve meaningful change in international development programmes?

SC: The more genuine voices you can include in the process, the more you improve the chances of creating an effective programme or engagement that will last the distance.

Ultimately, I believe compassion is a value. You have to believe in it. Compassion — and the associated respect for every culture and expertise — is fundamental and must be genuine. It cannot be performative.

It’s also not simply another “strategy” or “method” to add to a performance matrix in the world of international development.

SJ: From my perspective, it sounds like you might consider compassion as a personal choice and a personal value to show up with. Would you agree?

SC: Yes, absolutely.

While compassion is a value — and not a tool — it is important to be mindful about it.

For example, if a conversation or interaction hasn’t gone well, I like to reflect and realise why that was the case — was it that I was not as respectful or compassionate as I could have been? Perhaps there was a genuine reason for a fundamental disagreement or perhaps I was tired or not in the best frame of mind.

This layer of mindfulness is important and can help approach future engagements differently — but compassion must come from within, as a value.

SJ: What does compassion look like in practice for you? What is an example from your career or a project you have worked on that has been successful because compassion was practised?

SC: In my current position, I am occasionally asked to troubleshoot when things go wrong — for example around a programme, with a donor, with senior government officials etc. Where I have an existing and mutually respectful relationship, it is easier to work things out even if there are disagreements because we understand each other’s constraints and are willing to come up with a solution together.

Secondly, in my experience, compassion enriches long-term relationships. In the context of the technical advisory work that I have undertaken in East Africa or South Asia, my best projects are the ones where we have built a relationship over time based on mutual respect for each other’s values, goals, as well as an understanding of each other’s constraints.

When we start working in a country on an aid-funded project, we are not going into a vacuum…we are not going into an empty mind.

Often, we hear places being referred to as “low resource” and “low capacity” environments but that is fundamentally wrong — there is always capacity and there are always resources available. There are human beings with their own motivations, drivers, ambitions and prejudices. If we operate with no compassion, we will fail.

SJ: This reminds me of a friendship-like quality of compassion stating: “I see you have a problem. Let’s figure it out together. I can’t promise a solution, but I can promise to commit to help you find it.” What do you think?

SC: This speaks to other principles of the Doing Development Differently framework — a conversation and workshop I contributed to in 2014.

As donors or as people who want to help, we may suggest a toolkit or a set of options, but what we end up using or doing is driven by the challenges that our counterparts on the ground face, their goals, and their ambitions.

Being driven by their problem instead of our ‘results framework’ or what we think is needed makes all the difference.

This is of course the ideal version of aid and the ideal version of ourselves. It is important to acknowledge that in a projectized aid world, we operate amidst constraints and contractual obligations. So we fail more than we succeed. Reflecting on the ‘good’ and where we can improve seems important.

SJ: Is there a cost to moving towards this “ideal” version of aid — through this approach?

SC: If you take a long-term view, there is no cost. However, it might initially take more time, engagement, and effort. What we should worry about, is the cost of getting it wrong. Examples of failure abound, all around us.

SJ: I think many of us agree that there is a lot to gain from such an approach in the sector. If we were to paint a darker vision, what do you think the cost is of not having this approach — of not including compassion in our work?

SC: The cost of not doing it is a higher risk of failure. For instance, in international development, you could bulldoze a project through, but it erodes trust and a sense of mutual respect.

In my recent work, I have been privileged to be invested in particular countries for extended periods of time — I have therefore engaged in a series of interactions over a multi-year period. Often, aid comes in a very short cycle of intervention, either because project cycles are short or because people move on. Engagement with a context over time is a fundamentally different thing.

For example, early in my career, I worked on water and sanitation projects with marginalised and indigenous communities in India. We established water and sanitation structures based on extensive conversations with people in the villages — we could call that “local leadership”, “community-led governance” etc.

Beyond jargon, it is clear that these structures wouldn’t have lasted if a spirit of ownership hadn’t been built, if people had not been approached with compassion, helping them keep their dignity intact. The overall experience of the community with the implementing organisation would have been a negative one.

This would have essentially polluted the environment for the next project or organisation that wanted to go in there and work, breeding scepticism and even resistance.

So, what is the cost of not being compassionate? You will spend time in your job failing to achieve impact. You will fail repeatedly.

SJ: What challenges do you see in bringing forth more compassion in this line of work?

SC: Our “business as usual” attitude and power relations.

People exercise their power without being mindful of what power they actually have or what power others think they have. We need more awareness and a mindset shift among donors and development workers.

SJ: What ideas might you have to bring forth more compassion and more awareness among those decision makers?

SC: We need to make others understand the importance of this value — and they will ask for evidence of why they should care about this approach.

Collecting stories and case studies where acting with compassion made a difference and showing where not having compassion damaged relationships or development work could be a place to start.

SJ: What other thoughts do you have on this topic? What are you curious about exploring further around the topic of compassion?

SC: The onus of “being compassionate” is not on me alone.

To believe we are all equal means that compassion is a shared responsibility.

Compassion needs to be a feature of a relationship. With so many other things in aid, things that start out well-intentioned can lead to condescension or arrogance because you believe you are the one with the power to change it.

Compassion is not only up to you — it is a shared endeavour.

Secondly, how do we avoid “compassion” becoming just another buzzword? Other words such as “localization”, “participation”, etc. have been in use in international development for a long time — so it is going to require some careful thinking so we are clear on what we are bringing to the table. Where do we go with the topic of compassion and how can we build on existing efforts and thinking?


This conversation is based on Suvojit Chattopadhyay’s personal views. They do not represent the views of Adam Smith International or any organisation that Suvojit has worked for previously.

Suvojit’s has written about Doing Development Differently here. His writing and evolving thoughts on a wide range of topics can be found here.

For more research and thinking on participation in international development, the work by Robert Chambers at the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University is recommended.


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