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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Exploring the Role of Compassion in International Development

“It is one thing to care about global issues, people’s living standards, and equity in the world — and it is another thing to actually act on it.”

Liz Brower

In this conversation, Liz Brower considers the role compassion has played in her career in international development. She also elaborates on the potential and challenges she sees for compassion in the sector. How can compassion contribute to a more well functioning sector? This is one of the questions that Liz explores.

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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores 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.


Liz Brower is an Economics Advisor working for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in South Africa. Previously she has worked as an ODI-fellow in Ghana, and for the World Bank, the UN and PwC as a consultant on various international development projects. She holds an Economics degree from the University of Nottingham, and a master’s degree in ‘Economics for Development’ from Oxford University. Keen advocate for compassion to herself and others. Collaborator, adventurer, traveller, meditator.


SJ: What do you find attractive about the notion of “compassion”?

LB: The “action” part in the definition around compassion is what really gets me fired up. I can personally feel so strongly about something, that it is uncomfortable for me not to do something about it, especially in the context of fairness and equality.

For me, compassion is feeling strongly about something and doing something because of it.

“It is one thing to care about global issues, people’s living standards, and equity in the world — and it is another thing to actually act on it.”

Beyond that it is also the element of wanting to connect with other people, to understand what they are going through and to support them.

SJ: What role would you say compassion has played in your career and in your career choice in international development?

LB: It has been absolutely monumental — right from the beginning, in terms of my study choices, to where I am now. I grew up in a Middle-Class family in a fairly wealthy community in the United Kingdom and as I began to learn that this was in fact a bubble, and of realities and living conditions of others around the world, I wanted to do something about it. This led me to volunteer in Kenya, working with street children, which then opened my eyes to the sector of international development.

When I discovered that there were communities of people who I had never met, but who I knew lived in certain circumstances that I deemed unacceptable, I would say it was compassion that first led me to reach out and understand more. When knowing that discrimination took place and witnessing inequality, it was then also compassion that propelled me to do something about it.

“In an ideal world, extreme poverty would not exist — but so long as it does, and there is data to show it does, there is reason to show compassion towards the people who live in poverty and to do something about it.”

I remember making the promise to myself at university that I would only work for organisations that were aligned to poverty reduction and doing good in the world. That has been my driving vision throughout my career and, to me, fully integrates with what compassion is.

SJ: What does compassion in the international development sector look like to you?

LB: While it probably takes some compassion to self-select into working in the international development sector, I think it takes effort to work within the sector in a compassionate way.

Overall, I have seen a movement in the sector to work more compassionately in several ways:

1. The first way relates to how beneficiaries are considered and included. As a sector, we are now more focused on doing things in a more community-driven and participatory way, ensuring beneficiary feedback as well as good monitoring and evaluation processes. To me, that looks like a more compassionate way of working and designing development programmes.

2. Secondly, the sector has moved towards building partnerships and peer-to-peer learning as opposed to working with a mentality of one-way support. This is about engaging with partners in lower to middle-income countries in a compassionate way — really listening, understanding the challenges on the ground, and not in a condescending way.

3. Finally, another way compassion is growing in the international development sector is internally in the organisations themselves. I have seen a growing interest in how we can be kind to each other and more compassionate towards our colleagues. This form of compassion should be considered equally important.

“If you can be compassionate to the world but not compassionate towards your colleagues, then that is just not right.”

Taken all together, compassion in the international development industry to me looks like better relationships with beneficiaries and partner governments, more effective aid programming and more satisfied employees.

I believe the sector could be even more productive and probably more impactful with these values firmly in place. There is great potential for positive ripple effects.

SJ: What behaviours are you associating with compassion?

LB: Considering people’s views no matter their background, ethnicity, grade or seniority is a sign of compassion for me, which is also very aligned with the current diversity and inclusion agenda progressing through the international development sector.

To be honest, for me, being compassionate in your team or with your colleagues really boils down to considering workloads and mental health, especially during COVID19. I think compassion means to really try and understand the pressures that we are all facing at the moment and putting that into perspective with the expectations we put on ourselves and others to deliver.

SJ: Looking at the international development industry as a whole, where do you see the challenges in bringing forth more compassion?

LB: I think work-life balance is a challenge that needs to be worked on. It is a challenge I have come across throughout my career and which I feel very strongly about. While there is generally a global shift in thinking around this, I do not think we have quite cracked it yet.

“What is perhaps unique about the international development sector, is that people care so passionately about the issues they are working on. This of course creates a wonderful working environment, but it can also be at the detriment of their own mental health or others around them, especially if they do not have the adequate support.”

This is particularly true for individuals involved in humanitarian work or crisis response where extra care and compassion might be required.

Thinking about this from a programme delivery and implementation perspective, I think a challenge that we face a lot in this sector is the lack of collaboration between development actors. Across the board in international development, there is still some way to go for actors to collaborate more effectively towards a particular policy goal. This associates with the “working together and positively with others” element, which for me is an important part of compassion.

“I can see the risk of a trade-off, between working in a compassionate way and getting things done immediately, which can be a challenge. This is why I think organisations having some sort of flexibility — whether in budgets or timelines — is important.”

For example, if you push for urgency, are you doing this at the cost of compassion? It may mean you cannot take the time to collaborate, taking in different views and monitor as much as you would want to. In a worst-case scenario, this could reduce your impact. You have to make sure that what you are pushing for is really necessary and in line with a sustainable development goal.

SJ: Some dismiss compassion as “wishy-washy”. What do you think it would take to make it a more tangible and anchored concept from your perspective?

LB: I see an interesting movement developing around ‘vulnerable leadership’, where vulnerability is shared openly among colleagues. If you are in a leadership position, I think showing that the perception that leaders, or anyone in a work environment, needs to always be strong and never make mistakes is wrong. We need to change that perception.

“Being honest and open about your vulnerabilities, failures and ultimately lessons learned as a leader, as an organisation or as a sector is something I find really powerful.”

It is not easy to do and requires enormous strength — I would argue that it is quite the opposite of wishy-washy!

SJ: Would you say “vulnerable leadership” is a gateway into compassion then?

LB: Yes, for sure. I think vulnerability helps your understanding of others grow, which is a pathway to compassion. In the international development sector, this could be broadened to learning from past mistakes in programme delivery as well.

When we become honest about where things have worked and have not worked, we also become aware of the risks and where the “vulnerabilities” lie in development programmes. Talking about lessons learned will in the end lead to better development impact — which is why monitoring and evaluation is so important.

Actually, this has made me think that compassion in programme delivery would be a really interesting topic to explore further. Such as how we could bring more compassion into the relationship between development partners and delivery partners.

SJ: What closing thoughts do you have on this topic?

LB: I always try and offer career advice where I can — so here it goes: I would advise anyone to try to follow where compassion takes them with career choices.

In a time where millennials are looking for more meaningful careers, and where society’s expectations are changing (particularly in high income countries) around what a “valid” career option looks like, I would say:

If you are in a position to do so, do not be afraid to follow your compassion and push back at people who say you should not.

If you use compassion to choose your career, and your job role, then you will probably end up doing work that you a) really care about b) are interested in, and as a result c) become naturally very good at and happy in the process. It is a win-win!


This conversation is based on Liz Brower’s own personal views. They do not represent the views of the UK government or any organisation that Liz has worked for previously.


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