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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

How Can a Compassion Lens Transform International Development?

“Compassion” may be the obvious reason international development programmes and organisations exist. What might a compassion lens within this sector surface?

Two questions around compassion in international development continue to feel relevant as I wrap up my compassion trainings at Stanford University and the Center for Compassionate Leadership:

  1. How can we protect and sustain the compassion that got us into the international development sector in the first place?

  2. How can compassion inform the ways in which we collaborate with partners and do development (differently)?

“Compassion” is most broadly defined as a sensation of pain and distress for another and a motivation to actively alleviate it. It is at the core mission of many development agencies, either implicitly or explicitly. 

How can we protect and sustain the compassion that got us into international development in the first place?

At an individual level, I know that international development work can feel overwhelming and endless. Through my advisory and coaching work with ministries in West Africa over the last decade I have witnessed that these feelings are often shared by the partners we seek to support. 

Most of the 100+ international development and public policy professionals I have spoken to about compassion share that it brings a sense of purpose and lies at the heart of their big “why” for entering their careers. 

Over time however, it can become easy to lose sight of this as frustrations in the work environment build up. Bureaucratic or political structures may hinder the speed with which we seek to have an impact and can also make us feel further and further removed from the people, environment or causes we were initially driven to support.

At the same time, feelings of a constant lack of resources and inadequacy can start to settle inmaking our efforts seem pointless and, as a result, become draining. This negative spiral can lay the foundations for deteriorating our personal well-being. For example, a survey of 400 aid workers pre-pandemic found that over 75% of respondents had experienced mental health challenges. 

For the international development sector in particular, training compassion could be interesting to investigate as the conversation around the connection between inner well-being and social change grows. It is increasingly documented and backed by science that training compassion for others and for ourselves can promote personal well-being and resilience. For example, we know that an intervention through an 8-week compassion cultivation course based on insights and techniques from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice can significantly reduce stress and depression


How can compassion inform the ways in which we collaborate with partners and do development (differently)?

On a systems level, the ways in which we initially set out to empower local partners may at times risk getting hi-jacked or deprioritised in response to a host of different factors such as tight deadlines, lack of resources and pressing demands to produce specific results urgently. 

If we are seeking to empower others through development programmes and funding what can we learn starting from a foundation of compassion? If compassion is a core of the “raison d’être” for most international development programmes and organisations, how it is then operationalised?

Compassion entails more than looking after ourselves and understanding how our well-being allows us to have a greater impact and contribution. It is also about how we do our work within our organisations and with the partners we seek to empower. 

In a well-intentioned meaning to help, it is easy to forget that the most empowering thing may be to work through issues alongside others instead of developing solutions on their behalf. We are all ultimately experts in our own lives and communities. Therefore, bringing attention to how we design our actions to alleviate the distress of others is of equal importance. There may be a place for making qualified assumptions and guesses for what is needed in emergency situations. There may also be a place for digging into what “empowerment” means in a specific context for a specific group of individuals. Maybe it’s knowledge, maybe it’s agency, maybe it’s opportunity, maybe it’s resources, a combination or these or something entirely different. 

One way of thinking about a compassionate approach to international development entails creating the space for – and facilitating – a process for local partners to identify and work through an issue salient to them. Recently, I had the opportunity to further my personal reflections on this as I coached an inter-ministerial team in West Africa through the application of the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) framework developed at the Center for International Development at Harvard University. The PDIA framework is related to the Doing Development Differently (DDD) Manifesto, which among other principles highlights focusing on solving local problems that are debated, defined and refined by local actors in an ongoing process. In my first encounter with applying this approach, I have learned that working iteratively and experientially on a technical policy issue requires dedicated attention to team members confidence in their abilities and know-how. An experimentation and creativity mindset requires us to believe we have meaningful contributions and to feel empowered to search for external input and new perspectives.

Asking good questions and getting into the messy parts alongside another person or team on the side-lines can be a compassionate approach. Coaching can be a powerful tool for this. Coaching builds on the notion that the coachee is whole, resourceful, and fully capable of finding their own solutions. If we believe that empowerment lies at the core of doing good and meaningful development and policy work, coaching our partners is a powerful addition to our toolbox.

Maybe we do not need more expertise and instead need to approach others with the perspective that we do not know the answers and that we are, instead, willing to figure it out together.

This goes nicely hand in hand with deconstructing and tackling the ‘white saviour syndrome’: not everyone needs saving, everyone needs dignity and acknowledgement. As Lilla Watson writes: 

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

…but considering coaching is only scratching the surface. Thinking about compassion as an approach may be a springboard that allows us to reinforce existing practices and consider engaging in development in a variety of new ways. For example, compassion may allow us to approach the people, the organisations or governments we want to empower in new ways. Compassion may allow us to listen diligently, leaving aside our own assumptions and agendas about what is best so the most sustainable and effective solutions can be found. Compassion may give us new inspiration and perspectives to craft from. 

Ultimately, I have learned that there is a human element to international development and public policy that often gets overlooked: the fear of failure. This is relevant for both the individual and systemic perspective. We can only allow ourselves to fail and learn from it if we feel good enough at our core – individually and as an organisation. This requires us to disentangle a failure from who we are as a person, as a team or as an organisation. Compassion may allow us to develop the mindset that failure is a part of the learning process.

Increasingly, I acknowledge that at the heart of any bureaucracy, of any complex policy problem, sits a human being. A human being who – just like you and me – faces the same struggles of stress, overwhelm and juggling priorities. Over the years, I have been privileged to get more intimate with the personal circumstances and workload of many public officials on the receiving end of aid and interventions as well as with colleagues who are working hard to allocate these funds. We all, at times, do not feel good enough, fear failure and question how we may make life better for others. 

What will happen if we systematically and intentionally place compassion as the lens we apply left, right and centre in international development and public policy? 

…is a curiosity I am left with. What if we actively (re)considered compassion as the foundation from which we approach collaborations and operations with our partners and colleagues? The foundation for how we treat others and ourselves while we climb complex and seemingly unsolvable problems together? There are always messy and difficult parts to any ride. It is not about avoiding these parts; it is rather about attending to those head on and intentionally – with compassion. 

“How do we do it?”…is the practical question that follows. The short answer is: “I have some ideas but I don’t know. Do you want to figure it out together?”. I am eager to partner and unpack together what – and how - this looks like in practice with others. To identify what already is compassionate and where the gaps might be in the sector. To contextualise compassion, fail and learn. To share experiences, perspectives and exchange stories. 

My reflection is that compassion is worthwhile looking into as a founding and guiding principle for the international development and policy sector.

What about this would be worthwhile for you?


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