06 Sep

The force for ‘good’: Politicising empathy in international development

“Empathy is the invisible hand, empathy is what allows us to stretch our sensibilities with another, so that we can cohere in larger social units. To empathise is to civilise, to civilise is to empathise.” – The Empathic Civilisation by Jeremy Rifkin

Last month, I published a post discussing solutions for decent work in the human hair trade. I ended the post with the conclusion that transforming this trade would require cultivating empathy when designing solutions:

‘We also need the critical marker of human evolution, empathy, to make sure the process starts and ends with the people at the centre of development.’

I have been subconsciously thinking about this sentence over the past few weeks, mainly the assumption I made, that empathy is a ‘force for good’. The more I have reflected on this assumption, the more this assumption has become a question.

Yesterday was International Charity Day, a celebration established by the United Nations (UN) ‘with the objective of sensitizing and mobilizing…stakeholders all around the world to help others through volunteer and philanthropic activities.’ Empathy plays a big role in sensitising and mobilising people to do ‘good’ and it is a concept permeating international development practice from how we talk about development to the approaches we create in designing solutions (human-centred design).  There are typically two categories of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. The following definitions from University of Berkeley’s Greater Good initiative summarise the two categories best:

‘“Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.

 “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions.’

When we talk about empathy in international development, we are often referring to cognitive empathy with the aim of taking some type of action that leads to a social good.

The type of action instigated depends on the issue but empathy is most frequently viewed as a coordination and commitment mechanism in numerous fields from innovation and entrepreneurship to foreign policy (check out the Center for Empathy in International Affairs) and education policy. In all these fields, empathy is perceived as a force for good because it has the power to ‘change mindsets’ thereby fostering ‘collaboration’, a ‘culture of peace’ and effective ‘responses to human suffering.’ For some individuals such as Stephen Walt, empathy is a critical foreign policy tactic because it reduces the capacity for irrational decision-making caused by a misinterpretation of ‘another’s position.’ All these arguments emphasise the instrumental value of empathy and the positive outcomes it can produce.

Proponents of empathy make several assertions about empathy:

  • Objectively, there exists a divide between one’s individual experience and the experience of other people (the Other)
  • Empathy fosters understanding of the Other and allows us to widen our scope of reality beyond our individual experience. Thus, the critical role of empathy is
  • In creating understanding, empathy enables plural perspectives of reality which is a more accurate (=better) insight than an individual perspective.


Another group of thinkers, however, challenge the assumptions that empathy is a positive force and that it automatically leads to a  ‘good’. Caroline Pedwell, for example, questions whether empathy creates good because in order to exercise empathy, we would need to see the issue from someone’s else’s perspective accurately. She refers to this as empathetic accuracy and questions whether we can really see from someone’s else’s perspective accurately, given the systems and processes of inequality and privilege connecting us globally.

In attempting to accurately experience another’s reality, Pedwell argues that empathy requires us to imagine a static reality of the Other’. In reality, their experience is composed of constantly changing structures, systems and relationships, and consequently a non-static reality.  For example, imagining the experience of a young woman in Port-au-Prince without access to clean drinking water would require me to adopt a static perception of her experience (her state of not having access to clean drinking water) without taking into account the ongoing power dynamics, structures and processes (including my role in it) placing her in this imagined state of poverty. Can a good action occur from this if my accurate understanding does not capture entirely the interrelated and constantly changing systems fostering her poverty?

Critics of empathy in international affairs also propose that rather than facilitate similarity, it enables ‘difference’ through the imagining of the Other and what it is they are experiencing. In order to practise empathy, I necessarily need to imagine you are different from me or are experiencing a different reality from me.

As the focus of empathy is not understanding, but understanding accurately the experience of the Other, we shift the focus from the act of understanding to the manner in which we do it (accurately). This also means we shift the focus from the Other to ourselves and our individual ability (= power) to understand accurately. Following on from this, the flow of understanding is one directional – the self must gain an understanding of the Other, not the other way. As such, critics of empathy in international affairs conclude that empathy is not a singular apolitical act but a complex set of ‘power relations’.

Opponents of empathy in international affairs, thereby make the following assertions:

  • Empathy necessarily requires a division between the Self and the Other. Therefore, it does not connect but fosters difference
  • The focus of empathy is not understanding but understanding accurately the experience of the Other, in order to act out the ‘force for good’.
  • Understanding accurately is difficult to achieve in a world governed by unequal social and political relationships
  • The agency in empathy is shifted from the Other to the Self and one’s individual capacity to understand the Other accurately. The flow of relation is then unidirectional: Self > Other
  • Understanding someone else’s experience accurately requires you to imagine a static nature of the Other in order for you to take action which is an inaccurate depiction of their complex and evolving reality.


In writing this blog, I am not looking to redefine empathy but to contextualise it within the politics of international affairs, specifically international development. Rather than asking whether we are right or wrong in assuming empathy to be a ‘force for good’, we can discuss the role and power of this concept in international development. Over the next few blog posts, I will be digging deeper on the idea of ‘empathy’ as a force for good, exploring the ‘force’ elements as well as the ‘good’ perspectives. It is a very new territory for me, one that will require me to listen and observe alot.  I am looking forward to this learning experience.


Source: Visual of empathy by Open Buffer

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