Empathy Is Not Compassion: Why Mistaking Kindness for Understanding Is Hurting Our Progress?

Searching for a Birthday gift for a friend recently, I came across a site that offered charitable giving. I would make a donation to this charity, and for just over $100 they would purchase 10 repellent-treated mosquito nets and send them to families in Africa to:

“Help ensure children and their families can sleep soundly, without the threat of deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes. These nets are one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stop the disease, which kills one child under five every minute.”

This sounded like a great gift. Instead of simply purchasing them, I did some additional research. After just a few minutes, I became slightly more confused and concerned about my potential present. It seems giving mosquito nets to families might be doing more harm than good.

In countries like Zambia and Mozambique, many of these nets are sewn together with thread into large sock-like tubes. They are then unravelled each morning and used to dredge the rivers or oceans by hungry villagers. The desperately poor families fear hunger more than malaria, so having these tightly woven nets given to them for free is like a gift from the gods. Sadly, the constant depletion of the youngest fish along with their eggs and even smaller aquatic fauna is having a devastating impact on the ecosystems.

Billions of dollars in donations are being given. Millions of mosquito nets are being manufactured and distributed to those in need. Yet instead of malaria rates reducing, they continue to rise while the rivers and oceans are swept clean. This is compassion without empathy.

Compassion is defined as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. It is a natural human trait and one that sees Australian’s donate more than $11b a year to nearly 50,000 charities. We support causes ranging from cancer research to training guide dogs, from rescue helicopters to soup kitchens. There is no doubt that seeing the suffering of others was a driving force that saw Australians donate over $40m to the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. It also the reason millions of mosquito nets are unknowingly becoming fishing nets.


We need to use Empathy to build understanding. While Emotional empathy is the act of feeling someone’s pain, Cognitive empathy is more perspective-taking. Understanding the feelings, thoughts and emotions of others. It is a powerful tool in human relationships. Building on this idea, we prefer Strategic Empathy.

Strategic Empathy is taking the Cognitive approach and extending it to broader groups, ecosystems and processes. Strategic Empathy helps people to understand the individual and collective drivers of actions and behaviours. It supports the deeper understanding of the rational, emotional and contextual consequences of activities and provides leaders with more information to make better decisions.

Strategic Empathy allows us to deeply understand not just the mechanical systems, processes and metrics of a situation, but also the emotional, cultural and political aspects that heavily influence human behaviour. Strategic empathy stopped me from buying a mosquito net for my friend, he likes the environment too much to be a good fit. Instead, I bought a goat for him.

Rights of Girls is a small charity who donate goats to poor families. They know that a mix of extreme poverty and traditional customs leave too many families in the position of needing to marry off their daughters in order to receive livestock as dowry. Shockingly, in too many places in the world today, this also means that young girls undergo horrifying and dangerous genital mutilation. The mutilated girl is considered pure and fetches a greater dowry for the family. It is sad and horrific, but it is not something Rights of Girls is willing to ignore.

Instead of trying to change the ancient traditions to stop the mutilation directly, this charity instead donates goats to the poorest families. This gift allows a greater conversation. It reduces the perceived need to mutilate their daughters and provides food, fertilizer and milk to poor villagers.

Sympathy is feeling pity for the suffering girls.

Compassion is doing something to help.

Empathy is understanding the reasons why it happens.

Strategic Empathy is knowing how to support the system best to deliver a positive outcome.

One thought on “Empathy Is Not Compassion: Why Mistaking Kindness for Understanding Is Hurting Our Progress?

  1. i love your blog and always like new things coming up from it.

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