Sympathy: Simply Ineffective or Actually Harmful?

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Source: Ashoka

Editor's Note: Ashoka imagines a world where education is truly transformational, where every child has mastered empathy—and would like to work with you to help build it. Join us on, our new digital home for all things empathy, where you can learn why empathy matters, pick up practical tips for how to cultivate it in your own home or school, and more. Below is an article that first appeared on and was written by Daniela Papi about our natural drive to sympathy and how that can guide social activists on their road to systemic change.]

When we come face to face with inequalities, sympathy often compels us to act. In fact, sympathy was what drove me to return to Cambodia in 2005 after an initial trip a few years prior. I wanted to “help.”

"The Volunteer"

My friends and I connected with an organization that had identified a community in need of a new school building, so we set about raising funds to build a new one  Once that task was done, I was ready for a new one.  I realized the water pump at the school was contaminated, so I decided I wanted to get water filters for people in the community.

But the man I came to buy filters from wouldn’t let me buy them.

“But they are so poor!” I told the man. His name was Mickey Sampson.  He was the founder of RDIC, a Cambodia-based organization working in water, sanitation, and rural applicable farming technologies, and he wouldn’t sell me water filters if I was going to give them away.

“But they are poor!” I repeated.  I wanted to help, driven by sympathy as instinctual as a reflex.  But Mickey let me leave with only a handful of filters for the classrooms of the school I had just built.

Mickey’s ten years of experience living in Cambodia had shown him that long-term approaches to aid had been more successful than short-term sympathetic actions, which Mickey referred to as band-aid solutions.  I began to have experiences myself that helped me see things from Mickey’s perspective.  

I saw children taken from their own family’s homes into “orphanages” in the city to live under the care of sympathetic foreigners. The tourist spot where I myself had bought souvenirs from irresistibly adorable children was growing as more and more parents pulled their kids out of school to bring in the family income. When I asked parents why they took their children out of school, they answered with what I already knew to be true: “The tourists feel sympathy for our children. They want to buy from the youngest kids.”  I saw tourists investing in “poorer” looking orphanages promoting a cycle that encouraged orphanages to appear run-down and unmaintained. Myopic good intentions were continuing to fuel a sympathy-driven system of aid that was promoting genuinely destructive patterns.

I took a closer look at PEPY, the organization I had started while building the school that first brought me to Cambodia. Whether it was books, bikes, uniforms, or even schools--we were giving things away out of a feeling of sympathy inspired by the poverty around us.  Our giving was well-intentioned but misguided.  It failed to take into consideration the perspective of those we were looking to “serve,” and it failed to take into consideration what might happen in the future when our organization closed its doors.

"The Listener"

That’s when we started to get serious about understanding how to facilitate long-term change.  We started by asking more questions, and we did a lot more listening. We sat down with the school principal of the first school we had built.  He told us the water filters had had a significant impact on attendance and health, and he wanted to know where he could buy more.  We worked with Mickey and the RDIC team to train the school’s teachers to sell water filters in the community. They learned how the filters worked, understood how to clean and fix them, and were given a short line of credit from which they could sell the filters in the local area.

I had thought this community was “too poor” to afford filters, yet the teachers were succeeding in selling them. Why? Because the community was interested in buying them, not only because parents had seen improved health for their children and accompanying savings in health care costs, but also because the salesmen were trusted community members trained to teach others how the filters worked.  Before long, teachers had sold out of filters.  This time around, they ordered more filters from a nearby distributor rather than waiting for bearers of aid to bring them. By listening to Mickey, to the principal, to parents, to teachers, and to community members far and wide, we were able to come up with a truly sustainable solution to the problem of water contamination.

A year later, an aid organization came through the same town. Like me when I first arrived in the area, they wanted to help.  And like me, they believed the community was too poor to purchase the water filters.  They set up a one-off stand to sell extra filters they had on hand for a third of the market price.  The mark-down was a sympathetic act, but it was also an unintended act of destruction, completely undermining the filter market the teachers had set up. Even once the aid organization had left the town, no one would buy filters from the teachers because they believed they had been cheated on the price.  They preferred to wait for another aid organization to come and sell cheaper filers. But no one was coming.

"The Changemaker"

Sympathy had driven this group to inadvertently destroy the water filter distribution system in the area just as it had motivated my earliest work in Cambodia.  But it was empathy, which requires the ability to understand the situation of others, that drove our systemic solution to the issue of water contamination.  And it was Mickey, who had so reluctantly handed me that first batch of filters I wanted to donate, who had taught me the role of empathy in changemaking.

What made Mickey such a wonderful teacher was that he was able to empathize even with me, the sympathetic do-gooder with a real potential to do harm.  He understood my natural drive to sympathy – one that most humans share.  He understood it, and he worked with it, nudging our work along a pathway from sympathy to empathy, from band-aid solution to systemic change.