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The appeal and seduction of empathy and sympathy in capacity building

[Editor’s note: Goran Buildoski is Director of the Think Tank Fund at the Open Society Foundations].

Capacity building of think tanks is about advancing  knowledge, gaining skills, and acquiring competencies. As such, it sounds very technical and mechanical. However, in a world where even economists cannot avoid a new type of behaviorism and have to forgo the orthodoxy of ‘rational choice theory’, shouldn’t we explore some other factors shaping capacity building? Far from plunging into a discussion on ‘heart vs. mind’ in capacity building, I offer my thoughts on empathy and sympathy in those settings. Of course, I stick to the field of think tanks and policy-relevant research as the subject matter I am most familiar with.

Why bother with empathy and sympathy? First, the trainee and the trainer as the recipient and the provider of capacity building respectively are often shaped more by the feeling of each other than the substance of the transaction. Second, because they progressively guide some of the choices for providers. For example, isn’t South-South cooperation based on the premise that peers would be better at understanding each other? In other words, aren’t they banking on their empathy? Finally, haven’t we arrived at a juncture when even under the best of circumstances there are limits to sympathy and empathy for providers from developed countries toward recipients in the developing world?  These are at least three reasons not to discard sympathy and empathy within training and other capacity building contexts in a passing thought.

Quick and simplified definitions: While empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, they denote different emotions.  Empathy is the capacity to understand another’s perspective (cognitive empathy) and to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental state (emotional empathy). On the other hand, sympathy does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. It is simply the feeling of compassion or concern for another one and the desire to see them better off.

How do empathy and sympathy  play out in capacity building of think tanks?

First, the choice of providers is shifting from international to local domain. The complaint that ‘Westerners[1]’ fail to understand the specific context of a think tank in question is as old as efforts to enhance the capacity of think tanks. One tenet of this complaint is that Western experts have a lot of sympathy over the problems southerners or easterners face, but fail to empathize with those. To rectify this shortcoming, we have recently seen an increasing demand by think tanks in the ‘global south’ to learn from their peers. Sometimes, I find that supporters of capacity building expect that a trainer coming from a similar context will automatically employ their empathy with the trainees to ‘warm their hearts’ as a necessary step before ‘helping improve their minds.’

Second, general emotional capacity is seen as important as possession of technical skills. Understanding the context is on par with the ability to research a certain issue. Moreover, amidst a myriad of failed technical interventions transposed from different settings, empathy with the context is seen as a key for suggesting relevant policy recommendations. And though ‘Westerners’ or Western educated trainers/mentors still have a competitive advantage in the methodology of social sciences research over the rest, this advantage has been increasingly seen as insufficient.

Third, efforts grounded in empathy are said to create a general ‘we feel for each other’ sentiment without having any  clear empirical data to prove how they are better than efforts that do not involve empathy (i.e. dry technical undertakings). At least, I have not read a compelling study. Could be my ignorance :)!

Though I am very much in favor of South-South and peer-to-peer learning* and trainers from developing countries, I believe  a couple of cautionary messages are in order when it comes to empathy as a fundamental assumption behind these undertakings. For example, a mature recipient will be able to adapt technical training to a specific context. Also, not all ‘Westerners’ come from rich settings. Many experts have been working in social contexts and poverty settings similar to those in developing countries. Then, one shall not take for granted that people from similar settings can empathize better with each other since this is not always the key determinant of success.  In sum, my bottom line is: pay duly attention to empathy in capacity building, but do not take it for granted or overvalue it!

*Disclosure: The Think Tank Fund that I lead has been supporting peer-to-peer exchanges between think tanks in developing countries in the last 18 months. Furthermore, it will team up with the Think Tank Initiative to create a hub for such exchanges that will facilitate more learning and capacity building of this type in the next two years.


[1] Under ‘Westernerns’ I denote experts coming from resource rich countries. One definition could be all those coming from be OECD member states, i.e. countries with high GDP per capita.