Issue #13: Is Compassion the Cure?

We can do better.

We’ve been researching the topic of compassion for months in preparation for this issue of the Stitch. We dug into why even the totemic value of empathy is limiting, especially when compared to compassion which motivates us to act, not just feel. Then on February 24th, it all felt more urgent.

Like the rest of the world, our hearts are breaking for the people of Ukraine. Our Ukrainian friends, colleagues and partners are safe but suffering. They have left elderly parents behind. The doors to their homes have been closed and locked for what might be the last time. They have seen their friends fan out across Europe to escape the shelling. In other cases, they have watched them run toward it, remaining in-country to fight.

We’re bracing not only for the ethical, security and geopolitical implications of this conflict, but also for the imminent health crisis in Ukraine, its bordering countries and across Europe.

War and infectious disease have the unfortunate power to inflict deep and long-lasting pain. With over 3 million people already fleeing Ukraine in the first month of the conflict (compared to 6.45 million Syrians who left over the span of one year in 2015), infectious diseases like measles, Covid-19 and polio are threatening to make a fast and furious comeback into central and western Europe. This, on top of the substantial mental health trauma that people will be carrying for generations to come.

So we’re really hopeful that the wave of compassion for Ukraine will extend beyond the initial shock of this senseless war. We’re also hoping this response breaks the mould for how we treat refugees, no matter where they come from.

It feels like a lifetime ago since we spoke to our guest Dr. David Addiss about how we can use “the epidemiology of compassion” to understand how to channel this emotion for results, and importantly - to pinpoint when its absence might actually be damaging our most well-intentioned efforts to help.

These thoughts were top of mind as Amel and Lydia kicked off the new year with an HCD process in the Ashanti Region of Ghana that’s helping design wayfinding tactics for better sanitation behaviour and Covid-19 vaccination. Mike, Sherine, Ali and Flic joined our HCD partners at Designist, criss-crossing Pakistan, to bring a more collaborative and participatory approach to national immunization budgeting. Check out our journey, full of pulao and post-its here.

We hope you’ll join us in considering compassion in our work - not the compassion of crystals and psychic dolphins, but of a shared sense of human suffering that stimulates action. It’s a skill and a mindset that can make our public health interventions better.

Before we leave you, we’d like to invite you to play the compassion game. Can you think of how the public health response can be designed more compassionately for Ukrainians? Leave us a note on Twitter or Instagram. And in the meantime, listen to our interview with Dr. Addiss below for three things we can do in global public health to cultivate compassion in our work!

- Sherine and Mike

Podcast: Interview with Dr. David Addiss

Okay, we admit it. Trying to promote a more compassionate approach to global health at first felt a bit… like a lava lamp, granola-eating, Birkenstock and tie-dye wearing kind of scene. But within minutes of speaking to Dr. Addiss, who may just be the most compelling ambassador for compassionate public health, we were convinced.

Here are a few things we learned from
our conversation with David:

1. Compassion has an ugly cousin
It’s called pity, and it is not to be confused with compassion or empathy. You can listen here to understand the difference between these three seemingly similar terms.

2. There’s an epidemiology to compassion
Like diseases, it doesn’t occur equally across time and space, it clusters. Public health experts are uniquely equipped to unpack the presence or absence of compassion using a scientific method.

3. Compassionate interventions accept that public health is neither value-neutral, nor apolitical
Being compassionate in our approach means being aware of our role in the political dynamic, and creating a process that is open to being challenged by the people who suffer the most. Sounds a lot like woke HCD, right? You can read more about this idea here.

4. Compassion extends not only to those that we serve, but also to ourselves
“Once we are happy that our own house is in order, that will reflect – or radiate out – into the way that we operate with partners.” - Paul Emerson, PhD, Director, International Trachoma Institute

You can listen to the full interview here. To learn more about FACE, visit their website.

Articles referenced in the episode:

Recommended reading:

More from David

The Stories We Can’t Stop Thinking About

For women, data is worth 1000 words
This beautifully designed visual essay shows women are not only underrepresented in the news but they’re also misrepresented. What do we make of the high representation of the word ‘rape’ and sparse use of ‘rapist’? But it’s not all bad. The use of empowering words (equality, strong, CEO) has risen sharply while the use of some gender stereotypes (emotional, drama) has plummeted.

The Research We’re Curious About

BS or… BS?
BIT’s founder David Halpern knows there is good and bad behavioural science out there -- the problem is we don’t know how to tell the difference. Here he unpacks learnings from Covid-19 public health measures. What’s the best way to calibrate our BS detector? Recognize an unsupported claim, and look for the evidence to back it up.

Hearts and Minds
This research from 2015 conducted by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, feels more relevant than ever today. They tested how to talk about refugees in a way that helped societies welcome them rather than resent and alienate them. The results showed that appealing to deeply-held values like treating people as you would want to be treated and showing compassion to those who need it, worked far better at neutralizing ugly anti-refugee messaging than appeals to fact and reason. Feelings over facts wins again. Their research led to this messaging guide.

The Lessons That are Sticking With Us

A dignified lunch break
Don’t be mad, but we're guessing you’re inadvertently treating people in an undignified manner. We’ve all done it, at one point or another. The Dignity Report shines a powerful and long-overdue light on this ubiquitous pattern in the field of International development. And don’t take it from us, take it from Neela Saldhana’s preface: changing your behaviour on this one will take practice! We were so moved by this work, we invited the author, Tom Wein to give our whole team a lunch and learn on promoting dignity and more respectful development. Try it out, it’ll be your best lunch break yet.

Big data, meet thick data
As we look down the barrel of an impending metaverse, this is the kind of TED talk we’d like played back on a loop. Although it’s more resource intensive, smaller in scale, and harder to quantify, human data is just as, if not more powerful, than big data. Tricia Wang, a technology ethnographer (someone who studies how people use technology and data), offers a throwback reminder on why human data can never be replaced by big data. Bet you didn’t know your Netflix algorithm came from thick data.

The nuclear threat: going beyond fear
If you’re anything like us, the singular power that our political leaders exercise, coupled with their failure to act swiftly and decisively on issues from climate, health and security, feels increasingly terrifying and disempowering. And now we can add nuclear threat to the list, a narrative that hasn’t changed much since the Cold War. In this thoughtful essay, our friends at Nucleus remind us that “a pivot from paralyzing doom and political stasis to the possibility of a new future lies in a human-centred notion of security.” Why not apply our SBC lessons to this oldest/newest threat? Perhaps reframing the title to nuclear violence? This article is chock full of more ideas to make nuclear violence a community issue.

What’s Distracting Us From Our Work

Let’s agree … to agree!
These short YouTube episodes by Jubilee Media aim to get people talking respectfully about tough (and not-so-tough) topics like gender, sex, marriage, and of course, Beyoncé. The episodes ask people to offer different sides to a range of questions, and more often than not, end up showing how closely aligned people are. Watch this discussion on Pro Vax vs Vaccine Hesitant amongst six very different people and how their perceptions change as they hear each other’s stories. Wanna take this to your own circle of friends? If the Kickstarter works out, there’ll be a board game version coming out soon!

Think big, think fast
This site hosts more than 2,000 video interviews with some of the world’s biggest thinkers, packed into efficient little 10 minute interviews. There’s so much to pick from but a few of our favorites? Jonathan Haidt on Identity Politics and C. Nicole Mason on What causes Poverty?

Great Work and Good Company

Pauline at HXD in Beantown
Our very own Pauline Kabitsis, Behavioural Scientist and part-time tomato sauce specialist, was representing CT at the Health Experience Design Conference in Boston this week. Through the lens of our recent work in Syria and Nepal, Pauline challenged the assembled experts to ask better research questions and explored how behavioural design can help. Reach out if you want to learn more!

Bienvenue/Welcome/Bienvenido Marc!
We’re delighted to welcome our newest recruit to the Common Thread family, Marc Brudzinski. He first won us over by using Origami skills to explain his approach to HCD and we’ve been swooning ever since. Marc will be Common Thread’s senior HCD Associate, and is a trilingual educator in community-led, human-centered design, with experience working, researching, and teaching at Cornell University, as well as in Puerto Rico, Argentina, Mexico and upstate NY with Congolese asylum-seekers and refugees. Drop Marc a line if you want to say hello.

Sam I am (and we’re happy she is)
Samyuktha Sam came to us first as an intern last year and has since become irreplaceable. She’s a triple-threat: a talented graphic designer, trained design researcher, with a singing voice that makes the grumpiest among us swoon. We’re happy Sam has agreed to join us as a Junior Design Associate! If you’re in Bangalore, look her up for a cup of tea and a great recipe for banana fritters.

This Stitch Was Produced While

We met up IRL!

In little ways,

and in big ones.

The whole team at our retreat in Greece.