The Limitations of Compassion in International Volunteering

On April 15, 2013, at 2:49 p.m., two bombs were detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The effects were physically devastating — three dead and hundreds injured, some requiring amputations. The psychological effects were equally traumatic, if less quantifiable. The reactions of the city, the state and the nation were quickly visible — BOSTON STRONG. American flags were hung and #bostonstrong appeared as a twitter hashtag that went viral. Fenway Park immediately demonstrated compassion and commitment to its city and the innocent victims of the targeted attack. Boston Strong became the slogan meant to demonstrate to the world that Americans were not going to be divided, that we stood together, that we were a strong union that could overcome outside attacks with resilience and commitment to each other.

The Boston Marathon bombing occurred at the end of a semester at Michigan State when I was team teaching a public affairs course that began with Kant’s theory of perpetual peace and ended with Martha Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism. Less than a week after the attacks, I was slated to stand in front of 250 students to ask them to identify where they drew their circles of affiliation in determining who mattered to them. Who mattered to the point that they would be willing to make sacrifices for the good of another? Did it stop at family? Community? State? Nation? Or, as Nussbaum would like — all of humanity? In her 1996 book, For Love of Country, Nussbaum presents her readers with a compilation of essays written by prominent scholars who grapple with patriotism and whether turning inward toward a sense of nationalism, often to the exclusion of a more cosmopolitan ideal, is the proper response when
faced with violence or danger.[1]

Boston, United States – April 26, 2013: People left flowers and shirt with notes for the four victims of Boston Marathon 2013 Bombing at Copley Square, Boston

As one would imagine, my students had a variety of thoughts and feelings on the subject. But what I noticed, and continue to notice, is that an increasing number of students take a route to global engagement predicated on compassion, despite an even more divided and angry political environment. This is what I examine in my most recent work on volunteer tourism and short-term aid missions that are increasingly popular among young American students wanting to make a difference in the lives of people in distance places, especially in southern Africa.

turned to ethnographic sites of international volunteering and international medical experiences — increasingly common forms of travel — with the purpose of engaging with some form of “aid” in the developing world predicated on the notion of suffering subjects. The majority of participants in these volunteer programs are self-identified altruistic young people who act out of “compassion” to “make a difference,” “help” or “contribute to the future of others.” They say they are spurred to action because they sense suffering, often via the media, news stories or stories told by peers from previous volunteer trips. I focus my ethnographic analysis briefly on their stated motivations related to compassion but also describe how their resulting actions do not necessarily resonate with contemporary notions of justice — which many political theorists argue is the purpose of compassion — to inform and ensure justice. In fact, I found that compassion, while wellmeaning, may lead to antagonistic interventions or to inhumane humanitarianism.

Nussbaum bases her call for engaged global citizenship on the moral principle of compassion. According to Western philosophical tradition, she writes, compassion is the central bridge between the individual and community, and it is how the human species hooks individual self-interests to those of others.[2] In teaching this I realized I had written quite a bit on what I call a politics of compassion, but I had done only superficial intellectual work to consider what exactly “compassion” is and its potential as an organizing principle of civic society. Instead, I was asking what compassion meant as it was realized in deliberate actions by volunteers trying to serve Malawian orphans and by medical school students venturing into Malawi’s rural areas to provide care to poor patients. So I took a step back and found a new point of departure that explores the uses of compassion — how it works and its limits in civic society.

Here I draw on more historic definitions of compassion by prominent political thinkers in trying to explain its role in the organization of political life. I also link the notion of compassion as a moral sentiment that drives people to action in an effort to alleviate suffering with the more contemporary literature on transnational humanitarianism. Today, humanitarian organizations rely on the image or idea of a collective suffering subject such as orphans, AIDS patients, tsunami victims and refugees to generate a compassionate response from donors willing and able to support their work.[3] Finally, I conclude that compassion has a place in framing, even driving, global engagements and promoting a dedication to equality, but it must be tempered with an understanding of and an eye toward justice and rights.

A Defining Moral Sentiment

“Anything that makes it easier to imagine trading places with someone else increases your moral consideration of that other,” Peter Singer remarks in exploring the evolution of ethical concern and moral consideration of those beyond our kin to include much broader swaths of humanity.[4] This is one of the three foundational aspects of compassion that Aristotle identified.[5] The first is the sense that suffering is severe; it is not stubbing a toe. It “has size.” The second is the belief that the suffering is undeserved. The final component is that others can imagine themselves in the sufferer’s shoes, the sense that “there by the grace of God go I.”

Historically, Westerners have applied this empathy to those only within their frame of reference. But with the frame of reference growing via globalization and the ability to both see and know people in once distant and isolated places, empathy can be extended. The circle has expanded from family to village to nation and perhaps to humanity at large. For Rousseau, extending compassion is a natural impulse and one of just two principles anterior to reason, the other being interest in one’s own well-being and self-preservation, out of which he argues that all rules of natural right flow.[6] According to this model, public life and social organization begin first with self-interest and self-preservation, then compassion, which actually grows out of self-interest.[7] The positive power of compassion to motivate helping others is dependent upon self-love — because one has to “suffer in him” to feel compassion, and therefore, the individual expressing compassion must identify with the sufferer.[8] It is ultimately from this self-identification that compassion emerges, which, in turn, leads to action. This is a “modification of self-love that is good for us and for others,” Rousseau claims, as opposed to more exploitative types of self-love. From this perspective, compassion is seen as an evolved moral sentiment whereby it is possible to project oneself onto or into the lives of others.

Today those “others” are not so distant, and compassion has led to action in once remote places. An appropriate suffering subject whose life needs saving must emerge to animate a compassionate response for westerners to “do good.” Fassin, Manzo and Mostafanezhed have heavily critiqued the construction of suffering subjects as depoliticizing [9], but such construction constitutes volunteer work itself. There have to be “targets of legitimate intervention” that allow for a global response that rallies around specific core categories of people such as refugees, hurricane or tsunami victims, genocide victims, infectious disease victims.[10] Objects of compassion, condensed into particular categories of suffering others, can be further victimized as their geopolitical and economic contexts often get erased.

The representations of AIDS orphans in Africa have been identified by Fassin and Manzo as particularly depoliticizing.[11] Images of wasting AIDS victims from southern Africa have circulated via the media to highlight extreme forms of human suffering in an effort to generate a compassionate response. Through this process, the children are stripped of context, history and the root causes of both poverty and the explosion of HIV/AIDS. Viewers do not grasp the impact violent colonization had on the Malawian people nor do they consider the ways neoliberal policies and structural adjustment requirements limit the economic viability of Malawians. Malawians are considered poor and “underdeveloped” because “it just happened that way.” They are imagined as innately incapable of “progress.” These specious representations persist because they are effective in mobilizing substantial amounts of resources. They also have the effect of shaping the imagination of a consumer public inundated with images and stories of innocent suffering across sub-Saharan Africa. These categories create spaces for young, inexperienced volunteers to bear witness to distant mediatized suffering, leading to their involvement in short-term humanitarian trips meant to “make a difference” and “ease suffering.” What is missing as a result of the objectification of suffering subjects and the requisite compassionate response is the consideration of Malawians as citizens who are entitled to certain rights. Instead, handouts and cursory efforts to “alleviate” suffering are seen as sufficient.

I have borne witness to action predicated on the category of a suffering subject, both in my fieldwork with student volunteers and in the classroom, where eager students are seeking careers focused on easing suffering driven by compassion. The suffering subject generates a compassionate response from volunteers that turn that compassion into action through their volunteering and career trajectories. I have studied volunteer tourism in Malawi as early as 2006, when I first participated in a volunteer trip, and as recently as 2017, when I interviewed student volunteer missionaries headed to a Malawian orphanage. I have interviewed or interacted with innumerable volunteers, including program coordinators/organizers, over the course of 11 years. I also participated in four different volunteer trips while in the country. I have concluded that while there is something to what Nussbaum is saying — that
compassionate responses by volunteers may be a positive development — there are some murky outcomes that need consideration. I will illuminate the these with two case studies from my research.

International Medical Experiences

McCall, Ilitis and Hanson as well as Harms and Plamondon have attributed the trend of
increased numbers of U.S. medical trainees participating in International Medical Experiences (IMEs) to greater awareness of global health inequality, more opportunities to exercise altruistic intentions, concern over the spread and possible mutation of infectious disease and interest in gaining language training, novel cultural experiences and exposure to exotic disease.[12] Max is among these trainees.[13] He was a student at a New York medical program when he signed up to go to Malawi to volunteer in rural medical clinics. I asked the 22-year-old from Marietta, Georgia, to reflect on his experiences
and what motivated him to volunteer.

His statements help to demonstrate the way compassion works to shape his understanding of those he came to serve as poor, suffering subjects worthy of his compassion and motivate him to the point of action in Malawi:

I basically just feel like … regardless of your situation, the needy should be helped by those that are able to … There have been many times throughout this experience that I felt a very universal theme to live, just seeing children cry when they’re in pain, reaching for their mothers … There are so many just, just universal parts of being human that have made me really feel like we’re all really part of the same story, and that it’s almost like a, I don’t know, it’s sort of like an existential guilt, like look at these people in Africa and see how destitute they are … I just feel so sorry because I didn’t do anything to be American … I just don’t see how it’s fair for me to be in my situation and them in their situation … I take it as a spiritual obligation to actually act upon it and level the playing field in a way that I can, which is just coming here.

Max succinctly captures the central elements of compassion: acknowledging that
suffering is severe (children crying, pain, destitution); suffering is seen as undeserved (birthright, chance); and he can easily imagine being in their place (“same story,” references to universality). This compassion led him to actions that transcend the idea of “just coming here.” Max arrived in Malawi with a clinician mentor and other medical students. They spent three weeks volunteering in rural areas; the mentor supervised the students for two and a half days then returned to the United States. Without clinical or pharmacological training, yet still presenting themselves as “doctors,” the students practiced trial-and-error medicine. They displayed an inability to take vitals or make sense of medical records and admitted that they practiced without considering contraindications. They flirted with changing patients’ antiretroviral and antihypertensive medications, despite having no experience with those drugs. Students’ treatments at times elicited laughter from their mentor, once the patient had gone. These services were rudimentary at best and harmful at worst.[14]

Yet students’ practices were driven by compassion and the notion that some medicine beats no medicine at all. Compassion was claimed and granted based on individuals’ willingness to apply effort toward a project in a so-called Third World setting, no matter the quality or even the legality of the actions they took. Patients were conceptualized not as rights-bearing citizens entitled to quality care, but rather as apolitical suffering masses or “bare lives.”[15] This is described as a “politics of compassion” rather than a provision of entitlements, obscuring a rights/justice framework.[16] Compassion does not lead to justice; and justice alone, Nussbaum argues, does not necessarily lead to the alleviation of suffering.

Orphan Volunteers

Chad, an undergraduate zoology major at Auburn University, found himself at Blessings Orphanage in Malawi during the summer of 2009. He was one of more than 200 visitors the orphanage would host that year, all under the rubric of “volunteer tourism.” I asked Chad why he decided to come to Malawi and what he had learned:

I know that people there need help … I can give what I can give and why should I not give it? So, that was kinda my response … I think that starting with people close to my age, now, we feel a lot more push to be something like a humanitarian. I think that we are looking more abroad than maybe our parents or grandparents did. Well, it’s obvious that we care a lot about that kind of thing and to me that feeling was coinciding with, you know, a duty … I’m not some bringer of everything. I can’t release people from poverty, but I can do what I can to help and why should I not?

View of the Malawian Orphanage from the Volunteer Guest House. Photo by Andrea Freidus.

A self-proclaimed humanitarian, Chad also exhibits the central tenets of compassion, but there is something peculiar about his perspective that needs attention. According to Aristotle, “compassion requires blamelessness not only on the part of the object, but also on the part of the onlooker.”[17]
Blamelessness is a judgment, one that Aristotle says is fundamental to compassion but proves to be detrimental to justice. Central to many notions volunteer tourists hold is that poverty and suffering in Malawi — especially with regard to children and poor patients — is both blameless and an obfuscation of what is actually happening. Suffering is about “chance,” “a roll of the die and that could easily have been one of us.” This motivates compassion but also limits it.[18]

As Chad mused,

Why is there poverty in Malawi? Well, I don’t know, um, this continent has remained unchanged for a really long time, and why, you know, technology developed elsewhere, I don’t know. Why education has been progressing further elsewhere, I don’t know. But, it just happened that way. I don’t know why … Maybe it’s just isolated so much. It’s in the middle of a big continent.

Chad suggested he simply did not know; it seemed to come down to just plain bad luck for Malawians facing poverty. This is referred to in the literature on volunteer tourism as “lotto logic.”[19] While birthright might be luck of the draw, there are very deliberate systems at work that create opportunities and shape the circumstances of people’s lives. Yet my respondents did not mention structural violence or systems that produce inequality. There was no acknowledgment of the transatlantic slave trade, the violence of colonialism, turbulent de-colonization and democratization, or imposed structural adjustment. It was by “chance” that Malawians were poor. Social responsibility is thus alleviated; both sides are held blameless. Here compassion probably will not lead to justice, especially economic justice, because it is not acknowledged or understood. What is more, the ramifications of this perspective do not end in Malawi but are extended to poverty close to home.

Chad continued:

Most people in Malawi that I’ve seen are not homeless, but I think that they are worse off than someone in America who doesn’t have a home … I’ve been to some of the rural villages and driven through them. It’s just … mmm . ..they own nothing … and every day is a struggle just to make it through. That’s what poverty is and … some of the feelings I’ve started to have about American poverty is those people can really help themselves more than these people can. I don’t know, I don’t want to be bitter about it like … it’s just like, it seems like you could almost climb out of it a little bit in the United States, but here there’s just no opportunity.

In my work, it is common for volunteers to say that Malawians living in poverty need compassion and action, whereas the U.S. poor are at fault for their own suffering, justified with hegemonic notions of the American Dream and the Protestant Ethic.[20] These otherwise compassionate young people are actually missing the commonality that exists between those living in systemic inequality and their lack of capabilities, despite geopolitical positioning. Thus compassion can prove to be a misguided moral sentiment leading to an erasure of suffering. Someone struggling against poverty and oppression in rural Alabama or rural Malawi are in fact sharing in quite similar cycles of poverty.[21] But here the onlooker makes a judgment about whether someone is blameless for suffering and thus deserving of a compassionate response — often, the U.S. poor do not qualify.

Compassion Rooted in Justice

These ethnographic snapshots help to illuminate limits of the uses of compassion in civic and political life. Other critics have claimed similar shortcomings that I think are related to the missing element of justice. Nussbaum, for example, acknowledges that compassion is related to justice, but it is “not sufficient for justice, since it focuses on need and offers no account of liberty, rights, respect for human dignity.”[22] Most of the approximately 25 “voluntourists” I spoke with demonstrated the potential superficiality of compassion. As Max stated, suffering is imagined as an existential condition, and in the process political and social conditions are misrecognized. This is evident in the “lotto logic” mentality that participants demonstrate, which allows structures that need to be abolished or reconsidered to go unaddressed.

Compassion also runs the risk of being merely transient. Virtually none of the volunteer tourists or medical school students I met had made a long-term, sustained commitment to the orphans or patients with whom they worked. Justice, as opposed to compassion, requires sustained commitment.[23] A shallow reaction to exoticized poverty allows asymmetrical power relations to remain firmly embedded, and necessary actors and institutions needed to ensure justice receive no dedicated attention. Without justice, compassion can boil down to a kindness extended by the rich and powerful to the weak that requires no further obligation.[24] Despite these shortcomings, developing a moral pedagogy that ensures compassion as an “emotional bridge” between the individuals and the community can also act as a bridge to justice. Through compassion, at least one becomes aware of somebody else’s privation, which allows consideration of how and why claims to justice can be made.[25]

Nussbaum addresses how this bridge can be encouraged and compassion promoted as a basic social emotion to engender a more benevolent community predicated on rights and entitlements.[26] Beyond the appropriate confines of the family, she calls on institutions to teach citizens appropriate concern for humanity, including responsibilities for ensuring the availability of basic goods  required for making life “less tragic” and “more just.” She cites education beginning in elementary school that allows children to both imagine and participate in the suffering of others as a bedrock for a more compassionate and just world, a pedagogy that gets students to cross boundaries of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and nation. She specifies that to ensure a compassionate citizenship there must be a multicultural dimension to this pedagogy. Making strangers that transcend one’s family, community, country and culture less “other” seems key to decreasing violence and encouraging cooperation and peace. Coupled with teaching critical thinking that unpacks and challenges students’ assumptions and ideologies, this can also make visible the underlying hegemony of systems that oppress and marginalize. Through these pedagogical endeavors, educated and compassionate people can inform and shape liberal, democratic, public institutions. Nussbaum suggests that compassion can inform just institutions that will ensure people’s rights when compassion fails. I am less convinced this is a certainty — but open to the idea.


Nussbaum says that “people may not be perfect in their compassion, but that is no reason to deny that a good deal of human behavior is explained this way.[27] I have tried to highlight my findings about how compassion is a motivating factor of volunteer engagement in Malawi, arguing that it is not enough to ensure the end of suffering. Compassion must be tempered with justice and rights. Without a focus on justice, the recipients of “humanitarian” aid, whether orphans, the U.S. poor or sick Malawian patients, are conceptualized not as rights-bearing citizens deserving of quality care, but rather as apolitical, suffering bodies. And this conceptualization can strip people of their agency.

As I have shown, compassionate individuals who want to bring relief to the suffering may actually be silencing or misrecognizing the systems that create that suffering to begin with, hindering the extension of compassion to those who are in actuality deserving of it at home as well as abroad. Compassion needs to be extended to all of humanity — to move into the realm of the unconditional. Notions of compassion and morality used by program volunteers and administrators necessitate a reexamination of rights, ideologies and sentiments of justice. This is particularly true with the acknowledgement that globalization is bringing the wider circles of shared humanity closer to home and especially because the types of engagements that occur within and between those ever closer circles have proven to be less than equalizing.


1. M. Nussbaum, For Love of Country? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002).
2. M. Nussbaum, “Compassion: The Basic Social Emotion,” Social Philosophy and Policy 13, no. 1 (1996): 27–58.
3. D. Fassin, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); L. Malkki, The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
4. P. Singer, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution and Moral Progress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
5. Aristotle, Rhetoric, translated by W. Rhys Roberts and edited by W. D. Ross (New York: Cosimo, Inc, 2010 [1386]).
6. J. Rousseau, Emile or On Education, Translated by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979 [1762]).
7. Rousseau, Emile or On Education.
8. Rousseau, Emile or On Education.
9. Fassin, Humanitarian Reason; K. Manzo, “Imagining Humanitarianism: NGO Identity and the Iconography of Childhood,” Antipode 40, no. 4 (2008): 632–57; M. Mostafanezhed, “The Geography of Compassion in Volunteer Tourism,” Tourism Geographies 15, no. 2 (2013): 318–37.
10. L. Boltanski, Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1993); M. Green, “Calculating Compassion: Accounting for Some Categorical Practices in International Development,” in Adventures in Aidland: The Anthropology of Professionals in International Development, ed. D. Mosse (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011).
11. Fassin, Humanitarian Reason; Manzo, “Imagining Humanitarianism.”
12. D. McCall and A. Iltis, “Health Care Voluntourism: Addressing Ethical Concerns of Undergraduate Student Participation in Global Health Volunteer Work,” HEC Forum 26, no. 4 (2014): 285–97; L. Hanson, S. Harms, and K. Plamondon,
“Undergraduate International Medical Electives: Some Ethical and Pedagogical Considerations,” Journal of Studies in International Education 15, no. 2 (2011): 171–85.
13. All names of trainees and volunteers are pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality.
14. E. Guay and A. Freidus, “Humanitarianism at the Interface of Rights and Virtue” (presentation, Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Denver, CO, March 19–23, 2013).
15. G. Agamben, Homo Sacer: Soverign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998)
16. Fassin, Humanitarian Reason.
17. Aristotle, Rhetoric.
18. Aristotle, Rhetoric.
19. K. Simpson, “’Doing Development’: The Gap Year, Volunteer Tourists and a Popular Practice of Development,” Journal of International Development 16, no. 5 (2004): 681–92.
20. A. Freidus, “Unanticipated Outcomes of Voluntourism Among Malawian Orphans,” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 25, no. 9 (2017): 1306–
221. Freidus, “Unanticipated Outcomes.”
22. Nussbaum, “Compassion.”
23. K. Woodward, “Calculating Compassion,” Indiana Law Journal 77, no. 2 (2002): 223–45.
24. J. Marks, “Rousseau’s Discriminating Defense of Compassion,” The American Political Science Review 101, no. 4 (2007): 727–39.
25. Nussbaum, “Compassion”; Woodward, “Calculating Compassion.”
26. Nussbaum, For Love of Country?
27. Nussbaum, For Love of Country?

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fassin, Didier. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

Mostafanezhad, Mary. “The Geography of Compassion in Volunteer Tourism.” Tourism Geographies 15, no. 2 (2013): 318–37.

Sullivan, Noelle. “Moral Complexity & Rhetorical Simplicity in ‘Global Health’ Volunteering.” In Volunteer Economics: The Politics and Ethics of Voluntary Labour in Africa, edited by Ruth Prince and Hannah Brown, 140–63. Rochester, NY: James Curry, 2016.

Andrea Freidus is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Her work has focused on transnational responses to orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi. She also looks at the volunteer tourism that has emerged around the desire to help and heal Malawian orphans. She is currently working on new projects related to health disparities and food insecurity in the U.S context. She would like to acknowledge Evan Guay, her research assistant, who worked closely on international medical experiences
in Malawi.

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