Does empathy ultimately lead to action? For us, that question has been a critical piece in this journey, says the writer. File photo: Reuters

Sally Begbie’s Hong Kong NGO aims to create an understanding of, and bring change to, a dysfunctional world.

The power of empathy has caught us by surprise. In an age of information overload, we stumbled on it very nearly by mistake. Originally, my NGO offered a single empathetic “experience” as a one-off. That was a decade ago and we have been running them ever since.

We have become convinced that, to engage with global challenges, people seem to want more than presentations, graphs or charts. They want empathy.

The journey began for us when we were preparing for our 10th anniversary. What would happen, we wondered, if instead of an elegant meal in a hotel setting, we invited chief executives to spend 24 hours living on the wrong side of the Millenium Development Goals?

The chief executives arrived and we stripped them of their cellphones, wallets and other appendages. We replaced those with wood, corrugated iron and plastic sheeting, and invited them to build a shelter. They struggled, but after a couple of hours a set of tiny homes, much like the slum communities we routinely serve, was standing.

Afterwards, our corporate guests ate a meal which typified food in the slum communities. Then they went to bed on the hard ground in their newly made structures.

Next day, they went through a series of simulations. They broke rocks with their bare hands to build a simple “road”. They struggled to generate income for their “families”, battling loan sharks to get by. They met corruption in the marketplace.

Afterwards, slumped in the doorways of their “homes”, they debriefed: an insightful time, given they were among the shapers of Hong Kong’s sophisticated economy. They now found themselves looking at that same financial landscape through another’s eyes, the more so as they looked for solutions they could help execute.

When the day was done, we packed up, with no intention of repeating the programme. Participants, however, took us aside. “Don’t stop doing this,” they said. “Never, in our corporate social responsibility programmes, have we experienced anything so powerful.”

In the weeks following, our phones rang off the hook and our e-mail boxes overflowed with requests for a variety of simulations. Today, 10 years later, more than 130 000 participants have taken part. It took us a while, but, in time, the reality dawned – we were looking at the power of empathy.

What is it about empathy that works? And why is the simulation process different in impact from, say, a documentary or a discussion group in producing empathy? The old adage probably says it best: “I can’t understand a man until I walk a mile in his shoes.” Experts say sympathy, while of value, can keep people at arm’s length. Empathy, on the other hand, allows them to see another’s world view and, more importantly, feel something of it.

One of our greatest challenges is how we represent, in microcosm, the issues facing our world, in macrocosm.

With many participants asking for a one- or two-hour programme, how can we show the complexity of global need and the depth of struggle for which we long to generate empathy?

The other difficulty is that while people ask us to simulate a wide variety of needs, we ourselves have not lived with all of these issues, first-hand. How, then, can we portray them accurately?

In dealing with these challenges, two imperatives have become critical to us – we rely on the guidance of people who have lived with the issue we are addressing and we work with NGOs and others who serve people facing the topic at hand.

Does empathy ultimately lead to action? For us, that question has been a critical piece in this journey.

We faced chief executives, following the Refugee Run at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, who unashamedly wiped a tear and asked, “What now? How can I, and my company, make a difference?” We were not ready for that question. We’d had no wish to make an ask of people following a simulation. It was privilege enough that they were willing to have a taste of the pain and despair millions live with daily.

Yet their response has shown us that empathy can be depressing if participants have no platform for action should they wish it. Empathy, in our context, must be linked to opportunity.

Over time we have seen some participants choose a deep level of engagement in the years following their simulation. For some, this has prompted change in their corporate responsibility policy or practice. For some, it has fostered a different modus operandi for those whose presence, in developing nations, could better benefit local communities.

We have a distance to go in our journey. Since we began, we have had to develop more programmes. More issues are being requested.

We want to see a dysfunctional world understood, cared for and, where possible, changed, one participant at a time. That can’t, we believe, happen without empathy.

* Sally Begbie is the founder of the Hong Kong-based Crossroads Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which brings together those in need and those who can help. This article was first published on the World Economic Forum Blog, an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate about key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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