Sep 12, 2023

Compassion and the Sustainable Development Goals (video)

A team of global health experts explore the connection between empathy, action, and human flourishing, and how it may help make the SDGs attainable.

By Templeton Staff

The United Nation's (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were born of one universal essential human virtue: compassion.

The UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development centers around 17 SDGs, set up in 2015 to address global issues including poverty, hunger, clean water, education, and gender equality. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic hindered progress toward achieving these goals by 2030. However, leading global health experts make a case that compassion could reinvigorate and accelerate the quest, and lead to human flourishing.

"I believe that compassion is the instrument that allows human flourishing," says Liz Grant, Director of the Global Health Academy, and Co-director of the Global Compassion Initiative both at the University of Edinburgh. David Addiss is Global Health Ethics Officer and Director at The Task Force for Global Health, and founding director of The Task Force’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics. He sees the SDGs and compassion as intertwined. "I see the sustainable development goals as an expression of compassion and an attempt to deliver compassion in very tangible forms to alleviate specific forms of human suffering," he says. 

Compassion has long been associated with religion and it plays a key role in many traditions and spiritual exercises. There is also a science of compassion. Brain imaging techniques have helped researchers identify neural pathways associated with compassion. This implies compassion can be cultivated and developed as a skill. "We need to be engaged with philosophers with theologians to understand how their perception of compassion their understanding can be best studied through the tools of science to advance compassion," says Addiss.


"I see the sustainable development goals as an expression of compassion and an attempt to deliver compassion in very tangible forms to alleviate specific forms of human suffering."

-David Addiss


The team has taken an epidemiological approach to compassion. This means finding ways of measuring it and then looking for ways to help it spread to understand the drivers of compassion as well as the outputs of compassion. The team did a review of literature in which compassion was treated as an outcome and looked at the factors that allowed compassion to emerge. These included "things like gender, like personal history, experience of trauma," says Addiss. "In the moment when a person is engaged in deciding whether to offer compassion, they often ask 'Is that other person like me? Do I feel secure?' All of these things will influence at that moment whether I offer compassion to those who are suffering."

Grant suggests one practical way to ensure that compassion becomes a widespread driver of flourishing is to "design for compassion." 

Designing for compassion involves normalizing discussions about compassion and incorporating compassion-driven criteria into our decision-making processes on large and on  personal scales. In contrast to today's world which is so focused on economic interests, business leaders can play a vital role in promoting compassion by speaking up about its importance. Critical conversations and nurturing essential soft skills like deep listening, negotiation, and collaboration are crucial for advancing compassion-related actions, including addressing the SDGs.

Watch the video with the above player for more from Addiss, Grant, and members of their respective organizations.

You'll also:

  • Find out how leading health experts and scientific research define compassion.
  • Learn about the practical tools being implemented including a toolkit and workshops.

Play Part 1 of the related podcast. 

Play Part 2 of the related podcast. 

David Addiss, MD, MPHD at The Task Force for Global Health is director and founder of The Task Force’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics. Through interdisciplinary research, his team’s focus is to discover the meaning and mechanisms of human flourishing in the context of suffering; to understand how compassion alleviates suffering and promotes flourishing in healthcare settings; and to develop large-scale evidence-based programs to promote compassionate, high-quality national health systems.

Liz Grant MA PhD,  FRSE, FRCPE, MFPH is an Assistant Principal of the University of Edinburgh, and a Professor of Global Health and Development. She is Director of the University’s Global Health Academy, responsible for developing and supporting global health partnerships and advocacy, and for translating global health research into action; and is also a Co-Director of the Global Compassion Initiative, a University-wide initiative to embed a culture of compassion and care across all Colleges, and to support the science of compassion studies. She leads the Palliative Care in a Changing Climate Group, working to develop palliative care services in fragile states and refugee settings. Previously Liz was the Senior Health Advisor to the Scottish Government’s International Development Team working primarily in Malawi; has worked for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) in the Public Health Directorate in Lothian; and led the NHS HIV partnership between NHS Lothian and the Zambian Ministry of Health. She serves as a trustee for CBM Scotland.

Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” videos by journalist and senior media executive Richard Sergay feature human stories and critical perspectives on breakthroughs about the universe’s big questions. The inspiring narratives and observations in these award-winning videos portray the individual and societal impacts of the projects that bring to life TWCF-supported research.