The World’s Problems Cannot be Solved Without Compassion

By Liz Grant
January 17, 2022
By understanding how compassion works, and what it will take to make it contagious, we can galvanize action around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. This is part of a series of articles examining how a human flourishing mindset can support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. See below for related series content.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a blueprint for a flourishing world, a world of safety and security where people and planet have the resources and the capacity to thrive. The challenges humanity faces—and the many forms of socially driven suffering experienced every day—lie under each of the 17 goals. The SDGs encompass the broad domain of human suffering, from hunger, lack of housing, and jobs to environmental degradation and the dearth of quality education and healthcare for many, and they act as a guide for the development of humanity. By mitigating these challenges—and meeting these goals—we can lessen the suffering we experience as a species. Yet there is a challenge here: The problems are huge, and although we have the technical and scientific ability to solve them, we nevertheless fail to achieve the goals. While the problems have been identified in the SDGs and the solutions exist, and there is an awareness of the urgent need to take action, there does not seem to be a sufficiently connected and sustained global social will to accomplish the goals. Why is that? And how can that state of affairs be changed?

It’s tempting to throw more resources at achieving the SDGs—spending more money and deploying more bureaucracies—yet that amounts to more of the same. Clearly something is missing. Is it the human connection? Compassion may be the force that can help us achieve the SDGs. By being more compassionate with, for, and among others, we become engaged as a common humanity, motivated to do something about the suffering that global challenges cause. Technocratic solutions to big problems tend to remove relationships and connections as much as possible from the system, on the assumption that this improves efficiency.

Compassion, understood literally, means “suffering with” or suffering together. It calls upon us to not only recognize the suffering that others are experiencing, but also to feel the impact of the suffering, to be able to interpret the suffering, to gain a sense of the burden that others are carrying, and the cost to their lives, the destruction of their potential, and the pain they experience. Most importantly, compassion motivates us to take wise action to alleviate the suffering we see around us. Compassion changes our priorities in life. When we truly meet the world with compassion, we can do no other.

Compassion stands very separate from pity. Pity introduces a power differential with people feeling sorrow for the less-able and gaining gratification from doing good to those unable to help themselves. Compassion is not about doing good but doing right. It is not about a one-way action, but about relational engagement and togetherness. When we experience compassion, it brings with it the openness to have noticed the suffering, the sensitivity to be able to interpret it, the space to feel empathy for the person, or people, or the planet that is suffering, and the overwhelming desire and willingness to alleviate that suffering in others’ lives as though it were our own.  

On a person-to-person level, compassion is a powerful thing, and it can change lives. Humanity, however, faces greater challenges than those that can be solved between individuals. The SDGs speak of the need for systemic change at national, regional and global levels. So, if compassion is key to motivating people to achieve the SDGs, and it is an emotion that typically happens between individuals, the challenge becomes one of, in essence, scaling-up compassion from the level of disparate people to entire societies. Creating a compassion supply chain which harnesses and connects people, and shapes our political, economic, religious, social and interpersonal lives to move from emotional resonance to implementation.

One way to achieve this may be to take an epidemiological approach to compassion. This means finding ways of measuring it and then looking for ways to help it spread. We will have to understand not just the drivers of compassion, but also the outputs of compassion. The problems the SDGs seek to combat have been seen as  finite, documentable, and measurable, requiring  scalable technical solutions. Achieving that scale, rather than stopping progress at the level of pilot projects or local successes, will require growing humanity’s capacity for compassion. We must recognize that the global challenges the SDGs call out cause and are experienced as suffering and that this suffering affects people disproportionately, with the most vulnerable having the least access to strategies for alleviation. We must understand how suffering inhibits people and societies from reaching their full potential. For people and the planet to flourish, we must not only register the interconnectedness of suffering, but care deeply enough to understand the commonality of life and to take sustained, and indeed sacrificial action for a common purpose. A recognition of the combined wisdom of the ancient proverb “I am, because other people” and the message of the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that “No one is safe until all people everywhere are safe.”

There is an important caveat here, which is that the goal posts will move. If we achieve the SDGs as currently formulated, there will still be suffering in the world. There will still be room for improvement. Just as there cannot be life without death and there cannot be aging without aches, pains, disease and loss. Achieving the SDGs will never mean the elimination of all suffering, but it will mean the reduction of preventable suffering. By the same token, compassion will always be a necessity. Compassion’s call to action to eliminate the suffering of others is not undermined by the impossibility of total success. In fact, it’s the reason compassion exists as an emotion at all: Helping each other and making our lives better is a constant, never-ending task and is necessary for the survival of the human species.

Compassion can bring about change, and it is the key to the flourishing of human beings. The anthropologist Margaret Mead once argued that the key piece of proof that an ancient civilization had formed was a femur that had been broken and healed, because it demonstrated that the person was regarded enough and loved enough and cared for enough for the time and effort to be taken to help them heal and protect them in that process. A broken femur meant the individual could not hunt or protect the community during their convalescence. Someone else had to do it. Protecting another community member with a broken bone may very well have been the first act of compassion, and it helped communities grow and thrive. Compassion, in other words, has roots in the early evolution of humanity. And if that’s the case, then it is also innate in all of us.

The fact that 193 nations were able to agree on the SDGs as an aspiration for humanity’s future speaks to shared interest in these goals, and a collective vision of a world that can be transformed to a place where people, all living things, and the natural world flourish. The innateness of compassion within all of us also indicates that it can be harnessed collectively. If people have a capacity for compassion, then it is a matter of unlocking it and making it more powerful to galvanize action around shared goals like the SDGs.

And while all of this may sound philosophical, it actually works.

Some of the most dramatic early successes in the pursuit of the SDGs come from clean energy developments where companies engaged with local communities—using the design principles embedded within compassion—to understand the communities’ needs and work together to create solutions to the suffering of those same communities.  The Valhalla Project, an investment to build a 561 MW solar PV plant with hydro storage to supply electricity in a sustainable way to communities in the Atacama desert, is one such development. The project succeeded and became a servant to the service because it was designed by building trusting relationships, sharing resources, prioritizing high quality social connections, and facilitating communal leadership. A compassionate approach means that people are invested not just financially but emotionally in a positive outcome. And it means the solutions put in place solved the actual problems of the community, rather than simply being imposed on them.  The Valhalla Project, for instance, has not only established a cost effective electricity supply, but the funds generated have been utilized to open an adult high school degree program, with business training and startup funds, and a seawater desalination plant is being constructed. The investment has become a living story and not an event. And this is but one example of a project that was successful, in part, because it was built with compassion.

When we speak of harnessing compassion to achieve the SDGs, we aren’t recreating the wheel, but instead using one of our greatest natural traits. Compassion serves a purpose, which is to help us help each other for the good of all.


Liz Grant 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.

Liz is 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. Liz’s research spans planetary health and palliative care in contexts of poverty and conflict – compassion as the value base of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the ethics of compassion and care. 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.  She 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 has been an advisor to a number of global health charities, and serves as a trustee for CBM Scotland.