Empathy v. Sympathy: Learning Service – What’s wrong with volunteer travel?

Daniela Papi discusses the importance of learning before helping in service-learning endeavors.


We’re fostering a sympathy travel market. Sympathy, by definition, is “feeling pity for someone,” and if we are teaching young people to have pity on some “other” that they have yet to meet, it’s hard for them to realize that that “other” is someone they could be learning from instead. We need to be teaching empathy to young people as, by definition, empathy requires “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and therefore learning first. By taking an “empathy learning” rather than “sympathy tourism” approach, we’re telling travelers to ask questions, understand local power dynamics, gain a perspective on local priorities and needs before imposing outside “solutions” and preventing many of the problems that come from rushing into “helping” mode, like I did when I arrived in Cambodia.