Pity vs Compassion

Working in the international NGO sector, people need to remember why they are here. And they need to remember the crucial difference between pity and compassion. My friend introduced me to this concept a while back and ever since, it has stuck with me. The people that we work for- they don’t need your ‘saving.’ The two things that irk me the most:

1. The people you serve, they aren’t ‘poor things.’

They do not need your saving, you are not some sort of messiah. They can get along just fine without you. We are here to help them reach their ideas of success, not to impose our ideas of success on them. They aren’t these poor, destitute people that need your pity. Don’t disgrace them with that nonsense. We are here to help provide more resources and avenues for them to achieve what they want out of life.

2. Those ‘poor things’ do not have the secret to life.

Yes, they are poor. Yes, maybe they seem happier than you and me. But no, they are not some carefree wild people that are blissfully ignorant of modern struggles. Stop that. They are people, just like you and me. They have problems, just like you and me. Don’t fetishize their experience and life.

In this field we need to remember to treat those that we serve with respect. We are here to SERVE. So get over yourself- it ain’t about you. The people we serve are not a tourist attraction. They are not your goddamn photo op for a new profile picture on Facebook to show how damn worldly and nice you are. They do not need your pity nor your fetishizing gaze. Yes, treat them with compassion and empathy. Learn their problems and their dreams, and help them achieve it. We are privileged and we have an excess of resources we can share with those that don’t have our opportunities. But please, get off your narcissistic high horse. We don’t need any more of your condescending voluntourist types in our field.

P.S. I’m not saying that every picture with the people you serve are bad, or that we don’t need any volunteers. Just check why you’re doing the things you do. I’m also not talking about anyone particular- so if you feel offended, maybe do some reflecting.

Articles that further my arguments more eloquently:

Cover photo: Taken in Penang. Famous street art by Ernest Zacharevic. 



  1. Brenda Velasquez · September 5, 2015

    Highly relevant and crucial distinction in the age of social media. My favorite line: “They are not your goddamn photo op for a new profile picture on Facebook to show how damn worldly and nice you are.”

    Amidst the trend of documenting our every moment via Instagram selfies, we have to curb this habit when engaging with people who don’t (read: can’t) practice the same expensively carefree smartphone-enabled trend (especially when our phones’ conflict mineral origins provide the funding for the horrific oppression that some of these populations suffer), for risk of flaunting our privilege in their faces and dehumanizing these individuals by portraying them as tourist attractions.

    Seeing all these photos of voluntourists posing happily with disadvantaged individuals reminds me of the practice of privileged societies “slumming” ghettos…and if we’re compelled to post a photo of one our volunteering experiences, might it be better to leave ourselves out of the shot and focus on the people we’re serving, capturing portraits of their daily life and challenges..?

    Excellent post, Joie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • hellojoie · September 10, 2015

      Thanks so much for the input Brenda! I really appreciate it.

      I hate how people can be in this field, it’s so patronizing. And I feel like people don’t speak out against it because ‘volunteering’ is good, right? It’s difficult to be critical, because we always need more volunteers and we don’t want to scare anyone away. But I feel like it’s so crucial that people are in it for the right reason.

      If there’s no picture of it on Facebook, did we really make a difference?! Haha, I feel like a lot of the mentality is like this and it bothers me so much. Honestly, I feel like it’s fine to take pictures with the people you’re serving, because you take pictures with friends, right? It’s all about intent- Are you taking this picture with them because you are good friends, or because you want some likes on Facebook? It’s very difficult to find the line, but as long as people are critical about their service, I think that’s a start.


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