By Sacha St-Onge Ahmad, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 23 October 2017 and Lahore, Pakistan, 19 November 2017

Sacha Ahmad
Dec 17, 2017 · 9 min read

The goal of the Day of Learning (DoL) is to increase awareness about the potential harm people who work in development can unintentionally inflict even when they have good intentions. There are two components of the Day of Learning: the first is a presentation of a list of examples from novels, TV shows, and development work that illustrate the concept of causing harm unintentionally. Participants are encouraged to share their opinions and related stories with the audience in the form of an open discussion. The second is a listening and interactive activity in experiencing empathy designed by Olin University professor Dr. Benjamin Linder.

Part I: Examples

Below are some examples that were shared with the audience during the DoL.

Example 1: Laura Ingalls climbing a mountain to be closer to God


In the television series Little House on the Prairie (S01E13+14), young Laura Ingalls is jealous of her baby brother and doesn’t pray for his health. When he dies, she feels guilty and seeks the counsel of her town’s minister, Reverend Alden. The Reverend tells her that being closer to God might help. Laura understands this to mean physical proximity and runs away from home to climb the tallest mountain she can find to be closer to God when she speaks to Him. Without intending it, the Reverend directed Laura’s thinking in a way which put her in danger while she was alone in the wild for days.

Example 2: Lin’s crucified pet mouse


Below is an excerpt from Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram:

“In that other world-within-a-world, back then, I moved into a new prison cell and discovered a tiny mouse there. The creature entered through a cracked air vent, and crept into the cell every night. Patience and obsessional focus are the gems we mine in the tunnels of prison solitude. Using them, and tiny morsels of food, I bribed the little mouse, over several weeks, and eventually trained it to eat from the edge of my hand. When the prison guards moved me from that cell, in a routine rotation, I told the new tenant — a prisoner I thought I knew well — about the trained mouse. On the morning after the move, he invited me to see the mouse. He’d captured the trusting creature, and crucified it, face down, on a cross made from a broken ruler. He laughed as he told me how the mouse had struggled when he’d tied it by its neck to the cross with cotton thread. He marvelled at how long it had taken to drive thumbtacks into its wriggling paws.”

In his own assessment of what happened, the main character feels regret for having trained the mouse to trust his hand when he should have known that others would not be so kind - others he would not be able to protect the mouse from forever.

This example leads to a larger discussion about showing people dreams that they are unlikely to be able to fulfill. Take, for example, Shazia. She is 6 years old when she goes to school for the first time. Her dad is a daily wage labourer, her mom is a sweeper and she has 5 siblings. She is the second oldest. The school she attends is in an urban slum, close to where she lives. It is run by a wealthy, passionate philanthropist who wants to educate young girls from low socioeconomic backgrounds. He exposes Shazia and her classmates to the the world outside the slum. He takes them on field trips, teaches them about the Internet, and shows them the opportunities that would open up to them if they went to university.

In grade 5, Shazia is pulled out of school. Her parents worry that she wont get marriage proposals because she will be ‘too educated’ if she continues. Shazia’s best friend is also forced to drop out because her parents need extra income and she is sent to work as a live-in nanny outside the slum. Yet a third classmate also stopped attending school because her dad doesn’t want her to be unaccompanied by a male family member while in public. A few months later, Shazia is promised to her first cousin and the wedding date is set for two years later. Her friends have similar fates and will marry into families where their in-laws’ demands will be in the order of grandchildren and they will have to comply. The hopes and dreams they learned to have in the few blissful years of schooling they were fortunate enough to have wont ever be realized. They will suffer for knowing and not being able to do. Shazia’s older sister, Nazia, who never went to school, is more content with her life that follows the same path.

Example 3: risking HIV/syphilis test result exposure

On March 17th, 2017 a screening camp targeting female sex workers in Lahore, Pakistan was held. The camp was advertised to all women in order to provide a cover for those who did not want to be identified by their profession. It was organized by volunteers from a medical university, a teaching hospital, an NGO and with the support of the Local Authority. The participating lab company agreed to conduct blood tests free of cost.

By the time 50 patients had attended the camp, it came to the attention of the organizers that a representative from the lab company had been incentivized to provide test results to a Local Authority employee upon his request. As a result, the HIV and syphilis tests were cancelled in order to protect the camp attendees. Had the organizers not been made aware of this deal, the women’s reputations and businesses would have been risked.

This leads to a greater discussion about:

  1. The importance of a sex worker who is aware of having an STI disclosing the information to clients
  2. The extent of the responsibility a healthcare provider has to prevent the STI from spreading to clients

Part II: Empathy Activity

This exercise is designed to introduce the concept of empathy in a personal way and its intended audience is designers. It begins with a listening exercise where participants sit in a circle with music playing in the background. 2–3 organizers sit amongst the participant circle and read verbatim from a pre-written text. The text talks about what empathy is (a process of feeling and understanding) and what it is not (a data collecting activity). It shares quotes about empathy from notable scholars and thinkers, such as:

“Empathy is variously understood to involve an appreciation of being in an- other person’s position, an appreciation that is both accurate and attuned to the other’s current predicament and state of awareness, a sort of “feeling into” the other. … It tends to be respectful and kind.” (Schwartz, 2013)


“The more I am open to the realities in me and in the other person, the less do I find myself wishing to rush in to “fix things.”…“to set goals, to mold people, to manipulate and push them in the way that I would like them to go.”…”the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more changes seems to be stirred up.” (Rogers et al, 1989)


“Sympathy or empathic concern is the feeling of compassion or concern for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves, often described as “feeling sorry” for someone.” (Wikipedia: Empathy; Batson, 2009)

It discusses the evolution and science of experiencing empathy:

“What we’ve found in our ten years of experimenting is that an evolutionarily ancient molecule is responsible for a large number of prosocial behaviours, which we’d generally call moral or virtuous because they involve putting someone else’s needs in front of your own. Most social creatures tend to avoid or ostracize individuals who are not co-operators. Human oxytocin-mediated empathy involves, besides oxytocin, both serotonin and dopamine, which reinforce moral behaviours. This leads people to perform moral actions even when they don’t have to.” (New Scientist, 2012)


[Scientists have]“…shown that even being touched by a stranger will induce oxytocin release.” (New Scientist, 2012)

And corresponding activities, such as:

Turn to the person next to you and touch their forearm or their shoulder briefly. OK that’s good. That little touch released prosocial molecules in your brain that reinforce moral behaviour!

It discusses the 6 Habits of Empathetic People from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley (Krznaric, 2012), which are:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
  3. Try another person’s life
  4. Listen hard, and open up
  5. Inspire mass action and social change
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination

The next part of this exercise is based on the fourth habit: listening hard and opening up. Participants are told to pair up and find a corner to sit in within the room. One participant is the storyteller and the other is the storyhearer. The storyteller picks an important and emotional event in her life and shares it with the storyhearer for 7 minutes. The storyhearer must not interject or ask questions, but listen carefully and at the end, tell the story back to the storyteller as he heard it, conveying the feelings he understood the storyteller to have as well. Participants rejoin the larger circle at the end of the activity and share the experience of listening or sharing with the group, their partners’ permission permitting.

Eindhoven, Netherlands, October 23rd, 2017

In Eindhoven was the first time I conducted this DoL. Most participants were from Europe and were attendees of the Dutch Design Week. We spent approximately 2 hours on the examples part with rich discussions as we went along. Unfortunately we ran out of time to conduct the empathy exercise.

One of the participants was a history buff and quoted several examples from European and British history of how governments have caused unintentional harm. When we discussed teaching girls to dream even though they might not ever be able to realize them, some participants were of the opinion that it is better to plant the seed even if it takes more than a generation to grow than to never have planted it at all. It is the duty of the teacher, one participant said, to be an enabler to the best of his ability with a commitment that is relentless and passionate.

Lahore, Pakistan, December 19th, 2017

The DOL in Lahore was conducted as an open session at the 9th IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD 2017). Most participants were academics, students or development practitioners from at least 3 continents (South/East Asia, North America, and Africa).

One of the participants commented on how she felt the examples in the presentation were incomplete because they don’t provide solutions. She was worried that perhaps the stories might suggest inaction.

During the second part of the session, we sat in a circle for the empathy activity. The feedback in the end was positive from those who shared their experiences in person. One participant felt that the content of the exercise would be useful for a class he teaches to non-social sciences oriented students. A number of the participants were glad they had the opportunity to get to know someone from a different country more personally than they would have otherwise.

Some of the negative feedback referred to an incident that happened during the activity. Two people from different countries/cultures and of different genders were paired during the active listening activity and one was made uncomfortable by the other due to a lack of understanding of social boundaries.

This activity is usually conducted by organizers of the International Development Design Summit with a select group of participants. Summits last from 2–4 weeks long and participants and organizers share living and working space together for the entire time. Organizers are clear about establishing a safe space for everyone to share their opinions, be heard, treated equally, and so forth. The activity is usually conducted after week 1 of a summit by which time everyone has gotten a chance to understand ground rules, develop mutual respect, and know one another. These elements were missing from the DOL in Lahore where participants had been in each other’s sole company for less than 2 hours prior to the exercise.


A journey from knowledge to wisdom — turning lessons into action

Sacha Ahmad

Written by


A journey from knowledge to wisdom — turning lessons into action

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade