Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics in Global Health

Global health is dedicated to alleviating and preventing human suffering. It is deeply rooted in the values of social justice, solidarity, compassion, and respect for all persons. In the words of the World Health Organization, global health seeks “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” The Task Force for Global Health has established a Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) to ensure that our programs, practice, and research reflect our core values and to help us engage with crucial ethical issues facing global health today.

We are guided by the following principles:

  1. Unless our core values are understood, explored, and brought to bear in our day-to-day decisions and actions, they lack the power to guide and inspire us.
  2. Global health is complex. Advances in global health require collaboration, integrity, leadership, and humility. We must recognize our own cultural biases and ethical blind spots when facing decisions in situations of moral ambiguity.
  3. Our values are the source of our strength and purpose, but they also can create tension in our lives. Global health offers tremendous opportunities for positive impact. But in our efforts to alleviate suffering on a global scale, we sometimes neglect ourselves and our loved ones. Attending to our own self-awareness and resilience is good not only for ourselves, but also for the field of global health as a whole.

Our Work

The Task Force for Global Health has extensive experience in convening partners and engaging in collaborations to achieve results, particularly in the field of neglected tropical diseases. FACE works in three major areas:

Practice and service

Ethical dilemmas arise, and are resolved, in practice. FACE will serve as a resource to the global health community through:

  • Convening stakeholders to address complex ethical issues, overcome barriers to ethical action, and develop recommendations for ethical policy.
  • Providing consultation to global health organizations on ethical issues as they arise.
  • Identifying emerging issues for ethics education and training.

Scholarship and research

In collaboration with partners, we participate in research on ethics and compassion in global health. Current research topics include equity and mass drug administration; prevention of choking during mass deworming; an ethical framework for leprosy elimination; wellbeing, stress, and burnout among humanitarian and global health workers; and moral distress and resilience in community drug distributors.

Teaching and curriculum development

FACE works with partners to provide ethics training and educational opportunities to a broad range of global health-related audiences. We pay particular attention to the skills and qualities needed for effective global health leadership, including compassion and moral resilience. We also address issues such as divided loyalties and moral distress in global health.

Why Compassion?

Why include compassion in a program on global health ethics? What does compassion have to do with social justice?

Many medical centers and hospitals promise compassionate care in their promotional materials. We hear the word “compassion” much less frequently in global health circles. For some, compassion conveys a sense of pity or superiority, which violates the core value of solidarity. For others, compassion may seem unscientific or too emotional, an inadequate basis for ethical decision-making. Yet philosophers through the ages have argued that compassion lies at the very foundation of ethics.

Global health engages large networks of people and organizations across political and geographic boundaries. In the words of Dr. Bill Foege, founder of the Task Force for Global Health, it becomes difficult to “see the faces.” Instead, we see numbers. At the global level, we necessarily use the language of equity, justice, policy, rights, and evidence. We are less comfortable with the language of compassion, relationship, solidarity, and values. It becomes easy to feel disconnected from the priorities and voices of the people with whom we work.

Yet, compassion – the desire to relieve suffering – is a fundamental motivation for many who are drawn to the field of global health, whether they work at the community level or in large international organizations. Indeed, compassion can fuel and sustain their pursuit of social justice and global health equity.

Compassion is also central to global health ethics. Abhay Bang, a pioneering physician and researcher, reminds us that, “global health decisions without compassion become bureaucratic, they become impersonal, they become insensitive. Global health operations without compassion may become autocratic.” It is therefore crucial that those of us who work in global health cultivate compassion, allow it to infuse our work, and understand how it influences ethical decision-making.

Want to learn more?


  • This 30-minute documentary describes a meeting of global health leaders at The Carter Center in 2010, sponsored by the Task Force for Global Health. It explores the importance of compassion in global health.


  • The World Health Organization Global Learning Laboratory hosted a webinar on compassion on 14 February, 2018. It is called “Compassion – the Heart of Quality People-Centred Health Services.”


  • Read more:
    • Addiss DG. Global elimination of lymphatic filariasis:  A “mass uprising of compassion.”  PloS Negl Trop Dis 2013; 7(8): e2264.
    • Addiss, DG.  Mindfulness, compassion, and the foundations of global health ethics.  In: Monteiro LM, Compson J, Musten RF (eds). Practitioner’s guide to ethics and mindfulness-based interventions. New York: Springer, 2017.
    • Brock G, Benatar S (eds). Global Health and Global Health Ethics, 1st Edition.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
    • Farmer P, Kleinman A, Kim J (eds). Reimagining global health. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.Pinto AD, Upshur REG (eds). An introduction to global health ethics. New York: Routledge, 2013.
    • Seppälä EM, Emiliana Simon-Thomas E, Brown SL, Worline MC, Cameron CD, and Doty JR (eds).  Oxford handbook of compassion science.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Contact us

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our work, please email us at



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