This article critically examines how the concept of empathy is mobilized in the rhetoric of development education, and explores different ways of conceptualizing empathy as a pedagogical ideal and an affective experience. Its premise is that the concept of empathy has been insufficiently probed within academia, even though paradigm shifts in development have made the concept central to development education. In reference to narratives of African poverty, the article critiques literature depicting empathy as simple or inevitable within development education. It seeks to open up new possibilities for conceptualizing a form of empathy that prioritizes nuance and self-reflexivity. The article intends to contribute to development education by advocating more respectful, dialogical and self-aware cross-cultural engagement.