Volume 34, No. 6 June 2003

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Principles for peace practitioners

  Social responsibility during conflict and war

Peace psychologists re-examine ethics and best practices in the world's conflict zones.

Monitor staff
Print version: page 30

The International Peace Practitioners Network (IPPN) is updating its ethical guidelines for psychologists and other mental health practitioners who offer psychosocial support in regions of violence and ethnopolitical conflict.

The decision to revamp the principles came after the session "Promoting ethical guidelines for international peace practice" during the 20th anniversary conference of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), March 28-30, in Washington, D.C.

"One of the reasons we have, as a group, felt that there's a need for [these guidelines] is that Americans and other internationals who travel doing this work are often looked up to and given more power because of who they are," says Joanie V. Connors, PhD, IPPN coordinator and assistant professor of educational research and policy studies at the University of Arkansas. "We wanted to raise awareness and try to create a standard that is more ethical, that uses those power dynamics for good."

IPPN, a joint project of PsySR and APA's Div. 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence), was founded in 1996 to promote holistic, culturally appropriate applications of psychology for building peace. The group--which plans to change the format of its guidelines from an agreement that members sign to a set of implicit principles--wants widespread input on the updated set (see sidebar).

"As the awareness of ethics deepens, we want to make sure that our guidelines are addressing current needs and situations adequately," Connors says. "We would love to get feedback from psychologists and psychology students about the IPPN's ethical guidelines."

Building trust and respect

In another PsySR conference session, "The negative effects of humanitarian interventions and difficulties of post-war reconstruction," peace psychologists Michael Wessells, PhD, Deanna Beech, PhD, and Julie Levitt, PhD, discussed improving ways to deliver psychosocial aid--based on research and field experiences--in areas of conflict such as post-war Iraq.

They asserted that two ingredients are needed for psychosocial interventions to work: a community's trust and respect for the local people.

To illustrate this, Wessells shared a recent experience he had in Afghanistan:

The U.S. military wanted to help build schools in northern Afghanistan, so it went into communities to find local contractors to help build them, says the Randolph-Macon College psychology professor who advises the United Nations nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and U.S. government agencies on rebuilding communities affected by armed conflict. The local contractors, who saw a money-making opportunity, doubled their usual prices. To make matters worse, they built the schools with inferior materials and for twice the cost of what an NGO or the United Nations could have built them.

The military's mistake? Not getting input from local leaders, parents and students before starting the project, says Wessells. The lesson? "I'd follow the cultural norms and practices that people themselves have developed," Wessells says. "Don't act as if people in the community are passive victims. Communities are reservoirs of resources, and there is resilience in each one."

The U.S. military's alleged failure to consult with local Afghani communities before beginning its project reinforces his concerns about the military delivering humanitarian aid.

"When soldiers get involved in humanitarian aid, local people often perceive the aid as part of a military occupation," he says. "This is a huge issue in Iraq, where there are very strong anti-U.S. sentiments and fears of foreign domination."

Clinicians should resist "pathologizing" the experiences of war and trauma survivors, adds Beech, a clinical psychologist from Lothian, Md.

Sometimes psychologists go into war-torn areas with the notion that most people will have post-traumatic stress disorder or severe trauma, but "most studies show that the majority of the population is fine," Beech says. "Most of those who'll need more intensive work were clearly vulnerable or had mental disorders before the war."

Beech reported her first-hand experience of the effects of such approaches on Montenegrin girls who'd been raped during the war in Kosovo. The need for keen sensitivity to cultural context only increases in instances of rape, note humanitarian aid experts. "It is critical that we pay attention to how the power dynamics between the genders get played out in a given country, says Nina Thomas, PhD, a Manhattan psychologist who has trained Bosnian mental health professionals in trauma relief. "Rape is an inflammatory issue, and we sometimes forget that the sensitivity we'd use with rape victims in our own country needs to be doubled in other countries."

Thomas notes, for example, that in Sierra Leone most people don't talk about rape because of beliefs that rape of women is a physical impossibility--it is widely believed that women always consent.

Ultimately, Thomas says, the focus should be on "really supporting strengths and resources in the community. This is paramount in any intervention that we as Western psychologists bring because we get to leave. They don't."

Levitt, a clinical psychologist in suburban Philadelphia and an expert on trauma and resilience who has studied and worked with first-, second- and third-generation holocaust survivors, agrees: If practitioners see the community's suffering as a natural reaction to having "gone through something from which any group might suffer, we have a different way to work. The experience also may have different meanings to different individuals and groups--some seeing it as part of a political process that increases their power, others [seeing it] as a devastatingly negative experience."

"We realize that people rarely come to this work with the intention of harming others," says Beech, who with Levitt is organizing several PsySR conferences for international mental health practitioners aimed at gathering information for a document of best practices for delivering psychosocial aid. "They come in with what they know and what they believe to be effective." And when they know better--hopefully with the help of improved guidelines--Beech believes they'll do better.

Psychologists interested in earning a certificate in psychosocial peace-building can tap a yearlong program at the School for International Peacebuilding in Brattleboro, Vt. For more information, e-mail Olivia Stokes Dreier at olivia@karunacenter.org or visit www.sit.edu/contact/certificate.

For more information on PsySR, visit www.psysr.org.

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