Psycho-social Recovery Sub-topics

Last Updated: March 5, 2009

The Psycho-social Recovery thematic area consists of the following subtopics:

This section offers a concise elaboration upon what is meant by these five points, and why they have been identified as central to any discussion on psycho-social recovery in peacebuilding contexts.


Reconciliation is the process of addressing conflicting and fractured relationships and restoring or building constructive ones.1 This process is also part of the transformation of beliefs and narratives at both personal and collective levels so that they can support constructive relationships and sustainable peacebuilding.2 Therefore, reconciliation involves an ongoing process of transformation from negative to positive relations, behavior, attitudes and structures.3 Among other elements, it involves (re)building and strengthening trust, in particular civic trust, and support the restoration of a political community and civil society.

This transformation process is at the heart of all aspects of the peacebuilding agenda as social, political, economic and cultural rules are being transformed and new forms of relationships and social identifies are being produced.4 Reconciliation is broadly considered by policymakers, practitioners, and academics alike as a process centrally needed in societies emerging from violent conflicts. Because reconciliation is part of a long process, one should not necessarily expect it to be the end point of a conflict. But all analyses concur that no intractable conflict can really end without some kind of reconciliation process if the parties to the conflict are going to interact again in the future.

Based on an understanding of peacebuilding as 'conflict transformation,' many scholars and practitioners would argue that reconciliation cannot be considered a distinct program but rather as a process and a goal achieved through a large spectrum of activities addressing different dimensions of peacebuilding. The reconciliation subsection analyses those multiple connections but also presents the models, actors and activities specially crafted to support the reconciliation processes.

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Memorialization, historiography and history education

Collective memories built around war and violence play an important role in the process of rebuilding individual and collective identities as well as positive ties between the different segments of a society. "Particularly crucial in such a process are the public and private rituals and narratives that sustain collective and individual memories of the history, causes and course of mass crime, and allow the re-interpretation and re-assertion of the belief systems. This is a complex and ambiguous process in which the symbolic world and the imaginary play a decisive role in the transformation of the meanings of history and of belonging."5 Activities conducted around memorials, historiography and history education constitute an important part of that process and may promote either conflict or peace. They are based on dynamic social and psychological processes studied by a broad range of disciplines across time and cultures.

Memorialization and history work may have a variety of purposes. Peacebuilding is a highly politicized process in which conflicting visions of the past (including the recent history of war) and future shape discourses and practices in multiple ways. Working on these dimensions is crucial as they refer to key intangible aspects of peacebuilding related to issues of culture, dignity, human relationships and the formation of collective identities.6

Yet, little attention has been paid so far to the integration of these programs in the overall peacebuilding process; they are very low priorities. The question of schooling itself is generally approached by donors in relation to employment and economic development, not in relation to intangible dimensions on conflict transformation. As a consequence, teaching of history, social studies and the humanities in post-conflict societies has been considered a low priority; instead, more emphasis is placed on subjects seen to have practical value for competition in the global marketplace, such as foreign languages, math, science, technology, and vocational training.7 The Memorialization, Historiography and History Education subsection explains the centrality of memory and history work, as well as the way they are interrelated. It also describes how they contribute to account for a variety of narratives and complex truths; to assist survivors and support transitional justice efforts; to support reconciliation processes and the construction of a re-imagined political community; to pave the way for future generations and prevent future violence.

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In the post 9-11 world, religions and religious actors have been more commonly associated with extremism and conflict between religious communities, in particular in the popular mind. The many other dimensions and contributions of religion, in particular in relation to peacemaking and peacebuilding processes, are less known, or maybe misunderstood, if not entirely neglected. However, the mere fact that more than two-thirds of the world population is considered to belong to a religion shows the potential of religions and religious actors in international civil society. Religion and spirituality can also provide an important basis to intangible components of peacebuilding processes and, as such, are crucial dimensions of psycho-social recovery processes. The Religion subsection explores those different elements.

Religion can be used or mobilized to promote either conflict or peacebuilding. Religious actors themselves may appear in a very ambivalent position at the peacebuilding phase. While they may be part of the problem, because they have made alliances with or were manipulated by war entrepreneurs, they are also a local resource which must be taken into account. Religious actors and faith-based organizations are now present at every stage of the conflict transformation cycle: they work in peace education and conflict prevention, in mediation and conflict resolution, in interreligious dialogue, in building networks of local leaders for peace, in post-settlement social reconstruction and trauma work, and in the academies and courts where human rights, including religious freedom, are given theoretical depth and cross-cultural grounding.8 Their agendas are therefore diverse and range from high-level mediation to grassroots level projects. Peacebuilding projects of faith-based organizations may very closely resemble peacebuilding by secular non-governmental organizations (NGOs). However, in most instances the various religious orientations of these faith-based organizations shape the activities they undertake, including when they introduce peacebuilding components into more traditional relief and development activities. Local religious actors and faith-based NGOs are also seen as important members of local civil societies and their contribution may be valued as such.

Religious beliefs may also offer crucial intangible components of peacebuilding. Religion is a powerful constituent of cultural norms and values. Because it addresses the most profound existential issues of human life (e.g., freedom and inevitability, fear and faith, security and insecurity, right and wrong, sacred and profane) religion is deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions of peace.9Religious belief systems also have a particular identity-forming potential. Of course, religion constitutes only one of several identity elements, others being citizenship, ethnicity, language, social and economical status, gender, age, etc. Religious identities also interact with sociocultural and political settings, which may contribute to emphasizing some identity levels while downplaying others. Religion can also bring social, moral, and spiritual resources to the peacebuilding process. Last but not least, religious values often support rituals, healing and reintegration processes that play key roles in the broader psycho-social recovery of local communities.
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Trauma, mental health and psycho-social well-being

There is an identifiable need to confront trauma and support the healing process in post-conflict societies. Societies caught up in long-term violent conflict can also undergo serious changes as a result of long-term exposure to violence. New social patterns may emerge, such as widespread prostitution, rape, and domestic violence. Violence experienced by specific social and ethnic groups can reinforce a sense of group identity and victimization, and can encourage the emergence of markers of group identity, expressed through dress, language, and social practices. Almost all opinions of psychiatrists and psychologists coincide in emphasizing the intergenerational effects of trauma.10 If individuals cannot cope with their past trauma, there is a high chance that they will pass it on to the next generation. Collectively, "societies transformed in these ways by long-term conflict can become engaged in highly (self)-destructive political dynamics in which they become locked in unending conflict with their hated enemies. In such cases, reconciliation will not be achieved through the signing of a peace treaty alone but will also require adjustments at a more fundamental psychological level."11

Despite growing evidence of the individual and collective consequences of trauma, concrete actions to address these 'invisible wounds' are considered by many experts as still often inadequate, if not entirely missing, from paradigms of assistance and development employed by relief and development organizations in post-conflict transition. The field of trauma studies is growing, but it remains relatively new and its findings often do not enter the plans of national and international groups engaged in post-war recovery programs. The discussion also remains largely disconnected from the overall peacebuilding community. A growing number of non-governmental organizations have tried to develop interventions that take into consideration these dimensions through innovative approaches involving local cultural resources, for instance. But such interventions remain relatively marginal in peacebuilding practices.

Even among experts, many debates remain in terms of what is an appropriate mental health program in a post-war society. There is no agreement, for instance, on the post-traumatic stress disorder concept and no agreement on the appropriateness of vertical (separate) trauma-focused services. Experts disagree on the degree of medicalizing trauma, individual vs. collective approaches to it, or the appropriateness of cultural approaches. A range of social and mental health intervention strategies and principles seem, however, to have the broad support of expert opinion. This subsection explains the importance of linking these issues with other dimensions of peacebuilding.
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Empowerment of Underrepresented Groups

Some individuals and groups in society share common characteristics that make them more susceptible to 'falling through the cracks.' These groups run the risk of being excluded and disadvantaged by programs designed to address the majority, not to take into consideration the specific needs, positions, and interests of different populations. The individuals concerned are most likely to slip through the net of peacebuilding programs and become (or be reinforced) in their status of social outcasts who, for many of them, barely survive on the margins of society. Indeed, "socially vulnerable people are likely to be more affected by an armed conflict [...]. However, they are often left behind in post-conflict recovery and reconstruction and are unlikely to capture peace dividends. Unless support for these people who need special assistance is implemented immediately after a conflict, they will not be socially integrated into a post-conflict society. In this case, these vulnerable people could become a burden on economic and social development in a mid- to long-term perspective, and in turn, this could lead to fixed disparities in socioeconomic status." 12

Women have often been found in that position as, traditionally, many formal peacebuilding activities and policies were gender blind, overlooking the meaning and role of gender and gender relations in the peacebuilding process, as well as the specific needs, concerns and experiences of women in the aftermath of violent conflict. This concern has gradually led to the recognition that gender mainstreaming is crucial as a strategy to support both gender equality and peace. The notion of empowerment is central in that approach and emphasizes that women should be considered in their full capacity of key actors, and be able to formulate and express their views and participate in decision-making processes.

Other groups in post-conflict societies face similar challenges. Among them are children and youth who have been more easily perceived as agents or victims of violence, rather than being identified and acknowledged as having an active role as peacebuilders. As for women, the notion of youth empowerment and the call for their full participation in post-conflict recovery processes has now been endorsed by most actors. However, experience proves that it is not always easy to maintain the balance between the need for protection of individuals and groups particularly at risk in face of some forms of violence, on the one hand, and the imperatives of empowerment, on the other hand.

The same is true of persons with disabilities, the last group considered in that section. They too have both particular needs and capacities which are often forgotten in the design and implementation of peacebuilding programs. That these people do have capacity to contribute to, and participate in, recovery programs is the clear message and experience of those who push for their greater inclusion.

The link hereby established between the situation of women, children & youth, and persons with disabilities in peacebuilding processes does not imply a conflation in analysis. The specific situation of each group is actually addressed in three distinct subsections: women and gender issues; children and youth; persons with disabilities. However, it is not by pure chance that their situation is often compared in the peacebuilding literature and that they are often referred to as both the most affected by war violence and the most forgotten and at times invisible in peacebuilding processes.

The literature on these groups insists that mainstreaming in peacebuilding initiatives is not about adding on components to existing activities; it cannot be only considered as an afterthought, nor limited in scope, although this often continues be the case in many situations. Both scholars and practitioners advocate for situating these dimensions at the centre of policy decisions, programming, institutional structures and processes, so that all components of a post-conflict society can influence, participate in and benefit from peacebuilding processes. It can require changes in organizations, structures, procedures, but also cultures, relationships, values, attitudes, to create organizational environments which are inclusive and conducive to the promotion of more equality and, ultimately, more favorable to peace. In other words, it refers to the core of what is sometimes referred to as the software of peacebuilding.
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1. Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly, "A Working Definition of Reconciliation." Democratic Dialogue (Belfast, 2004), 3-4; Andrew Rigby, Reflections on Reconciliation. Committee on Conflict Transformation Support, Review 29; Branka Peuraca, Can Faith-Based NGOs Advance Faith-Based Reconciliation? The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute for Peace March 2003); Gleichmann, Colin et al. Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration A Practical Field and Classroom Guide. (Germany, Druckerei Hassmller Graphische Betriebe GmbH & Co. KG, 2004), 86-87.
2. Susan Dwyer, "Reconciliation for Realists," Ethics and International Affairs 13 (1999): 96.
3. John Paul Lederach, "Conflict Transformation in Protracted Internal Conflicts: The Case for a Comprehensive Framework," in Conflict Transformation, ed. Kumar Rupesinghe (New York: St. Martins Press/ Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995): 201-222. John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, Good Books, 2005.
4. Batrice Pouligny. "Building Peace in Situations of Post-Mass Crimes." International Peacekeeping 9, no 2 (2002): 201-20.
5. After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, ed. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman, and Albrecht Schnabel (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University Press, 2007), 12.
6. Naidu, Ereshnee. The Ties that Bind: Strengthening the links between memorialisation and transitional justice (Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Transitional Justice Programme Research Brief, August 2006), 2.
7. Elizabeth A. Cole and Judy Barsalou, Unite or Divide? The Challenges of Teaching History in Societies Emerging from Violent Conflict, (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, June 2006), 7.
8. R. Scott Appleby, "Disciples of the Prince of Peace? Christian Resources for Nonviolent Peacebuilding," In Beyond Violence: Religious Sources of Social Transformation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, ed. James L. Heft, S.M. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 137.
9. Abdul Aziz Said and Nathan C. Funk, "The Role of Faith in Cross-Cultural Conflict Resolution," Presented at the European Parliament for the European Centre for Common Ground, September 2001. Marc Gopin. Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence, and Peacemaking.( New York: Oxford University Press 2000), 13.
10. Danieli, Yael, ed. International Handbook of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma. (New York: Springer, 1998); Brahm, Eric. "Trauma Healing." In Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base, January 2004; D. Summerfield. The psychological legacy of war and atrocity: the question of longterm and transgenerational effects and the need for a broad view. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 184 (1996): 375-377; Lykes, M. Brinton and Marcie Mersky, "Reparations and Mental Health." (In Pablo De Grieff, ed, 589-622 The Handbook of Reparations, New York: 2006).
11. Barsalou, Judy. Trauma and Transitional Justice in Divided Societies, (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, April 2005), 9.
12. Source: JICA. "JICA Thematic Guidelines on Peacebuilding Assistance." 2003.

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