Psycho-social Recovery & Peacebuilding Processes

Last Updated: March 5, 2009

The transformations of the foundations of conflict and post-conflict societies

Framing part of peacebuilding processes in terms of psycho-social recovery broadens the conventional perspectives by looking at the wider network of relationships, structures and belief systems that support peace; what is sometimes referred to as the promotion of "a culture of peace."1

Psycho-social recovery encompasses a wide range of emotionally, socially and culturally destructive as well as transformative events that have affected the very social fabric of a society emerging from war. Indeed, violent conflict tends to radically transform the very foundations of a society. War itself may change the perception of violence, in particular what is perceived as legitimate uses of violence. It may also transform the belief systems, the relationships, and the structures governing a society.2 The transformation of attitudes and behavior is among the most difficult challenges in a post-conflict setting. "Protracted conflict and violence leave behind not only physical destruction and institutional disarray, but also a torn social fabric characterized by mistrust, apprehension and enormous difficulties to even imaging the possibility of working together towards common goals. Sometimes, the most scarce resource in a fractured society is not funding or institutional capacities: it is the sheer will to stay together."3 Those challenges are also intimately related to the transformation of individual and group identities and the role memories play in those processes. Go to Peacebuilding as stabilization or transformation

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The intangible dimensions of peacebuilding

Psycho-social dimensions are not easy to grasp as they constitute intangible ('invisible', qualitative) dimensions of peacebuilding. However, they also represent social, cultural, spiritual and emotional resources that can support a rebuilding process and include such phenomena as reconciliation between former antagonists, trust in public institutions, new norms of dispute resolution, etc. By comparison, the tangible dimensions of peacebuilding consist of such things as the number of weapons destroyed, soldiers demobilized, jobs created, or the rehabilitation of infrastructures (e.g. clinics, schools and roads). Most international peacebuilding initiatives have focused primarily on visible, tangible, and quantifiable outputs rather than on qualitative processes of change, which, admittedly, are much more difficult to induce and assess.  Go to Peacebuilding: Tangible and Intangible dimensions

However, these intangible elements have been increasingly integrated in the peacebuilding agenda, indicating a better understanding and acknowledgement of statesociety relationships and of the bases on which a society can be actually rebuilt and further conflicts peacefully transformed.4 Analyses (including by international organizations)5 now emphasize the importance of the content beyond the mere forms of institutions. This is sometimes referred to as the 'software' side of peacebuilding: social and cultural elements that underpin state institutions and that ensure that they function. Notions such as civic trust and legitimacy of the state, for instance, are driven by state-society relations, and now widely considered as central to the functioning of a state and sustainability of peace. Requiring a number of political processes such as participation, civil society, and accountability that are part of the democratic and governance agenda of peacebuilding, they also include more intangible components related to collective values, beliefs, perceptions and expectations attached to the state and what it represents. The same applies to the perceptions of justice and the rule of law, security or economic reintegration. In other words, tangible and intangible dimensions of peacebuilding need to be understood in their constant interaction.6

Many of these intangible dimensions of peacebuilding are analyzed in the four other thematic sections of the Peacebuilding Initiative portal. They are increasingly taken into consideration by analyses and practices. However, they require additional attention paid to the processes and programs which more specifically support individuals and communities in their effort to transform their values, belief systems, behaviors and relationships so that they can support lasting peace. Those have to do with reconciliation processes, memory and history work, religion, trauma healing and psycho-social well-being, and the empowerment of individuals and groups that are underrepresented in the society and run the risk of being excluded and disadvantaged. They also require the inclusion of dimensions and expertise that have been largely disconnected from the field of peacebuilding until recently, such as the fields of trauma studies, religion studies and historiography.

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The capacities for resilience of communities and societies

Those who have advocated for such a broader approach of individuals and communities' needs in the peacebuilding context have also stressed the importance of directing attention back to the persons' and communities' strengths and resources, including "sources of resilience and coping, traditional beliefs that color interpretations of one's war experiences, and local resources for healing and providing assistance."7 This is also an important dimension of the psycho-social recovery section.In the literature, these dimensions are also sometimes referred to as collective 'self-healing processes,' which help cope with the aftermath of conflict, and support its transformation. It stands from the perspectives that "whatever is done, on the ground, locally, on the streets and in the apartment blocks and villages that recently ran with blood and sang with bullets, some form of regularized social interaction will begin to emerge, whether imposed or not. This is community not as a utopian or communitarian goal, but community in reality; social groups engaging in some sort of social life."8

1. See for instance the UN Security Council Presidential Statement on Peacebuilding S/PRST/2001/5, February 20, 2001.
2. Batrice Pouligny et al., eds After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities, (Tokyo / New York: United Nations University Press, 2007), 1-16, 273-4.
3. Bernardo Arvalo de Len, Joint Program Unit for UN/Interpeace Initiatives, UNOPS, Peacebuilding Community of Practice, Post-Conflict Capacity Development Through Attitudinal and Behavioural Change, September 15, 2008.
4. Ibid.
5. See for instance the work developed by OCED/DAC Fragile States Group, a forum that brings together experts on governance, conflict prevention and reconstruction from bilateral and multilateral development co-operation agencies to facilitate co-ordination and share good practice to enhance development effectiveness in 'fragile states.'
6. See Batrice Pouligny et al., eds, After Mass Crime: Rebuilding States and Communities (Tokyo / New York: United Nations University Press, 2007) and Barry Hart (Ed) Peacebuilding in Traumatized Societies (Lanham: University Press of America, 2008).
7. Joan Duncan and Laura Arntson. Children in Crisis: Good Practices in Evaluating Psychosocial Programming. (Westport, CT: Save the Children, 2004), 14.
8. Roberta Culbertson and Batrice Pouligny, "Re-imagining peace after mass crime: A dialogical exchange between insider and outsider knowledge", in Pouligny et al., eds. After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities,Tokyo / New York: United Nations University Press, 2007, 280.

The news, reports, and analyses herein are selected due to there relevance to issues of peacebuilding, or their significance to policymakers and practitioners. The content prepared by HPCR International is meant to summarize main points of the current debates and does not necessarily reflect the views of HPCR International or the Program of Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. In addition, HPCR International and contributing partners are not responsible for the content of external publications and internet sites linked to this portal.