Introduction: Key Debates

Five general debates are summarized here; they are addressed in greater detail and with some variation in each subsection of the psycho-social recovery thematic area:

  • The underestimation of ongoing change in the societies concerned;
  • Micro vs. macro perspectives;
  • The respect for local resources and the need to empower local actors;
  • The role of the state and political actors;
  • A knowledge gap.

Underestimating pre-existing challenges

Discourses often refer to the idea of 'restoring' or 'returning to' something associated with the status quo before the war. However, in many situations, war and violence have been going on for several decades and influence local cultural systems. Changes brought by war may become structural, and additional transformations may be brought by peacebuilding programs. Those changes maybe uneven and put some individuals and groups in the society (such as women and youth for instance) at greater disadvantage than in the past, or, on the contrary expand their role, depending on which area of their life is concerned. These non linear evolutions need to be fully taken into consideration when working on empowerment programs.

Reconciliation, history and memory work are dynamic processes by nature. The narratives produced may not always be congruent. The dynamism and diversity of these processes are both their strength and one of their key challenges. They may be at the origin of a number of contradictions inherent to systems of meanings that are heterogeneous by definition. They may contradict visions which, in the name of 'reconciliation,' would like to promote some forms of consensual visions of the past and the future, a forced 'order' or illusion of 'harmony.'1 Practices have shown that such perspective can actually be counterproductive when working on reconciliation programs, history and memory work or trauma healing.

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Micro vs. macro perspectives

The psycho-social frame of analysis helps re-articulate the relationship between what happens at the level of individuals and communities, and what happens at the level of social and political processes. Most scholars and practitioners assert that psycho-social healing needs to be addressed at the national, community and individual levels.2 Yet, in the academic literature, "most research focuses on one perspective or the other, in part because they are studied by different disciplines that do not conceptualize and focus their investigations in the same way."3 In practice, there is still much debate around focusing healing trauma on communities and/or on individuals, as well as on whether the needs for recovery for individuals and communities are the same. The same difficulties apply to reconciliation or history and memory work for instance.

The integration of individual and community perspectives is often debated as at times it is difficult to keep identical attention to the needs of each individual and take into consideration the diversity of their experiences. Indeed, there might be a tendency to aggregate each groups experiences (as women, children, youth, disabled persons, refugees, former combatants, etc.), forgetting the diversity of positions and circumstances individuals face. The same applies to communities.

Community-based approaches are thought to be the most successful to address trauma, memory and identity issues, as well as the situations of most vulnerable and underrepresented groups. Yet, most scholars and practitioners stress the importance of keeping equal attention to the situation of the individuals that compose them.

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The respect for local resources and the need to empower local actors

Contextualizing interventions

It is essential for those working in post-conflict societies to fully grasp the nature of the conflict, including the roles of victims, perpetrators, and by-standers.4 Indeed, without contextual insight, it is difficult to mobilize resources and help people cope with their life and build a future. Particularly in trauma healing work, the effectiveness of interventions is thought to be conditioned by the study of the cultural variables and the context in which behavior occurs both on the collective and individual level. This also requires an understanding of the long-term historical context in which the more recent violence occurred. That dimension is particularly important given the intergenerational aspects of trauma and explains that many programs work in close relation with schools and programs aiming at dealing with collective memories of violence. Similar historical understanding is crucial for reconciliation and religion work.

The importance of cultural sensitivity

Most practitioners also emphasize the importance of designing programs and interventions that are culturally appropriate and sensitive, taking into consideration communities frames of reference and strategies. In trauma and mental health programs, a key and related debate is the degree of adequacy of Western psychiatric categories such as 'trauma' or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in non-Western countries. Similar debates refer to the values attached to reconciliation models. Many practitioners and scholars alike stress the need to widen the concepts used in the different programs and adjust them to the local cultural dynamics of the people both for the understanding of the cultural meanings of the different dimensions of peacebuilding and in defining strategies that can actually support recovery processes. The respect for local resources and belief systems also requires that their diversity be understood and acknowledged; this is particularly important in relation to religions and religious actors.

The literature now largely emphasizes the need to address those cultural dimensions, and the necessity to take on a 'do no harm' (DNH) approach,5 i.e. to be cognizant of the unintended consequences some aid programs may have, especially with respect to the situation of vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

The identification of local resources

One key issue across programs has to do with who decides what the local 'cultural resources' and norms are and presents them to outsiders. This relates not only to an understanding of power dynamics within these societies, but also the strengths and liabilities inherent. Local norms and customs may be, but are not necessarily, supportive of peacebuilding and human rights. It is useful for external actors to be particularly aware of this source of tension and put in place informed identification processes and mechanisms that allow for discussion at the community level. Indeed, without breaking down the structures present during conflict, as well as the support of outside perspectives, "local communities may remain trapped in the power of war-based structures of thought, with little to move them to another perspective."6

The empowerment of local actors

Many critics of prevalent approaches of peacebuilding (in particular in mental health and trauma healing) denounce the emphasis on individual 'victims' as opposed to identification of individuals as 'survivors,' historical 'actors' in a struggle, members of families and communities.7 Empowerment approaches are seen as valuable in themselves and beneficial for the individuals and groups concerned and also perceived as the surest way to contribute to the overall peace and development.8 Empowerment is generally defined as a bottom-up and participatory process that engages the actors concerned in reflection, inquiry, and action.

It is also widely agreed that community ownership is essential for effective and sustainable psycho-social processes. However, a differentiation between involvement and actual ownership must be made. Moreover, whereas local actors play a decisive role in psycho-social processes, they need support to develop their capacity and expertise. They may lack access to funding and need support to develop relationships and exchanges with counterparts in other countries who have addressed similar issues, and share best practices and strategies. In the five areas covered by the psycho-social recovery thematic area, efforts still need to be made to develop international networks and innovative modalities of cooperation that further support community ownership of psychosocial recovery processes.

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The role of the state and political actors

Political and state actors' involvement is crucial to most programs, and perhaps even more particularly to reconciliation as well as history and memory initiatives. They lend legitimacy and support to the processes. But, there is always a fine line between involvement and manipulation. Uncoordinated and unmonitored memorialization or reconciliation efforts can also serve only the needs of specific groups, undermining the impact of the programs. The commitment of the political elites and of the state is also central in the reform of history education, for instance. Yet, in all those cases, this mere involvement may also be the main source of manipulation and distortion.

The interactions between local political entrepreneurs and religious actors are equally ambiguous. In all cases, it is important for peacebuilders to take into consideration the politics and grassroots power of religion even when conflicts are not centered on religious animosities, and even when the religious establishment is weak. It is also important to not romanticize the role of religious actors and to not forget their multiple and often ambiguous relationships to the political sphere.

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A knowledge gap

All fields referred to in this psychosocial section are relatively recent. Some of them are still in their infancy, such as the field of history and history education.9 All of them have remained separated from the field of peacebuilding until a very recent date. In all cases, scholars and practitioners stress the need for much more detailed empirical knowledge about the processes concerned and in relation with other peacebuilding efforts (in particular with regards to justice, democracy and security). The fact that, generally speaking, they are not considered as a priority by the international community does not help either to measure the full capacity of these programs to contribute to specific peacebuilding processes. The lack of methodological rigor and comprehensive evaluation mechanisms is also considered as problematic.

1. Batrice Pouligny. "Building Peace in Situations of Post-Mass Crimes." International Peacekeeping. 9 no 2 (2002), 214-215.
2. Van Der Merwe, Hugo, and Tracy Vienings, "Coping with Trauma," (In Luc Reychler and Thania Paffenholz, eds, 343-351Peacebuilding: A Field Guide,. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc., 2001), 343.
3. Beatrice Pouligny, Simon Chesterman, and Albrecht Schnabel eds, After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities, (Tokyo, New York and Paris: United Nations University Press, 2007), 4.
4. Lykes, M. Brinton and Marcie Mersky, "Reparations and Mental Health," In by Pablo De Grieff, ed, 589-622, The Handbook of Reparations, New York: 2006; Staub, Ervin. Reconciliation after Genocide, Mass Killing, or Intractable Conflict: Understanding the Roots of Violence, Psychosocial Recovery, and Steps toward a General Theory. Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 6, 2006.
5. Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support PeaceOr War (Boulder, Colo: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1999), 38.
6. Culbertson and Pouligny, "Re-imagining Peace After Mass Crime," 28184.
7. Lykes, M. Brinton and Marcie Mersky, "Reparations and Mental Health." In Pablo De Grieff, ed, 589-622, The Handbook of Reparations, New York, 2006) and Batrice Pouligny, Simon Chersterman, Albrecht Schnabel, eds., After Mass Crimes: Rebuilding States and Communities. (Tokyo/New York: United Nations University Press, 2007), 3.
8. UNDP. "Human Development Report 1995." (New York: United Nations, 1995), 12.
9. Elizabeth A. Cole, "Transitional Justice and the Reform of History Education." International Journal of Transitional Justice 1, no. 1 (2007), 137.

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