Humanitarian Aid Work

Humanitarian Aid Work offers a constructive approach to the problems of groups affected by violence, catastrophe, or emergency situations.

Humanitarian Aid Work
A Critical Approach

Carlos Martín Beristain. Foreword by M. Brinton Lykes

2006 | 216 pages | Cloth $59.95 | Paper $24.95
Psychology | Public Policy
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Premises of Humanitarian Aid

Chapter 1. The Social Impact of Disasters and Political Violence
Chapter 2. From Emergency to Reconstruction: Stages of Collective Disasters
Chapter 3. Emotion and Behavior in Emergency Situations
Chapter 4. From Victims to Survivors
Chapter 5. The Strength of the People
Chapter 6. The Experience of Humanitarian Aid Workers and NGOs
Chapter 7. Crosscultural Interactions
Chapter 8. Reconstructing the Social Fabric: Psychosocial Care


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

M. Brinton Lykes

Globalization has brought those from the Northern Hemisphere's economically more advantaged communities into ever more immediate contact with extreme poverty, natural disasters, pandemics, wars and catastrophes. Recent catastrophes, most notably the multiple earthquakes and hurricanes that have devastated communities around the world in the first decade of this new millennium, evidence the vulnerabilities of all the world's people as well as the catastrophic consequences of political decision-making that fails to protect those most vulnerable to the effects of humanitarian disasters.

One policy-level response to these structural disparities and their consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable members of disaster affected populations has been a series of international treaties, conventions and agreements. For example, the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals—which range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015 -were agreed to by all the world's countries and its leading development institutions in one effort to redress these dramatic social inequities. Yet, despite these ideals, two thirds of the world's population today live in extreme poverty and experience the threats and the realities of violence and catastrophe as daily routine. UNICEF's 2005 State of the World's Children reports that one of every two children in the world suffers some form of severe deprivation with most living in poverty. Fifteen million children under the age of 18 had been orphaned by HIV/AIDS by 2003. Moreover, international monitors have identified thirty-two armed conflicts in 26 different states in 2004. Recent comparative research links poverty and war, confirming that the more undernourished the population of a region of the world is, the more likely there is to be a war. For example, during the past decade 61% of states with more than 35% of the population malnourished also experienced armed conflict whereas only 15% of those states with 4% or less of the population living in extreme poverty had an armed conflict within their borders.

Individuals are increasingly challenged to respond to these global inequalities. Medical personnel have longstanding experiences accompanying soldiers into war and responding to humanitarian crises. In recent years growing numbers of psychologists, social workers, and other human service workers have joined their ranks in contexts as disparate as the aftermaths of the genocide in Rwanda, Hurricane Katrina in the United States, and the earthquake in Kashmir. As they enter these emergency situations these workers frequently confront not only immediate disasters but the longstanding structural and institutional inequities described above as well as patriarchal power structures, bureaucratic inefficiencies sometimes marked by corruption, and more needs than could possibly be addressed by the resources at hand. In the best of cases, internationalists and local professionals, paraprofessionals, and indigenous leaders and healers work collaboratively to render care to the most marginalized and least powerful in situations that are frequently chaotic and often perilous. In less ideal circumstances they compete for resources, undermine each others confidence, and risk doing more harm than good.

Carlos Martín Beristain has devoted his life to working in these situations—contexts that the Salvadoran Jesuit and social psychologist, Ignacio Martín-Baró called "limit situations." Trained as a medical doctor, he journeyed to El Salvador and Guatemala early in his professional life and responded to the voices of victims triply oppressed by extreme poverty, an ongoing civil war, and patriarchal cultural and political systems and structures of marginalization.

Drawing on over a decade of field experiences in Latin America as well as a burgeoning literature about the psychological and social effects of war and disasters, Beristain developed this volume at the interface of theory and practice as one response to these complex social and political realities. Written in a language accessible to the wide range of helping professionals and volunteers who work in disasters, Beristain describes the psychosocial effects of catastrophes and the community's capacities to integrate resources and creatively respond towards reweaving the social fabric of their lives.

Humanitarian Aid Work: A Critical Approach offers an excellent introduction to those seeking to respond to the complex social, political, cultural, and linguistic diversities within any humanitarian crisis. These workers, often professionals from a variety of social scientific, legal, human service, and health fields, are often challenged by world views, meaning systems and customary practices different from their own. They seek to respond to the immediate demands and complex realities within crisis situations while balancing theoretically sound approaches, sensitivities to cultural and linguistic differences, and a quest for comparability between and across these and other diversities. Rigorously trained social scientists wanting to help but also seeking to control, predict, or prevent greater distress and damage in the context of humanitarian crises face immense challenges. They also encounter moral, political, and economic ambiguities in situations that simultaneously demand immediate action, challenging workers to respond to individual, family, community and society.

Beristain confronts these complexities theoretically and practically—and in a deeply human voice. Reframing existing individualistic psychological theories about the individual, familial, and societal effects of war and humanitarian crises, he develops a mosaic, crafted from deep observations, a bond of commitment to those who have suffered, and solidarity with them as they seek to reconstruct their worlds and rethread the social fabric of their lives. As significantly he demonstrates how this deeply interpersonal bond is situated within and nurtured by a commitment to international human rights and extended to seeking truth with justice. His collaboration in various Latin American truth commissions, as well as his expert testimonies at the Inter-American Court and within various agencies of the United Nations further informs the work presented here.

Beristain educates without being didactic. He transforms the ambiguous language of "psychosocial humanitarian care" into concrete practice informed by theory. He persuades through example, complementing thick descriptions of field work with theoretical arguments supported by empirical evidence. "Psychosocial work" has multiple referents and the phrase or its corollary, psychosocial trauma, is frequently thought to be ambiguous, signifying everything and therefore nothing. Perhaps because this interdisciplinary work is at the interface of economic, anthropological, environmental, physical, cultural and biosocial processes and outcomes, practitioners and theoreticians writing about it are blamed for not being clear or for using circular thinking to characterize endeavors that are either not well conceptualized or lack a clear objective. Beristain embraces this challenge, discussing the complex situations, mixed emotions, ethical dilemmas and concern for their own personal wellbeing that challenge psychosocial workers each day. He describes the common challenges they face when working within and across educational, economic, cultural differences in local communities where he or she is seeking to insert him or herself in the midst of often complex and contradictory relations among donors, local and foreign NGOs, and the survivors.

The victims are always visible in Beristain's work and their voices puncture an all too frequent official silence wherein impunity and a lack of justice exacerbate the painful consequences of disasters. He analyzes the diverse responses to horror and extreme deprivation. He does not minimize the intense pain of mothers and fathers whose children have been tortured or disappeared nor the sorrow and rage of women repeatedly raped by paramilitary forces in Colombia or death squads in Guatemala. Nor does he underestimate the resilience of Mayan children whose schools and communities have been destroyed by genocidal acts yet who rethread their social networks in refugee camps along the Mexico-Guatemala border. These stories inform and deeply humanize the theoretical and empirical work within these pages.

Euro-American or Northern Hemisphere humanitarian intervention work has often been criticized as being individualistic and prioritizing a medical or psychological focus on personal trauma and suffering as the primary consequences of catastrophe and war. In contrast, Beristain and others living and working within the Southern Hemisphere affirm a set of common perspectives delineated in this volume. They include a more culturally sensitive, community-based, human rights approach that emphasizes the "we" in contrast to the "I." This perspective is informed by a critical analysis of the structural violence and inequality at the root of the profound disruption of social and community ties pursuant to disasters and wars. Specific interventions are participatory processes through which humanitarian workers accompany local communities whose leaders, healers, and residents become, over time, coparticipants in the reconstruction of the community. Emergency humanitarian aid is ever aware of the wider development agenda and those involved strive to avoid paternalism through prioritizing the skills and resources of local communities.

Eschewing intra- and interprofessional debates wherein these differing humanitarian perspectives are frequently posited as oppositional, Beristain discusses the distinctiveness of each approach. He identifies "best practices", arguing that all humanitarian aid workers share a minimal commitment to accompany individuals and communities as they seek to rebuild and to promote the well-being of all affected by disasters. This volume thus defies facile characterization, demonstrating through rich description coupled with theory and supported by empirical research that psychosocial humanitarian aid is a developing field at the interface of indigenous and Euro-American knowledge systems. Moreover it is not a static discipline but rather a set of iterative teaching, learning, and action processes.

Humanitarian Aid Work: A Critical Approach is the book that many of us wish we could have read before responding to a catastrophe or war emergency. It discusses the consequences of both political violence and natural catastrophes. Although humanly generated violence and catastrophes such as war have been frequently distinguished from environmental disasters such as hurricanes, recent experiences, most notably those in New Orleans, suggest that human errors and failures to allocate resources to preventively contain potential environmental disaster all too easily transformed what may have been the "natural disaster" of a hurricane to an "unnatural catastrophe" that inundated a city, took thousands of lives, and destroyed the social fabric of millions of lives..

Humanitarian Aid Work explores the dynamic interface of natural disasters and political violence, of individual trauma and structural violence, of personal loss and the rupture of social ties. Psychological theory is engaged dialogically with concrete examples from different geographical and cultural contexts, creating a discourse of applied knowledge that speaks for itself.

This English translation from the original Spanish was developed for use as a text in a Masters program and in NGOs settings. It thus contributed to the education and preparation of a cadre of psychosocial humanitarian workers for work alongside individuals and communities experiencing violence and catastrophes. Moreover, the volume contributed to improving communication among Spanish-speaking frontline workers and between them and policy-makers and political leaders who set budgets that support the work discussed herein. The English translation is a long overdue and welcome resource to an increasingly numerous group of English speaking psychosocial humanitarian aid workers to whom Beristain's work has been previously inaccessible.

Humanitarian Aid Work: A Critical Approach is, first and foremost, a book of voices. It reminds us that it is only though genuinely listening to the victims and survivors, to their vulnerabilities and their strengths as revealed through their own words, that we learn how to accompany them in their journey from catastrophe to reconstruction. Through facing the other's suffering, we confront ourselves and together construct a world within which we want to live together.