‘Good Intentions Aren’t Enough’ in International Aid

“There’s been a lot of documentation that interventions from the outside can do more harm than good,” says Lisa Schirch, the director of 3P Human Security and a research professor at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP). “Good intentions aren’t enough.”

With that awareness in mind, many humanitarian and development organizations do trainings to develop “sensitivities” – conflict sensitivity, gender sensitivity, environmental sensitivity – to influence the way their staff design and implement projects. Joining the list recently is “trauma sensitivity,” as articulated by former STAR director Carolyn Yoder in an article first published in Monthly Developments magazine.

“[International] agencies were often very, very eager to rush into communities that had been deeply affected by violence without having any real understanding of how [their work] could re-traumatize people,” says Lauren Van Metre, dean of students with the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

STAR is being tapped to provide trauma-sensitivity training and develop other projects in Washington D.C. In addition to helping participants avoid unintentionally doing harm, STAR helps people rotating through field work to manage their own traumatic responses to extremely difficult work situations.

“The NGOs and the military are looking for trauma programs, and we’ve got one that’s 12 years old, and it’s proven,” says Elaine Zook Barge, current STAR director.

As an example, USIP found that its rule-of-law assessment teams working overseas began to report back that their investigations into traumatic events were causing fresh pain for the people they interviewed. STAR and USIP collaborated for a first training in September 2012, with another scheduled nine months later at USIP headquarters in D.C.

Van Metre says the STAR training at USIP has been particularly valuable for people who have been affected by their extended stints in conflict zones. Through its peacebuilding academy, USIP has also developed its own two-day training based on the STAR methodology.

In a 2009 interview with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, former CJP trauma studies professor Nancy Good said all relief and development workers can benefit from trauma training.

“I don’t think we’re doing our jobs if we’re sending people out to do this really important work and are only training them on things like how to work with building houses and acquiring clean water and sanitation,” said Good, now a wellness consultant with the Washington D.C.-based KonTerra group. “We need to [provide] workers [with] basic knowledge and skills for stress management, trauma healing and resilience.”

3 comments on “‘Good Intentions Aren’t Enough’ in International Aid”

  1. This lack of re-traumatizing people is one of my main concerns with Invisible Children. What does the founder’s inability to just ‘stay’ with Jacob in that dark, low moment [when he talks about how much he misses his slain brother in the video] and the organization’s dualistic worldview say about the organization’s approach? Read more at:

    Aid workers and do-gooders have an immense responsibility to handle these situations with care because our presence as outsiders can and often does provide opportunities for people to tell their stories, often of suffering. It takes effort to cultivate and hone our ability to carry this burdensome, sacred role and work hard not to project or protect our feelings over another’s, no matter the task at hand.

  2. muhammad feyyaz says:

    an absolute truth. having been a victim of violence and feeling that pain even after several years, i think a key issue has been addressed now in the sensitivity paradigm long overdue. i am however skeptical about the effectiveness of training since workers may be any thing but a professional healer. while some elementary insight may be furnished, turning a novic into a qualified trauma healer, i am not sure can be done with any measurable effect. but having said that i wish i could join your program to learn what you teach. it must be indeed valuable in whatever form it is now. regards

  3. Very much agree, this was a theme in our book Community Resilience in Natural Disasters, that when thinking about psychosocial and other support, it was better to work with local organisations that had more of a sense of what is appropriate culturally, especially after trauma like natural disasters

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