Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Learnings from Psychosocial Supports projects managed by external “Experts” after disasters
Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz,[1] PhD

I just completed over fifty after action reports of psychosocial support programs during the 2004 South Asia Tsunami and the January 2010 Haiti Earthquake. We were trying to understand the impact of external psychosocial experts in diverse groups ranging from community organizations (local NGO’s and GO) to work organizations (INGO’s representing the UN family the Red Cross family and the Faith based family).


1.     Many projects were conducted to achieve justice (defined as equal opportunity or equity within a given context). Societal equity in several cases was defined based on the world-view of the external experts rather than consulting the disaster-affected people. Shared resources and mutual concerns for each other were not considered in the development of the projects.  This resulted in a lack of knowledge about shared but unspoken values, norms and cultural practices. The projects lasted as long as the ex-patriate expert remained in-situ and disappeared or was reformulated as soon as the expatriate left the area.

2.     Extensive and excessive use of participation in coordinating groups created a “we-they” relationship with the disaster-affected groups. This let to strong monolithic team culture that focused on the groups “own” job and a self-protective stance (ie. PSP group, WASH watsan groups or the protection cluster).

Lessons learned

1.     Reach out and develop connections within the context of the affected-people. This will foster mutual respect, and a desire to work together, volunteer, identify and use own social capital, and rely on community leadership and skills to improve the well-being in their communities.

2.     Neutralize the “we-they”. Some of the most mentioned suggestions were: (a) community meetings and “melas” (focused meetings), (b) assure representation of all segments of the community (women, children, elderly and differently abled among the most important), and (c) through needs assessment and community mapping activities identify and prioritize particular problems or concerns, and identify the methods on how to tackle the challenge.

3.     Spend significant time building trust and showing respect for the disaster-affected people.

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