On Trauma-Informed Peacebuilding & Development Assistance

By Mary Jo Harwood & Janice Almond

The Antares Foundation and the Center for Disease Control suggest that nearly 1 out of 3 aid workers report significant symptoms of PTSD upon returning from assignment. Most organizations brief their member participants on purpose of mission, logistics, and cultural awareness of host settings as well as a multitude of other details needed for projects to succeed. Few organizations or project leaders prepare team members for exposure to the intense suffering, deprivation and harsh environments that contributes to traumatic reactions and vicarious trauma.

The world can often look and feel different as a result of the work done in countries with protracted violence. It is not uncommon that the pain witnessed becomes internalized and alters one’s own psychological and physical wellbeing. Intense and powerful images, sounds, smells and tactile experiences can become intrusive in everyday life. Recognizing this and being good stewards of trauma exposure response, provides opportunities for self-care and emotional regulation that enables one to continue working.

Mediators Beyond Borders International (MBBI) — an international non-profit advocating for the use of mediation to build peace — has provided the guidance and resources to combat the impacts of exposure to violence — through its Trauma-Informed Peacebuilding & Development Assistance (TIPDA) training and consultation service. TIPDA is grounded in the latest neurobiological theory, and 30 years of research driven best practices in the field. During the training: participants gain knowledge about how the brain processes trauma; time is spent on understanding why specific memories or reactions are activated when stimuli similar to what participants experienced during the traumatic event are repeated in their everyday life; ways to regulate those reactions are demonstrated and practiced; and the techniques shared are applicable to self and providing peer support. Information on the impact of traumatic experiences on organizations and teams is also included.

TIPDA dedicates time to recognizing parallel processes and effective systems- management techniques to inoculate organizations and teams from experiencing vicarious trauma and replicating cycles of trauma.

MBBI has used TIPDA to assist USAID and partner organizations in South Sudan apply trauma-informed practices for their well-being and in development program design and implementation. Teams created trauma-sensitive programming for (1) emergency education, (2) agricultural livelihoods, (3) and reconciliation; Internews considered trauma-sensitive methods for news gathering, as well as trauma-related media programs. TIPDA concepts have also supported MBBI’s projects in Liberia and Kenya — with a 2015 session on trauma within Ebola-affected communities in Sierra Leone led by Loretta Raider.

In June 2017, after delivering a four-day TIPDA training at a large multinational security firm with a location in South Sudan, participants expressed disbelief that they had never received this information before. Participants reported that after receiving the information provided through TIPDA, they: had an increased understanding of the neuroscience of trauma; were better-able to regulate their reactions to traumatic stories and incidents; increased their confidence in their ability to recognize trauma-affected behavior and how it feels in the body; appreciated the practical skills to help others and oneself; and were more skilled at explaining trauma to others and cultivating resilience.

It can be challenging to prepare people for what they are going to be exposed to while working in conflict countries. Variables are fluid and environments are unstable. Having an understanding of trauma and the subsequent impact that can occur from experiencing first-hand the suffering of the people being assisted, can prevent those images from remaining with those providing assistance. The more we learn to recognize the impact the work has, and maintain a healthy separation from the population served, the more we will be in a position to be truly empathetic, compassionate and useful to those in need (Rothschild, 2006).