Responding to Trauma on Human Rights Day

Greg Olson

Communications Senior Associate

“When someone is subjected to torture, they are not tortured alone. Their family is tortured, their society is tortured, and humanity is tortured. Are we doing enough to prevent it?” asks Suzanne Jabbour.

Suzanne Jabbour provides a service provider's look at the Syrian Civil War. (Photo: MSH Staff)

In the 2016 Global Humanitarian Overview, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that around 60 million people will be affected by conflict, and upwards of 125 million people may be in need of aid if you add in populations that will be affected by natural disasters.

With the magnitude and scale of trauma so high, how can rehabilitation organizations maintain the quality and efficiency of their services?

Commemorating Human Rights Day on Thursday, December 10, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project and the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) co-hosted “Responding to Trauma: Human Rights, Capacity Building, and Lessons for the Development Sector” to share some of the experience and lessons learned during CVT’s stewardship of the five-year Partners in Trauma Healing (PATH) Project.

Through the PATH Project, CVT built a network of rehabilitation centers and professionals in nine countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Georgia, Lebanon, Liberia, Moldova, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. In each of these contexts, the project faced unexpected challenges from political strife, conflict, natural disasters, and health emergencies.

Although supporting mental health treatment and healing was a key objective for the PATH Project, CVT's David Gangsei and Kristi Rendahl explained that despite the large focus on mental health services for clients, oftentimes centers did not recognize the similar mental health needs of staff. Kristi Rendahl explained how organizations operating during crises need to be deliberate about "supporting the supporters."

Furthermore, rehabilitation organizations often face similar management and governance challenges to other non-governmental organizations. Jennifer Esala, a CVT Research Associate for the PATH Project, explained how some organizations allocate limited human resources improperly and for the wrong tasks. She singled out monitoring and evaluation responsibilities for example, saying, “all organizations should do evaluation, not all organizations should do research.”

Similarly, Joseph Dwyer, a Senior Advisor for Management Sciences for Health who supported the organizational development activities on the PATH Project, recognized that oftentimes organizations lacked the necessary capacity for basic governance responsibilities and leaving most of the burden on the shoulders of their Executive Directors.

When organizations have the capacity to limit stress and respond to their staff’s mental health needs, they can be more responsive to their clients and deliver better services. Although we are making progress toward improved mental health services and trauma healing, the magnitude of challenges remaining make Suzanne's answer to her original question clear. "No, not yet."

An empty panel prepared for the "Responding to Trauma: Human Rights, Capacity Building, and Lessons for the Development Sector" event at CVT's offices in Washington, DC.
Kristi Rendahl, CVT's Organizational Development Advisor for the PATH Project, provided some quick remarks before the event began.
Annie Sovcik, the Director of CVT's Washington, DC office introduces the event's opening speakers, Rosarie Tucci and Pamela Kriege Santoso.
Rosarie Tucci, Deputy Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Center of Excellence for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance, welcomes the audience with words of wisdom for Human Rights Day.
Panelists from the first discussion, "Lessons for Responding to Massive Trauma and Disaster," including CVT's Annie Sovcik, Ann Willhoite, David Gangsei, and Kristi Rendahl.
David Gangsei, CVT's International Clinical Advisor for the PATH Project, explains how "unexpected" crises became the norm for PATH partner organizations.
Ann Willhoite discusses evidence-based practices for mental health staff alongside CVT's Jennifer Esala and Management Sciences for Health's Joseph Dwyer.
Joseph Dwyer explains how traditional leadership and management challenges affected PATH partner organizations, and how Executive Directors carried much of the governance burden for their organizations.
Kristi Rendahl responds to a question from the audience about trends for future capacity-building.

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