Psychosocial workers as the new middle class, with all that entitlement

Rutgers University’s Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, headed up by Anthropologist Alex Hinton and helped by his brother Devon (Harvard), put together a fine set of papers for a two-day conference Thursday and Friday of the past week, Genocide and Mass Violence. Among these were papers and commentary by such notables in transcultural psychiatry and anthropology such as Byron Good (Harvard), Laurence Kirmayer (McGill), Didier Fassin (Princeton), Patricia Foxen (National Council of La Raza), and Kimberly Theidon (Harvard). Topics included religious answers to PTSD among Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans, Holocaust narratives among second generation survivors, narratives among paramilitary soldiers in Colombia, idioms of distress in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, and so forth and so on. All top-notch stuff, and a podcast of the entire conference will be availabe on the center’s website soon.

My favorite paper was not about a particular experience of violence or trauma (which was heavily featured), but rather about the people who do some of the work of reconstruction following conflict. (It was also a paper in the panel I was moderating, so perhaps I’m biased.) Sharon Abromowitz, an anthropologist from Harvard, “gave” (in conference lingo) the following paper: “Moral Missionaries”: ‘Being’ Traumatized and ‘Doing’ Psychosocial Work in Liberia’s Post-Conflict Reconstruction.

The title includes a lot of words in quotes (which I think is an Anthropology thing), but basically she provided a description of how the individuals hired to do “psychosocial” work following the Liberian conflict became a professionalized class of laborers, essentially a priveledged middle class. In a place like Liberia, which was destroyed by war and frankly didn’t have a lot before the war, NGO’s have become a major employer. Those who get NGO jobs are thus a bit better off than others. When their jobs involve helping people with “psychosocial problems,” they attain status as local advisers as well. People come to them for all sorts of problems, and as the term “psychosocial” (1) sounds pretty comprehensive and (2) isn’t well defined by anybody, even they feel like they should and can give counsel on jsut about anything (sounds a little like psychology in general, no?).

Training for many of these workers runs the gamut from 1-week courses to social work degrees, there are plenty of problems that psychosocial workers just aren’t trained for… so they turn to God. In Abromowitz’s research, she found that many workers were advising that clients use religion to solve many problems when their training did not cover particular solutions. Most of the workers were conservative Christians, so solutions were of the more conservative type — e.g., the solution to domestic violence is for the couple to pray together.

To be fair, religion can be a powerful tool, and I don’t think Abromowitz is interested in passing judgment on its use in Liberian psychosocial work. What Abramowitz gives us is a granular portrait of the international community’s response to mass violence, where the psychosocial rubber meets the humanitarian response road–and it’s a picture I can’t imagine was in the minds of the the psychosocial NGOs when they set up these programs.

There are many things to say here, but I’ll limit myself to three “question sets”:

(1)  How do these efforts – these personal moral missions – jibe with outcomes? Are these outcomes really mental health outcomes? Would the psychosocial workers here say that their outcomes are even psychosocial?

(2)  What happens in cross-religious contexts? Liberia is multireligious; what happened in cases in which Christians were counseling Muslims? It is not uncommon for large groups of refugees in African conflicts to be Muslims living in host countries in which Christians are the better educated, and therefore more likely to be NGO workers: Somalis in Kenya, Darfuris in Chad.

(3)  What about the “moral missions” of international NGO expatriate staff? It strikes me that there is where the “trouble” starts. Ironically, the morality of expat staff is usually liberal. I think that compared to the conservative moral mission of the rank-and-file psychosocial workers in this example, the expat staff’s differs in only in tenor, not fervor.

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