student in SudanMost education service delivery in conflict- and crisis-prone areas takes place in contexts where education is already in a state of crisis. The reality of people’s lives in many places is that they are either already in a crisis situation, emerging from one or entering one. These complex social and economic dynamics at community, national and regional levels often negatively impact the delivery of essential services, including education. Despite the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement, violent conflict has persisted across South Sudan. Anger and memory of traumatic experiences are said to be ‘linked to violence against civilians perpetrated by southern groups.’[1]

Due to the unpredictable nature of the crisis in South Sudan, large numbers of out-of-school and internally displaced children and youth and communities hosting displaced populations are not able to access safe learning spaces to obtain a quality education. Over half of all children aged 6 to 13—1.8 million children—are not in school in South Sudan, the highest proportion in any country, according to UNICEF (data is from 2011, before the civil war that began in December 2013). Increasingly, children and youth who live in these communities have been separated from their families and face insecurity, violence, abuse, trauma, sexual exploitation, recruitment by armed forces, early and forced marriage and risk of abduction.

In these kinds of settings, the most pressing question is: What is the best way to provide education services to such communities? USAID Senior Conflict Advisor in South Sudan Carrie Gruenloh recently organized a learning exchange session on the integration of psychosocial trauma interventions and trauma-sensitive approaches in development.  According to Ms. Gruenloh, “Most people think of trauma as something relevant to emergency health and education interventions, but awareness of the effects of psychosocial trauma and approaches to counter these negative effects are not often embedded in development interventions.” As part of USAID’s strategy to strengthen community resilience and address causes and consequences of the violent conflict in South Sudan, it has identified the integration of psychosocial  approaches, including those addressing trauma, as a key priority for development programs across sectors.

The session focused on sharing lessons and experiences about the integration of psychosocial support and trauma-specific interventions or trauma-sensitive approaches in development assistance across sectors (livelihoods, health, education, reconciliation, community-driven development, etc.) between USAID staff and experts from Mediators Beyond Borders, Catholic Relief Services, Eastern Mennonite University and Johns Hopkins University.  One of the presenters from Eastern Mennonite University discussed the integrated approach through its Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) program to build awareness about the impacts of trauma, destigmatize it, ignite creativity and explore strategies for identifying and building resilience. STAR does not provide counseling but rather education for trauma awareness and resilience.

In South Sudan, USAID is piloting a community-based program called Morning Star based on the STAR curriculum and other methodologies. It is focused on helping communities understand the impact of trauma, teaching self-care techniques and creating hope and awareness of possibilities for breaking cycles of violence and building resilience.  Results from the pilot will be released in coming weeks.

The three main lessons from the learning session are:

  • Invest in trust building: The experience of trauma damages social relationships.  In conflict-affected communities, trust building often needs to come alongside any education or other development intervention;
  • Use a trauma lens: Recognize how trauma affects beneficiaries and seek to address it as part of development interventions, regardless of sector; and
  • Do no harm: Recognize the line between trauma-informed approaches and mental health services and ensure that non-specialists have adequate training, supervision and support to deal with secondary trauma that they may experience as a result of helping traumatized communities.

Addressing psychosocial needs through trauma-informed and other program features is paramount to reestablishing social cohesion and mending the communities torn asunder by conflict, especially following decades of violent conflict. Such approaches are necessary to set the foundation for reconciliation and to enable individuals and communities to better utilize assistance in ways that build local, community-based resilience and reduce dependency on external support.

[1] Human Rights Watch, 2014


UNICEF Press Release and Report (see pages 22 and 136)

Presentation from Mediators Beyond Borders on Trauma Informed Development Assistance

Koli Banik is a senior education advisor with USAID Education’s Africa Bureau and a member of the USAID Education in Crisis and Conflict Network (ECCN) Steering Group.

Is your education program operating in crisis and conflict environments integrating innovative psychosocial support, trauma-specific interventions, and/or trauma-sensitive approaches? Do you have any lessons learned that you could share? Interested in learning more about this important topic? If so, please join the conversation in the chat box below!


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