Do no harm: toward contextually appropriate psychosocial support in international emergencies

Am Psychol. 2009 Nov;64(8):842-54. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.64.8.842.


In the aftermath of international emergencies caused by natural disasters or armed conflicts, strong needs exist for psychosocial support on a large scale. Psychologists have developed and applied frameworks and tools that have helped to alleviate suffering and promote well-being in emergency settings. Unfortunately, psychological tools and approaches are sometimes used in ways that cause unintended harm. In a spirit of prevention and wanting to support critical self-reflection, the author outlines key issues and widespread violations of the do no harm imperative in emergency contexts. Prominent issues include contextual insensitivity to issues such as security, humanitarian coordination, and the inappropriate use of various methods; the use of an individualistic orientation that does not fit the context and culture; an excessive focus on deficits and victimhood that can undermine empowerment and resilience; the use of unsustainable, short-term approaches that breed dependency, create poorly trained psychosocial workers, and lack appropriate emphasis on prevention; and the imposition of outsider approaches. These and related problems can be avoided by the use of critical self-reflection, greater specificity in ethical guidance, a stronger evidence base for intervention, and improved methods of preparing international humanitarian psychologists.

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Crime Victims / psychology
  • Crisis Intervention* / ethics
  • Cultural Characteristics
  • Dependency, Psychological
  • Emergencies / psychology*
  • Ethics, Professional
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation*
  • Power, Psychological
  • Relief Work
  • Resilience, Psychological
  • Social Support*
  • Social Values
  • United States