When Helping Hurts: The Unexpected Costs of Post-War Reconciliation

War! What is it good for? Civil war dissolves social structures and threatens personal livelihoods, domestically displacing both combatants and civilians. Even after hostilities cease, individuals and communities face a long and daunting recovery process. Reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of violence can be particularly difficult in addressing lingering emotional wounds. In the words of Edwin Starr, these conflicts do absolutely nothing to benefit social capital—a collective commodity aiding societies to function with greater cohesion and efficiency. As a result, many activist groups advocate for community reengagement efforts that allow victims and perpetrators to reconcile past violence in a moderated forum. However, new research on the effectiveness of these reconciliation forums shows that while they create positive returns for social capital, their impacts are more nuanced than previously thought.

In “Reconciling after civil conflict increases social capital but decreases individual well-being,” authors Jacobus Cilliers, Oeindrila Dube, and Bilal Siddiqui provide an evaluation of the effects of social cohesion programs in periods following civil conflict. They examine this phenomenon in Sierra Leone, which recently experienced a civil war with an estimated 50,000 casualties, and where over half the population was domestically displaced. After the war ended in 2002, reconciliation services designed to reunite urban communities and reinforce social bonds were enacted, but seldom reached the rural communities. In 2011, an NGO stepped in to provide these services to a limited number of village groups, allowing researchers to track differing outcomes between 200 matched treatment and control villages for roughly 2,400 individuals.

The provided services included limited trauma healing and meditation, culminating in a two-day ceremony where victims described their experiences and perpetrators asked for forgiveness. The authors tracked differences in both subject mental health and community cohesion following this concentrated reconciliation process. Changes in mental health were determined using a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) indicator test, with social cohesion evaluations incorporating both individual trust surveys and membership in community groups such as Parent Teacher Associations (PTA). Observations were taken both nine months and 31 months after the treatment to determine any lasting impacts.

First, reconciliation efforts were found to have a strong and lasting impact on participants, with treatment effects lasting well beyond nine months. Those who participated in the reconciliation ceremony scored significantly higher on a number of metrics associated with village social capital. These individuals were far more likely to trust ex-combatants and other migrants, as well as to participate and contribute to community public goods. All in all, these treatments successfully induced higher levels of community cohesion, as asserted by program proponents. However, the researchers also found this cohesion to come at a substantial cost for the victims of previous violence. Individual participants came away with higher levels of PTSD, anxiety, and depression—largely offsetting the positive social gains associated with treatment. These impacts remained long after treatment, indicating that indeed “forgiving is not the same as forgetting.”

Civil war has a dragging deleterious impact on social capital, reducing the ability of communities to bounce back after tragedy. These reconciliation programs prove to be highly effective in rebuilding the bonds that unite social groups, but at a cost disproportionately shouldered by victims of violence. As the authors note, these findings highlight the “long shadow” war has for victims, with measurable effects decades after the conflict’s end. Further research is now needed to determine how to best minimize that burden.

Article source: Cilliers, C., Dube, O., and Siddiqui, B. (2016). “Reconciling after civil conflict increases social capital but decreases individual well-being.Science. 352:6287. pp. 787-794.

Featured photo: cc/(Nastco, photo ID: 503870180, from iStock by Getty Images)

Stephen Stapleton

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