History of the Committee on International Relations in Psychology

International Relations Committee Links APA To World Psychologists

By Henry P. David, PhD and Marian Wood, MA (former International Affairs Assistant)

Although international relations are a vital component of today’s APA, the Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP) was not established until 1944. Its initial function was to advise on the rehabilitation of European psychology laboratories and libraries damaged or destroyed during World War II. Now one of the oldest standing APA committees, CIRP reports directly to the APA Board of Directors. Through the Office of International Affairs, CIRP speaks for all segments of psychology and addresses a worldwide audience through Psychology International.

From the beginning, CIRP’s emphasis has been on fostering the development of international psychology as a science and profession through the promotion of communication, exchanges and cooperative research. Over the years, CIRP became increasingly alert to the evolving role of psychology in national and international affairs, including policy decisions affecting human well-being. It has worked cooperatively with national and international psychological associations, with the organizers of international congresses, and with allied scientific and professional bodies.

When the International Congress of Psychology was organized in Washington, D.C., in 1963, CIRP developed a Young Psychologists program, raising funds to support travel and hospitality for colleagues from abroad. Local hosts opened their homes to the young scholars, and special arrangements were made for meeting with leading American psychologists. The tradition established in Washington, D.C., has continued at every subsequent International Congress.

In recent years, CIRP has joined in protests with other scientific organizations when psychologists were victims or perpetrators of human rights abuses. In 1976, at the International Congress of Psychology in Paris, APA’s representative to the International Union of Psychological Science took a leading role in endorsing a resolution on ethical behavior by psychologists. In the 1980s, a CIRP-drafted statement on “Support for the Rights of Psychologists in Other Countries” was approved by the APA Board of Directors and Council of Representatives. It outlined APA’s position on visits to and exchanges with colleagues in countries in which the rights of psychologists had been compromised.

During the early 1980s, APA’s Board of Directors voted to join with the National Academy of Sciences in boycotting official scientific exchanges with the Soviet Union in protest of the internal exile of Andrei Sakharov. In the mid 1980s, CIRP participation in a joint mission with the American Psychiatric Association to Chile confirmed that some psychologists were participating in programs of systemic psychological abuse and torture organized by the Chilean military, while other psychologists were among the victims — experiencing personal abuse and severe infringement of academic and professional freedom. On a less dramatic basis, CIRP helped resolve delicate questions of protocol, such as whether representatives of certain countries should be invited to APA receptions, or whether national flags should be flown at an international congress when the host government wanted to limit that right to selected countries.

As CIRP refined its policy positions on human rights and action in cases involving inappropriate ethical behavior, it joined other nongovernmental scientific bodies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and international organizations, such as the World Federation for Mental Health. CIRP has taken stands against apartheid in South Africa, abuses in Greek mental hospitals, and human rights violations by psychologists in the former USSR and in Chile. 

In the late 1908s, CIRP began taking an increasingly active stance. As part of APA’s centennial, with support from the APA Board of Directors, CIRP developed a program of International Psychology Initiatives (IPI) that is likely to continue for years to come. It recognizes APA’s special responsibility as the largest organization of psychologists in the world, its unique resources for supporting international communication and exchanges, and its coming of age in a increasingly global village.

The IPI program builds on opportunities to work meaningfully with others. For example, one of the first IPI activities was the organization in October 1991 of two workshops in Czechoslovakia on sexuality and AIDS education. They were funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health’s Fogarty International Center, and with additional support from the Sexuality and Family Planning Program of the World Health Organization European Regional Office and from APA. U.S. mental health professionals, assisted by translators, held productive workshops with Czech and Slovak counterparts and with representatives from the Ministry of Health that influenced the development of public health programs in the formerly socialist country. The funds raised for this project alone exceeded the total seed money provided by the APA Board of Directors for all the CIRP International Psychology Initiatives.

In another major IPI endeavor, APA helped identify U.S. psychology departments willing to waive tuition for academically qualified black South African doctoral and masters level students. Working with nonprofit Aurora Associations, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, CIRP helped to place six black South African students who are expected to return home after completing their graduate studies. In a related initiative, CIRP made a grant for the continued development of mental health program in the Soweto-based Family Centre, the first of several facilities designed to address apartheid-created stress through a multifaceted educational, research, training and services network.

In addition, CIRP initiated the development of a graduate student program and exchange visits with Russian psychologists; joined with the Pan American Health Organization, the Interamerican Society of Psychology, the International Union of Psychological Science and the World Federation for Mental Health in supporting the Interamerican Consortium for Psychology in Community Health Care; and continued its journal donations and international congress travel grant programs. CIRP is also establishing stronger liaison with APA divisions in an endeavor to broaden the horizons of international psychology in scientific, professional, educational, and public interest spheres. These activities have been further enhanced by the approval by the APA Board of Directors and Council of Representatives of an annual APA award for sustained contributions to the international advancement of psychology.

With current and past CIRP membership now exceeding 100, including a number of past APA presidents, there is good reason to believe that the voice of the international psychology will continue to be heard and heeded within APA.