From the CEO

Following large-scale disasters such as the tragic Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004 or Hurricane Katrina, APA and its members mounted responses to help those in the affected areas. Help from APA included donations to relief organizations and in-kind contributions. But many psychologists wanted to help more directly and personally "on the ground" by traveling to the region to provide training or service, or by conducting research on psychosocial interventions or on the psychological aftermath of disaster.

The outpouring of empathy and assistance for affected people and countries has made us all aware of the need for increased attention to psychology's responses to disasters and their aftermath. The aftermath of recent disasters also highlighted the critical need for understanding what culturally competent services in the United States or elsewhere entail.

A recent meeting at APA headquarters (see page 18) and a recent paper in the American Psychologist are moving us toward addressing the need for guidance when U.S. psychologists take their expertise to other countries, and guidance for APA itself on how, when and in what form the association should provide assistance. (The issue of response to disasters domestically is also being studied by the APA Task Force on Multicultural Training.)

International complexities

APA hosted a meeting of world experts on psychosocial research and intervention in international humanitarian emergencies. The purpose of the meeting was to identify and discuss the unique ethical issues and needs that arise in international disasters, wars and other emergencies. The meeting was part of APA's long-term response to the 2004 tsunami. The participants included representatives from global agencies and organizations involved in international emergency contexts (WHO, UNICEF, humanitarian nongovernmental agencies-NGOs, American Red Cross), and APA governance, divisions and staff.

Although participants were by no means uniform in their perspectives or their analyses, there was clear and strong agreement that anyone responding to an international emergency needs to appreciate and respect the complexity of the situation and the potential impact of any intervention, regardless of how significant or insignificant it may appear to an outside observer. Some guidance can be found in documents available from global humanitarian agencies that may be unknown to most psychologists.

To address the complexities of international response for U.S. psychologists, there was also extensive discussion regarding the importance of psychologists working through NGOs designed and in place to coordinate an effective presence; recognizing the limits of their competence, especially in unfamiliar cultures and languages; and actively exploring how to proceed in a manner that is most respectful of the individuals and groups affected by the situation, for example by considering the short, medium and long-term implications of any intervention and by attempting to involve the local community at every level of response.

Participants discussed several dissemination vehicles to help psychologists to understand the ethical issues associated with international relief work and to make informed decisions, including, among other things, a bibliography providing links to international humanitarian guidelines and principles and a conceptual article articulating the special issues raised by international emergency contexts for each section of the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

How should APA respond?

In 2006 the APA Policy and Planning (P&P) Board devoted its 2005 annual report on APA's response to disasters (the American Psychologist, Vol. 61, No. 5, pages 513-521). The report highlighted a number of "points of pride" where the association used its considerable resources to make a difference following recent disasters. These included funding train-the-trainer workshops for local psychologists; working collaboratively with international relief agencies; making electronic publications available at no cost; making generous cash donations; providing educational materials to the public; and using our Web site as a clearinghouse for relevant information for psychologists. But P&P also highlighted a number of questions and issues that must be addressed for APA to have a coherent policy on its response going forward. For example, what type of disaster would warrant a response from APA? Should we be as involved internationally as domestically? Should financial aid be allocated for general use or limited to psychological assistance? How is the amount determined? How should we balance the short-term and long-term needs of affected communities? What is the role of APA in training psychologists to provide volunteer services following disasters, and how can we insure the multicultural competence of psychologist volunteers in working with diverse communities? The APA Board of Directors will soon be addressing these questions.

The aforementioned efforts by international disaster experts and our own Policy and Planning Board will help both the discipline and the association move toward having a more useful and coherent response to future disasters.