Feature

The role that psychology can play in establishing a secure world in which people live with dignity will be the focus of one of eight plenary sessions at a United Nations (U.N.) conference for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) this month.

This was no small feat, as many groups lobby to have their perspectives represented in U.N. forums, according to psychologist Corann Okorodudu, EdD, APA's main U.N. NGO representative. APA's success in getting psychological issues on the agenda, she says, was due in large part to the diplomatic skills of clinical psychologist Joseph De Meyer, PhD, a member of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues)--which has its own NGO status.

The plenary session at the 56th annual U.N. Department of Public Information/NGO conference will focus on the degree to which the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and other such U.N. policies are promoting economic and social development, human rights and a healthy environment.

And the plenary session on psychology's role won't be the only venue for psychological input. Okorodudu, a psychology professor at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., is co-sponsoring several seminars addressing the psychosocial dynamics of the conference theme, "Human security and dignity: fulfilling the promise of the United Nations."

"The key to any successful intervention at the United Nations is collaboration," says Okorodudu, who has represented APA for the 2.5 years the association has been an accredited NGO. APA's representatives have brought a psychological perspective to bear on many U.N. programs and policies--including child welfare and development, education, aging, gender equality, violence and armed conflict, human rights, racism, and social justice--according to APA's Sally Leverty, staff liaison to the association's Committee on International Relations in Psychology, which oversees the work of the NGO team.

Here's what a few members of the APA team are doing to help the United Nations apply psychological know-how to global issues.

A better world for children, families and older people

At the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Children in May 2002, Okorodudu helped to initiate and coordinate the Child Rights Caucus, which included more than 100 NGOs representing most world regions. Psychologist Harold Cook, PhD, helped convince the caucus to include psychological language in its final document, "A World Fit for Children," which was widely distributed to government representatives. Cook, a Columbia University professor emeritus of psychology, also helped write the research section of the report "Children and Armed Conflict: What Can Be Done: A Summary of Informed Opinion," a collaborative effort of NGO representatives and U.N. staff.

NGO representative and research psychologist Deborah Ragin's work on HIV/AIDS also touches on children's issues. Ragin, a professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey established and chaired a panel at the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS in June 2001. After that, she established the Task Force on Children and HIV/AIDS to address the psychosocial issues that children in sub-Saharan Africa face when their parents are infected with and die from HIV/AIDS.

"Emotionally, children must cope with the loss of parents, uncertainty about their future and methods of survival," says Ragin, who is working with APA's Office on AIDS to connect American and southern African psychologists working on the issue. "They often face the social stigma of having a relative infected with HIV/AIDS--a plight that may mark them as outcasts in their own communities."

The task force also addresses the impact on extended family members who assume the caregiving role for these children. Older relatives often struggle to care for grandchildren or subsequent generations while living in poverty, Ragin explains. Addressing such economic strain on older people is part of the work of team member and former APA President Florence Denmark, PhD, a member of the U.N. NGO Committee on Aging.

"We work to raise the awareness of the critical issues facing the global aging population by encouraging U.N. bodies and agencies to include [the issue] in their planning and influencing member-states to include aging needs in social and economic policy considerations," says Denmark, a Pace University psychology professor who begins a two-year term as aging committee chair this month. "Our goal is to further the U.N.'s mission of building a society for all ages."

Indigenous rights and racial justice

Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD, director of the Sexual Assault and Harassment Advising Resources and Education program at Princeton University, is also helping to meet the U.N.'s mission by working on racial and social justice issues. She helped plan March's U.N. International Day for the Elimination of Racism and enlisted Vena Adae Romero, a Native American undergraduate student at Princeton, to talk about the psychological challenges of growing up on a reservation and being enrolled at a predominantly white university away from her community. Romero's speech was substantive as well as symbolic, Bryant-Davis says. It made a strong statement that APA values "the voices of youth as we negotiate [issues] of race and racism," she explains.

Romero also volunteered when Bryant-Davis represented APA at the first session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May 2002. During the forum Bryant-Davis and Romero distributed a statement requesting that the words "mental health" be added to the outcome document's language on the health needs of indigenous people.

While the forum's final report did not include the words "mental health," its health-care language suggests the need for psychosocial input. The report noted, for example, "the significance of incorporating indigenous understanding of the causes of health and illness and existing practices of treatment of men and women, respectively, for the development of policies and guidelines on health care."

At this year's indigenous session in May, Bryant-Davis asked the forum to call for an assessment of the physical and mental health-care needs, access and strengths of indigenous peoples. At this writing, the forum had not submitted its final report. "It is important for us to lobby for the inclusion of psychology in all U.N. outcome documents because complex problems require complex solutions," says Bryant-Davis.

She and Okorodudu also serve on the new subcommittee of the International NGO Committee on Human Rights, which will work to implement the outcome document of the U.N. 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.

"Global challenges such as war, poverty, lack of development, racism, violence against women and children and HIV/AIDS require policies and action that are multifaceted," Bryant-Davis says.