Although clashes between social groups are as old as mankind, the characteristics of warfare and how it is conceptualised have changed through history. During recent decades, a shift has become clear from wars between states to conflicts within states, which appear to be characterised by a mixture of political, economic, military and social forces in competition for power and scarce resources, thereby violently targeting civilians who now compromise up to 90 per cent of war casualties. The case of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the focus of this paper, is a striking example of such contemporary prolonged conflict, frequently referred to as a ‘Complex Political Emergency’ (CPE).
Following these changed dynamics and conceptualisations, the international community has simultaneously been confronted with the limitations of its traditional humanitarian principles and approaches. Subsequent to past failures when intervening in CPEs, new ideas of development relief and conflict sensitivity have arisen, introducing ‘community-based’ as the new buzzword in the intervention field. While these new trends have stimulated humanitarian agencies to broaden their scope into maximising contextual conditions for sustainable peace and development, they have equally been criticised for entailing unintended consequences, reproducing structural inequalities and providing simplified and unsustainable solutions.
Within this ‘new aid paradigm’, the mental health of war-affected societies has gained attention, as psychological problems in civilians, resulting from their massive exposure to violence, have been increasingly recognized as threats to the development and long-term security of society. Firstly, psychologically and socially well-functioning people and societies are considered an essential prerequisite for the rehabilitation and rebuilding of political, social and economic institutions. Secondly, as is confirmed in recent findings on the association of post-traumatic stress symptoms on the one hand with feelings of revenge and negative attitudes towards reconciliation on the other, mental health problems could undermine peace-building processes and may eventually lead to renewed or sustained violence.