“Social workers,” argues a new paper in a special edition of the journal International Social Work, “operate at the point where social forces and individual behaviour meet; they work with the consequences of both human choice and social disadvantage.”
“Social work and social development practitioners are not normally involved in global, macroeconomic decisions,” the article continues, but both as witnesses and as social workers they have obligations they dare not shirk. “However, practitioners do bear witness to their social consequences and realities on a daily basis and have a duty to provide feedback about the outcomes of social policies. We observe that unreliable, unequal, fluctuating societies undermine health and well-being and erode the potential for positive futures and that these instabilities are often driven by macroeconomic decisions. Thus, as professionals who work with complex and interlocking systems, we are compelled to advocate for the principles of respect for people and social justice and to develop the beginning of a social work and social development perspective on the social elements of economic regulation and deregulation and their impact on human well-being and the physical environment.”
And so, in the special journal edition, these practitioners and educators – International Social Work is the official journal of three global bodies that did the majority of heavy lifting in setting the agenda: the International Association of Schools of Social Work, International Council on Social Welfare and International Federation of Social Workers — lay out an action plan, a “global agenda on social work and social development” for addressing the economic inequality. This agenda, under the theme “Promoting Social and Economic Equalities,” also is the focus of a four-day conference that starts today in Melbourne.
Who Are These Groups?
All three of these international bodies were founded in 1928 and have held formal consultative status for many decades with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and other UN and related agencies.
The International Federation of Social Workers is a federation of national social work organizations in 90 countries representing more than 750,000 social workers
The International Association of Schools of Social Work is an community of schools and educators in social work, promoting quality education, training and research in the theory and practice of social work, administration of social services and formulation of social policies. It represents 2,000 schools of social work and 500,000 students
The International Council on Social Welfare is a non-governmental organization which represents tens of thousands of organizations around the world that are actively involved in programs to promote social welfare, social development and social justice.
Their goals were laid out two years ago in a call to action from the three global bodies. Specifically, the groups pledged over the next decade to promote social and economic qualities, to promote the worth and dignity of peoples, to work toward environmental and community sustainability, and lastly to strengthen the recognition of the importance of human relationships. The need to train and equip social workers to carry out these goals is woven into each objective.
The journal breaks down work by social workers in five world regions, citing the unique circumstances that lead to inequality in each and then offers case studies of practical responses by locally based social workers. That there is a global problem the authors brook no dissent (although they acknowledge it exists):
Widening social and economic inequality within most countries and across the world is now well-documented and unarguable. There has been a deluge of international reports and research studies all pointing in the same direction (e.g. Milanovic, 2011, 2012; Wilkinson, 2009; Stiglitz, 2012). A recent UN report argued that ‘inequality does not affect only the poor, but can be detrimental to growth, stability and well-being in general.’
While a global issue, that there are also utterly local pathologies is also inarguable. To wit, compare and contrast three of the regions, ranging from the presumed basket case of Africa to a likely bastion of social-work plenty, Europe. “Africa,” they write, “has witnessed a period of significant economic growth, driven largely by rising commodity prices, but the fruits of this growth have been shared unequally and the distribution of wealth has become more unequal within most countries.” Then there’s Latin America, a pastiche of good and bad: “Whilst Brazil is one of the few countries in the world which can point to reducing economic inequality, other countries have seen a widening gap and even Brazil has witnessed growing social discontent.” Even Europe, dogged by austerity, isn’t immune. “Social work is a major element in the welfare models across Europe,” they note, “but service quality has been reduced by the 2008/9 financial crisis, to a greater or lesser extent.”
Addressing these issues is a tall order, and not automatically one that outside observers would see defaults to social workers. The authors agree that while this isn’t their fight alone – “We are not alone in promoting social and economic equalities and the need for socially just international regulation” –that doesn’t mean it isn’t their fight, too. “There is a growing, deep sense of injustice and lack of fairness all around the world, seen not only in the Occupy movement but also in political and academic writing and the popular mood. In that context, it is inevitable that social workers find themselves alongside the global movements which are challenging inadequately regulated and anti-human financial systems and advocating for fair and just economic and social policies.”
To give an example drawn from the examples cited in the journal’s special edition, here’s a paragraph summarizing some advocacy initiatives taking place in Europe:
The consequences of health inequalities have been identified from research and an international website has been launched with suggestions for improved practice. A mechanism for sharing policies focussed on LGBT populations has been established. A group of students organised a conference with local people on the realities of poverty which raised their own community consciousness. Projects aiming to develop competencies for citizen empowerment and to stimulate young people to understand their situation and to raise their voices were launched and a social interventions database has been created to share experience and outcomes.
And while there are case studies of practical actions, this special edition is the first report to follow from the 2012 call to action, and so material from the field isn’t abundant –yet. As Churchill said in a different context, this global agenda isn’t the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
“We intend that the reports on these themes will grow in scope and rigour as we develop capacity, drawing from ‘on-the-ground’ experience of the policies and practices which work and those which fail people,” the authors say. The three global bodies will support five regional observatories, each a set of partnerships between universities and social work and social development practitioners, starting this year. In turn, it’s expected that the resulting “global observator[ies] … will provide the robust structure and engine for collecting qualitative and quantitative data for future reports and to sustain the debate.”