Social Work in Global Context – Reflections on a Rapidly Changing Profession

January 27, 2019

 

Marika Lotko, from Rīga Stradiņš University, Latvia kindly invited me to write a prologue to her really interesting and timely book entitled "Social Work Case Analysis: Global Perspective: Collection of articles about experience on case work and social case management of eleven countries"

 

Below you may find my contribution to the book:

 

Over the last couple of decades, the social work profession has experienced an extra- ordinary growth, at a global level. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) reported that, as of 2017, it represented more than three million social workers in 126 countries. Moreover, in recent years, regions which in the past appeared to be hesitant to support social work have now invested heavily in education of social workers and creation of expanding networks of social services. Social work in China is the most characteristic example of this new trend. In this country, social work was quite an unknown profession for decades. Nevertheless, since 2012 Chinese social work has become the epicentre of very ambitious, state-sponsored project: having trained two million social workers by 2020.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most significant growth areas in social work writing and research has been the field of international social work. If social work is primarily focused on interrelationships between individuals, families, groups and communities and the context or environment within which such relationships take place, then it is apparent that social work was in need to become aware of the impact of the global on social problems.

Although the two most prominent international social work organisations – IFSW and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) have existed since the 1920s, it is in recent years that social work has focused on the importance of dealing with social problems at a global level. For many years, international social work was primarily synonymous to field visits, academic exchanges, conferences and, more infre- quently, comparative projects which mostly represented parallel monologues. A true synthesis of global ideas and transfer of international knowledge was rarely part of the agenda.

However, the concept of social work as a global profession started taking shape after the end of the Cold War. This was not only informed by the rapprochement between countries that for decades were separated by the Iron Curtain but also by the realisation that globalisation superseded the rigidity of borders. This has been evident in the spread of market driven economies and also in the frequency of extra- ordinary natural and humanitarian disasters that affect whole regions and continents.

Interconnectedness and expansion of market economies, alongside the enormous wealth it helped create, has also been responsible for unprecedented levels of inequality and susceptibility to global financial crises. The crises have disproportionately affected

 

Social Work in Global Context – Reflections on a Rapidly Changing Profession

the most vulnerable communities. The publication of the present book coincides with ongoing discussions about the financial crisis in Europe, which triggered policies of asphyxiating austerity undermining the creation of a “European Social Model”.

Many social Workers across Europe and internationally were at the forefront of dealing with the consequences of global financial crises. Not only did they support the most vulnerable communities through innovative and organic projects, but they also sided with the social movements in order to challenge the orthodoxy of unrestricted market economy that prioritises profits over people. The Orange Tide (Marea Naranja) movement in Spain and the Social Work Action Network in the UK have been brilliant examples of the re-politicisation process that has occurred in this context. More recently, the British Association of Social Workers and social workers from Aotearoa / New Zea- land have marched through several cities advocating an end to poverty, homelessness, inequality and privatisation of social services.

These movements offer a unique insight into international social work through challenging permeating divisions, perpetuated by borders and class hierarchies. They also demonstrate that social work can only be relevant when it forms alliances and partnerships with the people who use social services. Such approach challenges the view that social work is a narrow technical profession and emphasises on the holistic nature of human experience. Indeed, social workers cannot and should not ignore the overwhelming body of evidence that documents inequality and poverty as the root cause and underlying factor affecting the lives of most service users. Researchers Pickett and Wilkinson have confirmed beyond doubt what generations of social workers have witnessed first-hand while practicing on the frontline: “It is the material circum- stances that primarily shape and determine people’s lives, not their morality. If we ignore the elephant in the room (inequality and poverty), then our practice would be reduced to the futile function of a ‘social aspirin’.” The appreciation of this formidable body of evidence and its incorporation into social work debates shapes the knowledge base for a social work model that is genuinely participatory and aims at social change.

Summing up, I would suggest that social justice based social work has been devel- oped around such characteristics as democracy, empathy, militancy, anti-oppression, structure. Conveniently, these characteristics are easy to remember as they correspond to the word Demos (Δήμος), an ancient Greek word which refers to the populace of a democracy as a political unit.

Globalisation has brought up a series of issues, debates and questions. As the world economy becomes more integrated, how do we address global inequalities? Is there a common, singular model of social work? If not, what is at the core of social work and what differs across different societies? If we have common problems – how are they addressed in different parts of the world? Meaningful engagement with these questions is an urgent task for social work in the 21st century. Indeed, this book makes a timely and excellent contribution to the exploration of these debates.

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