18 August 2017

Global problems, local solutions – the role of social workers: Lessons from Africa

By Ruth Stark, IFSW President

International social work transcends national borders. The roots of the issues we face globally are embedded in local issues for individuals, families and communities. These range from inequality, abuse of power and control, climate change, wars and natural disasters. As people are forced to move from their homelands the politicians in the developed world struggle with the impact on their economies and the changes that implode on their social protection structures

Economic health cannot be achieved without social health in any of our societies. Addressing inequality was the opening theme of the ten-year social work project The Global Agenda for the Role of Social Work in Social Development. The closing theme, which will complete this agenda in 2020, is the place that human relationships have in creating solutions.

The African regional conference of IFSW in Zambia at the end of June focused on finding solutions to local problems that have impacted on global problems. Not least of which is the haemorrhaging of people from their homelands as a result of actions outside of their control. With 60% of the population living below the poverty line, yet described as a middle-income country, Zambia like many countries in the developing world has endemic inequality as the tumour of decay at its root. People leave their homelands to find a way to survive. This is not a choice but a reality of life or death. The context of the global problem for many is of destitute people making traumatic journeys to countries they see as being safe places to live for themselves, but more importantly their children.

Africa is the land of the sun and the land of dance. From oppression, we have seen in other cultures how the brilliance of the creative arts has helped people find their voice when they have been left voiceless. Social Work has been long established in parts of Africa, before colonialism. It was part of the indigenous culture of creating sustainable communities before others came to mine their natural resources or take the people into slavery. The treatment of people as commodities will return to our agenda as we consider the importance of human relationships in achieving change. In the 1930s mining companies reshaped social work into welfare support following mining disasters and to keep their workforce working. A realisation that social health is pre-requisite to economic growth.

During the transition from colonialism to independence social workers were imported for fixed term contracts of 1-3 years. Training of local people did not happen until the 1960s; based on western style interventions they did not equip people for practice where the infrastructure of society was so impoverished. The vacuum of clear strategic thinking through such change has resulted in very complex issues. This vacuum was filled with sticking plaster solutions. Humanitarian aid often went into the hands of the few people in power, and from there into financial institutions outside the countries. Corruption has become endemic and the gap between the very rich and the majority of the population living in poverty has widened. Community capacity building was not taken seriously.

These issues have been well rehearsed and people now struggle with finding solutions. The African members of IFSW are way ahead of most of us in grappling to find solutions. They know that their social work has to develop to help them work with people towards social health, building through social enterprise. It has to incorporate indigenous knowledge that will strengthen self-confidence. It has to relinquish the colonial customs they inherited but fear to leave behind. They know they have to work with politicians who hold the resources. They know that corruption in politics and administration is an obstruction to progress.

Some of the answers can be found in the role of children’s villages.  Parents and families have been lost through war, poverty and death. Pandemics that have wiped out large numbers of the adult population, making fostering an unrealistic option. Providing love, safety and education in their local communities, prevents children being trafficked across many countries through slavery and sexual exploitation, fierce seas and the suspicion of administrative barriers in seeking refuge across manmade national borders. Some of the answers are reuniting lost children with lost parents. Not all parents are imprisoned for criminal activity; political diversity is often treated by detention. Poor health infrastructure leads to death and disability rates that leave people vulnerable to becoming victims of harm and abuse. Care is provided by people. Developing social protection systems is high on many countries agendas; the key will be in not replicating the dependency outcomes we see in western systems.

In Africa dance and music are an important part of communication. The suppressed energy, vision, inventiveness is released in the evening – like throwing  off the shackles of history. Let us join Africa in dancing into the future.