23 February 2012

Poverty eradication and the role for social workers

1 Background

1.1 The Copenhagen Declaration describes absolute poverty as ‘a condition characterized by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information’. The World Bank identifies ‘extreme poverty’ as being people who live on less than a day, and ‘poverty’ as less than a day. According to World Bank report of 2001, 21% of the World’s population was in extreme poverty, and more than half of the world’s population was in poverty.

1.2 Extreme poverty is the result of permanent or long lasting forms of precariousness that undermine the capacity of individuals, families, communities and population groups to assume fundamental rights enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights. Extreme poverty cannot be overcome by material aid and capacity building alone, nor can poverty reduction initiatives be successful unless they are based on the recognition of the inherent dignity and on the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights preamble.

1.3 Three levels of poverty have been identified; extreme poverty, moderate poverty and relative poverty. Extreme poverty occurs when families cannot get their basic needs for survival. They may be frequently hungry, lack safe drinking water, cannot afford education for their children, may lack shelter and have inadequate clothing. This level of poverty is most likely in developing countries. Moderate poverty occurs when families just meet their basic needs, while relative poverty refers to circumstances in developed countries when household income is below a given proportion of national income. Three dimensions of extreme poverty namely; income poverty, human development poverty and social exclusion have been central concepts in the development of social work over the past century. Income poverty if chronic and severe, can lead to homelessness, hunger, lack of health care and suspension of parental rights. Development poverty epitomizes the non-fulfilment of rights and needs in the vital area of health, education and training, access to information and employment, while social exclusion is not only a violation of human dignity but a phenomenon that leads to isolation, alienation and a hidden existence. In developed countries, extreme poverty affects only a small proportion of the entire populations, but it is worth noting that education and training are among the main tools that lead the way out of poverty in both developed and developing countries.

2 Ramifications of poverty

2.1 The effects of poverty are often reflected in a multitude of the vulnerable groups such as; youths, children, women, elderly, disabled, refugees, migrants, homeless and all those at risk. Children suffer amongst other deprivations, from hunger and malnutrition. Half the deaths of pre-school children are attributed to the intersection between malnutrition and infectious diseases. Even in wealthiest countries, 40 to 50 million children are growing up in relative poverty. Women comprise the majority of those affected by poverty. They are afforded fewer educational opportunities, have maternal responsibilities and are subjected to forced labour, trafficking and other forms of violence. The elderly comprise the fastest growing segment of the world’s population, and this group will quadruple by year 2050 from 600 million to 2 billion. The elderly are subject to poverty because of lack of work opportunities and in many societies there are no political or social arrangements for their security and survival.

2.2 The disabled in some circumstances are removed from society entirely to live in an institutionalized, marginalized and abused existence. Refugees, migrants, immigrants, homeless and ethnic minorities are groups experiencing similar exclusion from the opportunities of the major society and consequently suffer from poverty and other attendants indignities. Indigenous people are particularly at risk for poverty, are often stateless and lack a voice within the countries where they reside. Often invisible in large urban areas or segregated in distant reservations, indigenous people often suffer from high unemployment which contributes to their extreme poverty in developing countries or relative poverty in more developed countries. Urban and rural dwellers experience different, but equally oppressive, forces leading to poverty, urban dwellers from lack of competitive skills and rural people from lack of available work. Those who live in areas most vulnerable to natural disasters are usually poor. And as survivors they are left with no access to resources. The poor who survive armed conflict are generally displaced. Armed conflicts have been increasing within states, and most victims are civilians, poor and consequently made poorer. Widespread evidence confirms that pandemics and poverty are mutually interwoven and have disastrous consequences.

3 Approaches to poverty eradication

3.1 Consultations and involvement of individuals, families and population groups in poverty situations are key elements in poverty eradication. Planning and execution of measures and projects aimed at lifting them out of poverty and extreme poverty, and assist them to gains self confidence are popular approaches that social workers have used in the past.

3.2 The role of governments and that of international cooperation are vital in the fight against poverty. Collaborating with other actors such as civil society, including community organizations and self-help groups, and the private sector among others, governments can lead the way by developing policies and initiation of sustainable actions to put an end or at least reduce significantly the incidence of poverty in the world. Although poverty means scarcity of resources to meet basic needs, many sustainable strategies for reducing poverty are aimed at the fundamental causes of the situation, rather than only the provision of direct material support. Participation, self-reliance, sustainability, and empowerment are the key principles often applied by social workers in the design for poverty reduction strategies and in fostering social integration. Means – tested and universal income – transfer programs, such as social security benefits, have an anti-poverty effect in that they move some families whose pre-transfer income was below the poverty level to a point at or above the poverty threshold. The taxation system is also used, to some degree, to reduce poverty.

4 Human rights and ethics

4.1 The need to close the existing gaps in living conditions faced by victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, especially regarding the illiteracy rate, universal primary education, infant mortality, health, access to safe drinking water and the promotion of gender equality has been expressed at may international forums. UN Secretary General in a letter dated May 26, 2005 reinforced the connection between human rights and poverty. The office of United Nations Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) has also increased efforts to impart the link between Human Rights and poverty. As part of civil societies ground force, social workers have inside access to the people most affected by poverty and human rights injustices. Human rights and ethics in social work practice are inseparable and are fundamental part of the professional practice. Ethics guide and shape the social work profession and provide a value based foundation for social work practice. When examining the social problem of poverty and ways in which social workers can help to alleviate address and help individuals affected by poverty, they can turn to the Statement of Ethical Principles for guidance. One of the core ethical principles of social work requires that all people have the right to be treated with respect and dignity, and by doing this, we must ensure that every individual’s human rights are upheld. Social workers also have a responsibility to ensure that social conditions that contribute to economic inequalities and unjust policies and practices are challenged and abolished. This includes, but is not limited to, making sure that those most in need receive resources first, and that the resources offered are distributed fairly.

5 Role of social workers

5.1 In practice all over the world, social workers concern about poverty has increased because of their long history in working with the marginalized, or excluded, those lacking resources, scenarios which push them to poverty situations. At the micro level of daily practice, social workers are used to dealing with poverty and also with the risk assessment, working creatively and innovatively to help people (individuals and communities) to understand their situation and to change their behaviour and their environment, where possible. One role that derives increased attention is community development, which requires skills in community analysis, social planning, community organizing and social action. Community development requires the ability to foster economic opportunities for area residents through work on industrial retention, local business development, job training, and placement. Another role is community practice which calls for social workers to help people to discover their own resources and their own ability to create influence and positive change. The importance of this has been underscored by realizing that poverty involves a complex set of interactions between personal characteristics and a community’s resources and opportunities. At times the role of social workers involves making tough judgements about risk to individuals and at times they have to use their ability and influence to protect the victims of poverty from themselves or from others. Examples include situations of domestic violence, child abuse or mental health. Social workers’ long history of working with people in poverty situations and witnessing their changing behaviour illustrates the importance of integrating theory about professional values that respect people, their choices and decisions. In this approach, community practice combines work with individuals and families with community work, focusing on enhancing resources and opportunities along with personal capacities and as individuals develop out of their poverty situations, so do communities, and the two become mutually reinforcing, creating a comprehensive and integrated model that addresses social and economic exclusion and social disintegration which is necessary for effective poverty eradication.

6 Policy statement

6.1 IFSW recognizes that human rights are fundamental to all persons, as individuals and collectives and these rights can not be guaranteed when almost a billion people around the world live in extreme poverty.

6.2 IFSW believes that national and international social and economic policies must be directed towards reducing extreme poverty and pledges to advocate for policy changes that would unconditionally support this goal.

6.3 IFSW proposes to work collaborating with governments, with other NGOs and Civil Society groups, with UN bodies and private sector to support and advance appropriate policies and strategies directed towards reducing poverty.

6.4 IFSW reaffirms the rights of poor people to organize and promote economic and social development for themselves and their children.

6.5 IFSW subscribes to MDG that proposes to reduce by half the number of people living in conditions of extreme poverty defined as living with less than one dollar a day by the year 2015.

6.6 IFSW affirms that all people are entitle to have their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter met and that political and civil rights have little meaning when these basic needs are unmet.

6.7 IFSW seeks to collaborate with others and use advocacy and community organisation skills to initiate and support social work efforts to eradicate extreme poverty.

6.8 IFSW recognises that women and children are often most at risk of poverty, and children often bear the brunt of extreme poverty.

Nairobi, January 2010


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