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How social work on the ground makes a global difference

Vishanthie Sewpaul
Vishanthie Sewpaul

Social work’s grassroot approach is as important to driving “human improvement” as the endeavours of big global institutions like the United Nations.

Vishanthie Sewpaul, a leading social work academic in South Africa, said the profession worked on the ground to create positive change, challenging injustices, like discrimination.

But she warned that march of managerialism, neoliberalism globalisation threatened the ability of social workers to do the relationship-based work that made a difference.

Speaking at the World Conference on Social Work, Education and Social Development in Dublin, Professor Sewpaul said: “The majority of us engage in on the ground work against a background of a globalised world.

“In doing so it is social workers that often bridge the gap between the local and the global and the micro and the macro.

“That is where are role is so important. We often think of things like sustainable development goals as belonging to institutions like the United Nations.

“But it is on the level of families and individuals in communities that the battles can be fought and won.”

Far from being an “ivory tower”, social work’s academic base was an integral part of this, said Prof Sewpaul.

“I am an academic but I am often out in the field getting my hands dirty. I know there are many other academics who do that. If we are not doing that it is time to get out of our armchairs and do it.

“There is too much of this image of academics as ivory tower tower puritans out of touch with real world practice.”

But Prof Sewpaul urged the profession at all levels to challenge the barriers to effective social work practice.

“One of things we need to come together to do as students, as educators as practitioners is to challenge the dehabilitating affects of neoliberal capitalism and managerial practices.

I know this is happening. We look at the social activism of social workers across the world and we know this is happening.

Part of my concern is these discources and practices are becoming so normalised and nationalised that we are buying into the beaucratic rationalisation.

We will hear a lot about global inequalities across the world, austerity and putting profit about people. The question is what are we doing about it.

New managerial practices, our message is building and strengthening human relationships. It is at the heart of human relationships that new managerialism impacts. Social work’s emphasis is on relationships, on building trust, on tuning into the world of people.

All the more important because of the managerial focus on the checklist type approach. Social workers are tired of being glorified clerks. Social workers make excellent cultural mediators.

We still have a great deal of oppressions across the world and all too often they happen in the name of culture. We have a position on the ground to challenge taken for granted assumptions around race and agenda and undo the constructions associated with certain groups of people and agendas.

We are there for the child who is neglected and abused, we are there for the migrant and refugee who is displaced, unlike Donald Trump who building walls and closing borders – social workers build bridges.

There is ample emperical evidence of social workers working to prevent violence, child abuse and supporting refugees and migrants.

It is not about how others see us but how we see ourselves. If we see the importance of our work as rights-based work we will stand tall and hold our head up high and be proud of the power we have to influence human improvement.

It is a profession that challenges discrimination in all forms, unjust policies, unjust practices. It is a profesion that promotes cultural, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.