Written by Aisha Howells.
In July 2018, 2100 delegates from 100 countries attended the World Social Work, Education and Social Development conference (SWSD) in Dublin. The theme “Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies” focused on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which include Poverty and Quality of Life, Community Development, Social Justice, Rights and Equality, Climate Change and Sustainable Environments.
As we progress within the 21st century, there is growing concern that more recognition should be afforded towards the interconnected relationship between elements of planetary concern and social work practice. Matters including the future of our ecological system, alongside the impact of globalisation and capitalism provide complex challenges for the profession and require further understanding. Areas such as climate change, the economic crisis and the restructuring of welfare governance exacerbate existing inequalities and are viewed as an existential risk to humanity. However, how can social workers understand, engage and respond to these global and national problems, whilst the individualisation agenda remains the dominant discourse?
Social work is a liberating practice encompassing a shared history and priorities, striving towards global justice and peace. However, in order to support the progress and development of new ideas of practice, Ioakimidis (2018) suggests that we need to move away from Kantian ethics and first develop a “transformative ethics of reconciliation” which apologises for our historical complicity in oppressive practice. The purpose of this radical approach is not to harm the profession, but involves deepening our understanding of what has happened before and learning from these periods, whilst drawing on the similarities in the world today. It may be possible that social work can remake history through our responses in the current day, and by way of seeking a different outcome.
Another social work can be possible involving critical and emancipatory ideas. It is important to recognise that social change and mobilisation towards activism are rooted within our radical nature and the political element of our profession. Through solidarity we can build our courage to stand up and speak out against injustices and ‘speak truth to power’, challenging the effects of neoliberal capitalism and new managerial practices (Sewpaul, 2018). To be neutral within social work is impossible and it should not be our role to support individuals to adapt to an unjust system (Alicea, 2018), as is often the case in the day-to-day realities for practitioners. How can we as Social Workers and educators do better, through ensuring that our knowledge and agency are used for the progress and benefit of humanity (Robinson, 2018)?
Human Rights in social work is often viewed as rhetoric (Androff, 2018), however they are integral to social work practice and should be used towards advocating for our common humanity. It is vital that people should be seen as rights holders rather than ‘in need’; this approach will support practitioners to nurture these partnerships and look beyond individualistic person-centred approaches towards a human rights-based approach in relation to social problems. It is important to recognise social work as rights-based work; however, this raises difficulties as human rights and social justice have not often been involved as the prominent guiding principles within practice and training. As practitioners and educators we should consider our privileged positions and expand our understanding of the purpose of social work practice and education, taking these factors into account alongside key areas, such as critical reflexivity, the role of our community (Jones, 2018) and explorations of our professional identity.
For some, it may difficult to fully understand how human rights, environmental justice and matters of sustainability and the Anthropocene fit with professional practice. However, social work stands for justice, peace and equity and as such, we should build our knowledge in these areas and actively engage with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Alston (2018) suggests that the 5 P’s – People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership are at the heart of social work and we should be connecting with these fundamental changes that impact people’s lives. For example, Madew (2018) highlights that all food is controlled by 10 major corporations in the world. This raises issues for Social Workers about the authority of these powerful structures, alongside the increased risk of the most vulnerable and oppressed individuals and their complete lack of control over resources.
Poverty, inequality and oppression are issues that are not unfamiliar to social workers, however we need to start understanding and responding to these realities differently. The IFSW (2014) global definition of social work connects us to principles of social justice, collective responsibility and engagement with structures to challenge the growing inequality in the world. However, individualisation remains a popular theme in social work. Although this is important we should reflect upon our core values and reclaim our commitment to the spirit of our profession. We need our educators, our practitioners, our agencies and structures of support to facilitate our understanding of our role in the solution towards a more humane world involving a different kind of social work.
Follow Aisha @Howbells
A free ‘Social Work Promoting Community and Environmental Sustainability Volume 2’ workbook. Available HERE
UN Sustainable Development Goals. Available HERE
SWSD Visual Summary HERE
Alicea, L. (2018) ‘Intersectionality, knowledge and power: A decolonizing look for the practice of social work’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
Androff, D. (2018) ‘Practicing Rights: Human rights-based approaches in social work and social development’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
Ioakimidis, V. (2018) ‘Social work, violence and resistance; a tale of two professions’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
International Federation of Social Workers (2014) The Global Definition of Social Work. Available at: https://www.ifsw.org/what-is-social-work/global-definition-of-social-work/
Jones, D. (2018) ‘Young carers – involving them in local and regional activity alongside strategic engagement with Commonwealth and international institutions’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
Madew, M. (2018) ‘The Politics of Hunger – A Postcolonial Social Work Analysis’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
Robinson, M. (2018) ‘The Importance of Community Involvement in Working for Climate Justice’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.
Sewpaul, V. (2018) ‘Within the spheres of our influence: Social work and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’. SWSD: Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies. Dublin, 4-7 July 2018.