Journal of Global Social Work Practice, Volume 2, Number 2, November/December 2009
Competencies Required to Design and Implement Programs for Children and Adolescents Affected by Natural Disaster and Complex Emergencies: Are These Competencies Those of International Social Work Practice?
In 1987, Lynne Healy published a ground-breaking study on international agencies as social work settings. The study found that international agencies in collaboration with the United Nations provide social welfare services, working with poor and disenfranchised people throughout the world, and that the populations with whom they work and the services provided “fit more closely the goals and priorities of social work than any other profession (Healy, 1987, p.305). However, she also found that social workers were rarely employed in international work. In the 1990s, international organizations formalized a global system for providing large scale humanitarian assistance designed to mitigate the affects of emergencies on children and adolescents. Yet Claiborne (2004) found that social workers continued to be largely absent from this arena as practitioners and policy makers.
This study compares the competencies required by international humanitarian organizations to those of the global standards of the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers. The authors interviewed the agencies of the United Nations, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and several international non-governmental organizations involved in relief and development work with children affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies. The results indicate that these agencies seek the same competencies as those required of professional social workers, but also showed the agencies were unaware that social workers had these competencies. Discussion has taken place within the field as to the desirability of social work partnerships in international humanitarian efforts. However, the literature indicates that where social work is well established, indigenous social work providers are able to take the lead in the design, administration, and provision of humanitarian assistance, thereby supporting the development of indigenous and sustainable practices.
The results of the inquiry suggest a stronger role for social work in developing local capacity around the globe to support effective and culturally competent practice with children and adolescents affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters. The results also imply the possibility that such practice could be expanded beyond work with children and adolescents.
Key words: skills, competencies, social work, natural disaster, complex emergencies, children, adolescents, international, humanitarian assistance, standards
Since the end of the cold war, United Nations (UN) agencies and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have led a growing number of large scale international efforts designed to relieve human suffering in emergency situations. These efforts are funded by national governments and international bodies, but are largely implemented by an array of international non-governmental organizations (Kakietek, 2008). Healy (1987) described many of the functions of these organizations as similar to those of social work in a study that revealed that professional social workers comprised a very small presence in these international organizations. Claiborne (2004) noted that this situation continued almost twenty years after Healy’s study. Diaz, Mama, and Lopez (2006) called for greater and intensified engagement by the social work profession with the vast and growing international relief and development community. In order to follow up on Healy and Claiborne’s respective findings and to address Diaz, Mama, and Lopez’ contention, this study investigates a key question: Are the practice competencies employed by people in humanitarian efforts consistent with those of global social work practice? If they are not, then the absence of professional social workers in international humanitarian organizations is not surprising, and social workers advocating for a greater role would have to examine curricula to develop necessary practice competencies.
If, however, the practice competencies of social work are much the same as those required by the international organizations providing services in emergency situations, then an examination must be made as to the reasons for this lack of a greater social work presence, as well as how to intensify efforts to increase it. In order to address the issue in detail, the authors have partialized the problem to look specifically at the work of agencies addressing the needs of children and adolescents affected by complex emergencies and natural disaster, arguing that these areas are the fastest growing arenas of social welfare intervention in the global relief and development community.
Prior to launching the study, appropriate definitions of terms were developed. For the purpose of this paper, the authors have defined “emergencies” as complex emergencies - which includes armed conflict - and natural disasters.
A complex emergency is a situation characterized by extensive violence, loss of life, massive displacements of people, widespread damage to society, and the economy and hindrance of humanitarian assistance, especially by local service providers through political restrictions, failures of security, or both (Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs [UNOCHA], 2009).
Disaster is defined as “a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society involving widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses and impacts, which exceeds the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources” (United Nations International Strategy on Disaster [UNISDR], 2009). Natural disasters can be described as a result of the combination of the exposure to a naturally occurring hazard, (such as fire, flood, or hurricane), the conditions of vulnerability that are present, and insufficient capacity or measures to reduce or cope with the potential negative consequences (UNISDR, 2009).
The term, “natural disasters” is, in a sense, misleading as natural disasters are never exclusively “natural.” They affect communities differently, depending on the quality of the infrastructure, the quality and proximity of emergency services, and the ways in which authorities respond to community needs and organizational representatives. Poor and marginalized communities are likely to suffer more severely than wealthy communities or those whose citizens are well connected (Halpern & Tramontin, 2007; Pyles, 2007).
For the purpose of this paper, humanitarian assistance will be defined as the support provided by agencies that are not party to conflict, operate under conditions of strict neutrality, and are available to provide care to civilian populations in order to prevent or mitigate the effects of disasters and complex emergencies, The employees of agencies that provide this assistance are referred to as humanitarian aid workers. Some are medical personnel, and others are engineers with specific duties. However, they also perform a variety of tasks ranging from transport, situation analysis, reunification of families, and the distribution of relief supplies that are designed to meet human needs in emergency situations (Cox & Pawar, 2006).
Development of international social work
To understand the relative explosion of international agencies working in the area of humanitarian assistance and post emergency development, it may be helpful to provide a brief background on the recent history of this work. Following the end of the Cold War, it was possible for the United Nations to imagine a world in which all countries worked together to meet the needs of people in crisis, without the regard for national interest that was characteristic of the Cold War period from 1950 to 1989. However, despite these hopes that the end of the Cold War would herald an end to armed conflicts around the world, the disparities between rich and poor continued to grow and armed conflicts continued to proliferate from 1989 into the 21st century. Civilians continued to represent the largest number of casualties in armed conflicts, as they had since the end of World War II, with children and adolescents representing the largest group affected overall. At the same time, climate change accelerated, bringing with it natural disasters that have increased in size, scope, and violence. The same technological advances that made it possible to spread the process of production and distribution around the globe have also made it possible to bring supplies and humanitarian assistance from far away places. Globalization and the ubiquity of information regarding the plight of civilians - especially women, children, and adolescents - along with the post-Cold War disillusionment with political solutions, have fuelled the desire of people in wealthy countries to aid those in poor ones (Calhoun, in press).
The UN General Assembly set up a series of mechanisms to coordinate the humanitarian response to complex emergencies and natural disasters in an effort to increase effectiveness (Kakietek, 2008). In December of 1991, the General Assembly adopted resolution 46/182, which created structures to coordinate the United Nations’ response to complex emergencies, such as armed conflict and natural disasters, by creating a single Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) - a body that coordinated the efforts of UN agencies, the Red Cross, and civil society organizations. In 1998, the General Assembly followed up by creating the Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in order to consolidate international efforts at fundraising and service delivery to people in urgent need, with the mission “to alleviate human suffering in disasters and emergencies; advocate for the rights of people in need; promote preparedness and prevention; and facilitate sustainable human solutions” (UNOCHA, 2009). These mechanisms trigger official action by the international community in response to complex emergencies and natural disasters wherever they occur, and have formalized and facilitated the kind of large-scale international responses that have been observed in the post-Cold War years.
In 2004, the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) met with the International Federation of Social Work (IFSW) in Adelaide, Australia, and adopted a set of global standards for education and practice known as the IFSW/IASSW Global standards for the education and training of the social work profession. The global standards include a definition of social work, as well as a framework of competencies for practice that are meant to be characteristic of the profession on a global scale:
The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work. (IASSW/ IFSW, 2004)
This definition of social work resonates strongly with OCHA’s previously-mentioned mission statement. Since these statements appear to be related, the next question to be addressed is whether or not the required practice competencies are also related; or, at the very least, whether the narrower goals of international humanitarian assistance require the same but narrower practice competencies for practice.
At the time of this inquiry, practice competencies had been established for various areas of work performed by employees of humanitarian agencies. However, these have not been related specifically to social work, nor has social work been defined by the international community as the discipline necessary for applying effective practice skills during and after complex emergencies and natural disaster (Xu, 2006). Therefore, the authors embarked on a careful inquiry to learn how the international humanitarian community defines these necessary competencies, and whether or not they were compatible with those competencies defined by the IASSW/IFSW. If a high degree of consonance was discovered, it could be argued that social work programs should be developed and supported in countries affected by frequent natural disasters or armed conflict, and that social workers should be considered key personnel in leading humanitarian activities as they occur. This implementation of social workers could begin to address the concern that globalization has created a space for outsiders to play a negative and colonial role in providing service, while simultaneously offering a sustainable source of qualified professional service delivery and support in situations that continue to require intervention.
History of social work during and after the Cold War
In 1987, on the eve of the “humanitarian explosion” that has been described above, Lynne Healy published a ground-breaking study on international agencies as social work settings. The study found that international agencies in collaboration with the UN provide social welfare services, working with poor and disenfranchised people throughout the world, and that the populations with whom they work and the services provided “fit more closely the goals and priorities of social work than any other profession (p. 405).” The study begins with a detailed history of social work practice at the UN, pointing out that in the 1950’s and through the 1960’s, social work and social welfare practice were specifically promoted both by the UN and the social work profession. However, from the late 1960’s to the time of the writing of this paper, the role of social work in international affairs has significantly declined. According to Healy (1987), in 1967 Khinduka had examined the qualifications of UN technical assistance experts in social welfare and found that only 11 jobs required a Masters of Social Work (MSW). Additionally, of the 148 experts actually employed at the time of the study, only 53% had some social work training (p.405).
Drucker (2003) pointed out that part of this withdrawal from engagement with the international community was the result of practices by which international social work was used to export individual social work practice from the global north, hindering the development of indigenous social work practice around the globe, and weakening opportunities for social workers in developed countries to learn from effective practices in the global south. However, social workers in the late 1960’s through the 1990’s were not absent from international professional action. Dominelli (2007) points out that social workers were involved in humanitarian action in many parts of the globe. Social workers were heavily represented as members of social movements, many of which were engaged in the process of freeing themselves from colonial rule or ending the rule of oligarchies and military dictatorships that favored the rich over the poor. However, these social workers did not see themselves as neutral humanitarians, but as partisan supporters of international struggles to advance the cause of poor and disenfranchised people to achieve their human rights (Cox & Pawar, 2006).
In 1974, social workers in the United States formed the Committee on International Human Rights Inquiry (CIHRI) in an effort to use the relative safety of the United States to support colleagues in danger, due to their humanitarian efforts. The committee’s goal was to actively work for the release of social workers who were imprisoned for their activities around the world. Winnie Mandela of South Africa was perhaps the best known of the social workers championed by the committee. Social workers were successfully released from prison through the committee’s efforts in El Salvador, the Philippines, and Chile among other countries.
Van Soest (1997) and Bragin (2003) provide examples of skills exchanges among social workers from the global north and those engaged in the struggle for human rights in the global south. Among the learning from the south came community participatory action research techniques and the combination of community organization methods to support strengths and emotional well being. Some of the cutting edge approaches to practice derived from global social work collaboration have made their way into the international standards established by the IASC for mental health and psychosocial support in emergency settings (Van Ommeren & Wessells, 2007), thus influencing international humanitarian practice in emergencies; although it is not clear that the practitioners formulating the guidelines were aware that these best practices were derived from professional social work.
Issues addressed by the inquiry
Due to the authors’ experience in work with children, and in an effort to be specific in the research process, the inquiry focused on the practice competencies required by agencies providing services to children and adolescents. The requirements were then compared to the global standards for social work education and practice recognized by the international social work profession. The authors compiled a list of the purposes for their inquiries:
Healy’s (1987) paper is the foundation for further research on the question of practice competencies required for global social work, along with further discussion of the question of whether social work could, or should, increase its involvement in global practice. The paper did more than review history and advocate for social work involvement in international settings; it presented a systematic survey of international agencies in regard to their hiring priorities and practices. The survey indicated that, at the time, previous international experience, management skills, and personal qualities were among those most valued by the agencies. Healy’s survey included the UN agencies most involved in the provision of social welfare services at that time, along with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and several leading private voluntary organizations. It should be noted that these same organizations are now referred to as international non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.
In 2004, Claiborne undertook an extensive study of the presence of social workers in NGOs. The study looked at the job categories occupied by full time social workers in 20 international NGOs. Claiborne’s survey found that only 12 of 229 top administrative positions were held by social workers, and that in the area of direct community practice, only 17% of those employed had a social work degree. Claiborne’s study, like this one, noted the consonance of the stated mission of many NGOs and the professional mission of international social work professional organizations. Lyons (2006) provides an extensive study of globalization and its relationship to professional social work in a world of unprecedented global interdependence. She emphasizes that local practice has global implications, while global issues often come to the door of local practitioners through the global mobility of the workforce.
Healy (1987), Claiborne (2004), and Lyons (2006) do not focus specifically on social work in complex emergencies and natural disasters, although those categories were included in their studies. Specific relevance of social work practice competencies to humanitarian assistance work was also not discussed. Therefore, the current study was designed to fill a specific gap.
The literature on social work in international humanitarian practice is divided into three categories. A significant minority warn that global practice in collaboration with the “humanitarian” community may represent a form of neocolonialism that should be entered into with a high degree of critical consciousness, if entered into at all. There are strong opposing voices to this view who support the notions of Healy (2007) and Diaz, Mama, and Lopez (2006) that in facing the realities of globalization, social work should be an essential partner in international humanitarian efforts. A third strand discusses the practice experience of social workers who are on the front lines of humanitarian practice today in those countries where the profession is well established.
The question of social work participation in international humanitarian assistance efforts has not been without its critics. These critics draw from a literature outside of social work that has called the effectiveness of humanitarian action into question and charged international NGOs with representing the new face of colonialism (Calhoun, in press; Kakietek, 2008). In particular, the issue of capacity-building partnerships between international NGOs, absent support for indigenous tertiary education during complex emergencies and following disasters, has come under fire as being ineffective and perpetuating dependence on the developed world for techniques and practices which may not be relevant to the local environment. Critics note that these efforts have failed to support the growth and development of sustainable indigenous institutions for social welfare that support wellbeing as defined by the local culture (Lauten, 2007; Pardington & Coyne, 2007).
Haug (2005) warns that, should social work become engaged in international practice, there is a danger that social work institutions may perpetuate these problems. Haug argues, credibly, that social work epistemology is deeply rooted in European traditions, and therefore may be used to perpetuate colonialism and dependency in the very act of internationalizing practice and help to curtail the growth and development of systemic indigenous responses to indigenous needs.
Moldovan and Moyo (2007), utilizing case studies from the diverse experience of Moldova and Zimbabwe, argue that to the extent in which social work has had a presence in international humanitarian assistance, it has also brought with it individualistic methodologies of helping that are often alien to indigenous cultural institutions, resulting in the marginalization of these communities. Further, they argue that social work as a profession adheres to conservative values that support the maintenance of the status quo at the expense of the systemic change necessary to alleviate the root causes of the suffering of families and individuals affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters.
On the other side of the spectrum, a great many notable authors have written in support of the assertions made by Healy (1987) and Diaz, Mama, and Lopez (2006) that the social work profession should become an essential partner in humanitarian action in complex emergencies and natural disasters. Xu (2006) points out that the global problems of armed conflict, political oppression, genocide, famine, and pandemics create a pressing need for practical intervention in support of the poor and disenfranchised who suffer most in complex emergencies and natural disasters. He argues that social work has an obligation to internationalize itself and address these issues, rather than sitting on the sidelines while vulnerable people suffer.
Roff (2004) makes a powerful argument that the role of NGOs in humanitarian action are exemplars of social work’s strengths perspective in practice and, therefore, should be an important focus of professional social work. Powell and Geoghegan (2005) go one step further by arguing that national social work was a creation of the nation state, and that with globalization one can no longer argue that social workers should remain within their borders. They assert that the proliferation of NGOs represent an example of the reclamation of civil society from the corporate or oligarchic forces with which social workers must engage as part of a larger movement toward empowerment. Finally, they argue that remaining aloof during complex emergencies and natural disasters can, in fact, set the stage for abuses.
Healy (2007), who has returned to this discussion frequently in the 20 years since her original article, suggests that the questions of universalism and cultural relativism in social work – questions addressed in teaching issues of cultural competence – are exactly those that are needed to facilitate ethical international partnerships. Bragin (in press) illustrates that without support from the global community in local humanitarian practice, families and communities can become victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by local authorities through ignorance and poor practice in their service delivery. She cites the case of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, in which the international community might have prevented needless family separations and deaths of the sick and elderly by bringing a knowledge base in human rights and disaster management to a beleaguered national system that was unaware of most of the basic protocols that have come to dominate the protection of civilians in natural disasters.
Social workers outside of the United States, and from countries where social work is well established, have described their increasingly central role in service delivery and planning during and after complex emergencies and natural disasters, indicating that social work already plays a key role, but that this role may not be reflected in the perceptions of international humanitarian organizations, because such organizations may not be aware of these developments as they occur. Javadian (2007) pointed out that when Bam, Iran experienced devastating earthquakes, social workers attended to victims’ immediate psychosocial needs, in addition to facilitating and coordinating other vital services on micro, mezzo, and macro levels. Other case studies (Federico, Picton, Muncy, Ongsiapco, Santos, & Hernandez, 2007; Zack-Williams, 2006) have demonstrated in detail the ways in which indigenous social work institutions are able to respond to the special problems of children and adolescents during complex emergencies. These cases demonstrate that social work tradition supports the skills necessary to address both micro issues - such as finding the families of separated children - and macro issues - such as the widespread poverty and social disintegration that caused those children to be separated in the first place. The case studies support the notion that, where professional social workers are available to do so, their training gives them the best possible preparation to take the lead in complex emergencies.
Yanay and Benjamin (2005) explain that this demonstration of the relevance of social work skills has also occurred during the years of recent conflict and disaster in Israel. Social workers in the country have continuously been “…the only professionals who are represented at almost every site that is directly or indirectly linked to the disaster” (p. 271). In fact, the authors assert that their experiences have demonstrated that “…during and after emergencies, social workers are the best professionals trained to observe, assess and address the needs of the public” (p. 268).
Kasi, Bhadra, and Dyer (2007) go one step further, describing India’s experience with natural disasters. They explain that a paradigm shift has taken place since 1999, from having medical professionals take the lead with social workers assisting, to one in which social work is the lead profession in coordinating and setting up national standards of response with the role of physicians moved to one of specific technical expertise. They argue that this allowed specialized professionals to do their work with greater care because social work was able to support the Indian government in creating a model of overall disaster response that took community practices into account and supported greater local empowerment, while also ensuring a national standard of effective response.
Other authors discuss the benefits that can occur through professional exchanges of information among social workers. Mathbor (2007) and Bragin (2004) illustrate ways in which social work practice in the global south can serve to enrich the quality of practice in the global north. Practitioners in the north can learn from the grassroots professional experiences of their colleagues in integrating such issues as the building of social capital and the management of issues of social violence through community activism.
In summary, the literature suggests that a significant controversy exists regarding social work engagement with the international humanitarian community as an essential partner in providing services for those affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters. Many consider this partnership as both an obligation and an opportunity. Others voices, however, warn of the dangers inherent in participating in what are essentially neo-colonialist practices that may drown out the indigenous voices necessary to meaningful change that will address the underlying causes of complex emergencies and the disparate and unnatural effects of natural disasters.
However, a growing trend from the global south indicates that in those countries with a strong social work presence, it is social work that takes the lead role in addressing issues surrounding complex emergencies and natural disasters - not only in practice, but in defining systems and terms of care. These social workers indicate that, as they practice, they bring high quality care, indigenous practices, the building and strengthening of civil society, and the voices of the disenfranchised to the forefront, making sure that their practice is empowering, even during emergencies. This trend suggests that the competencies of social workers are, in fact, in line with those of international humanitarian assistance. If this is true, at least in regard to practice with children and adolescents affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters, then the social work profession has an important role as an essential partner in this work. This may also imply a critical role for the social work profession in expanding to those areas of the world experiencing crisis and disaster so that an indigenous professional practice can address the concerns voiced by critics of international humanitarian efforts.
This qualitative study utilized grounded theory to extract information from current practice. Grounded theory refers to an approach to developing theory that uses open-ended inquiries to gather qualitative data so that the theory is grounded in that data rather than starting with a specific hypothesis. The goal is to allow themes to emerge and information to come to light that may be unexpected, and to lead the researcher to group answers according to categories that emerge, rather than those related to any original hypothesis (Morris, 2006). Purposive, criterion sampling was used in order to include those agencies now at the forefront of the work in question. In this case, the criteria were based on the frequency with which specific organizations are actors in the field providing community or psychosocial support during and after armed conflict and disaster.
A specific set of questions was used in the study. These questions were divided into four categories:
1.What knowledge is needed by staff to support programs in the field for children, youth, and families during and after armed conflict, other violence, and natural disasters?
2.Is there knowledge that is specialized for armed conflict, other violence, or emergencies?
Skill sets required
1. What skill sets are needed by staff to support programs in the field for children, youth, and families during and after armed conflict, other violence, and natural disasters?
2. Are there skills that are specialized for armed conflict, other violence, or emergencies?
1. What are the personal qualities that you look for in staff working with and on behalf of children during and after armed conflict, other violence, and natural disasters?
Your view of social work
1. Does your agency hire professional social workers to serve during and after humanitarian emergencies?
2. In what capacities and at what level of responsibility are these social workers employed?
3. Do you think of social workers as likely to possess the knowledge, skills and personal qualities that you have described? If so why? If not, why not?
Several agencies and organizations were asked to participate in the inquiry. These organizations included the United Nations Chilren’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies (IFRC/RC), and the American Red Cross. The international NGOs that were asked to participate included the Child Fund International (formerly Christian Children’s Fund), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Save the Children Alliance (UK), CARE International (Austria), and Medcins Sans Frontières (MSF Holland).
Each organization was approached through the person in charge of service provision in child protection (professional titles vary) and asked if they were interested in participating. An inquiry was also made as to these workers’ thoughts about social work as a profession taking a lead on global issues. All of the invited agencies chose to participate in the study.
They were sent a series of open-ended questions (see Appendix A) to which they could respond either through a personal meeting, a discussion by telephone, or in writing. Several contacts responded in writing, including CARE Austria, the American Red Cross, Child Fund International, and Save the Children UK. Face-to-face meetings were held with representatives from The IRC and UNICEF (emergency and child protection sections). The Medcins Sans Frontières’ Senior Mental Health Advisor and the Director of Community Services from UNHCR responded both by telephone and by personal meetings. Finally, Save the Children UK, the lead agency of the Save the Children Alliance, was in the process of developing its own complete set of practice competencies in order to develop an internship program. They responded to the inquiry with a copy of their document, as well as a phone conversation and a face to face meeting.
Information contained in transcripts of notes from meetings and phone conversations, along with written responses sent by e-mail were separated into four categories: Knowledge, skills, personal qualities, and agencies’ attitudes toward the social work profession. The qualitative data was then analyzed using the process of selective coding that is most conducive to a relatively rapid organization of data into a usable form, consistent with the beginning nature of this study.
The results are elaborated in a series of five tables. The first four tables are devoted to practice competencies; the last table gives information about agencies’ views of the social work profession. Because the Save the Children Alliance had offered a draft of a complete competency scheme of its own, it contained a relatively long list of highly specialized competencies not common to the other agencies, in addition to those that are aggregated with the others throughout the table. They are highlighted at the bottom of Table 1.
The results of the inquiry are organized into a series of tables.
• Table 1 lists competencies in order of the frequency that they are mentioned by the respondents; the ones mentioned only by Save the Children are listed at the bottom.
• Table 2 takes the results of Table 1 and elaborates the competency that each individual knowledge and skill represent in demonstrable terms.
• Table 3 locates the knowledge, skills, and personal qualities listed in Table 2 in core curriculum areas identified by the IFSW/IASSW Global standards for the education and training of the social work profession.
• Table 4 elaborates those elements of knowledge, skill, and personal qualities that are related to social work administration as these were not listed in Table 4. However, Social Work Administration is an area of macro practice that is recognized as a core curriculum area by many schools of social work.
• Table 5 describes attitudes toward and interests in the social work profession
Table 1: Summary of knowledge, skills, and personal qualities identified by the 7 agencies as necessary for practitioners working to benefit children and families during and after armed conflict or disaster, with those exclusive to the Save the Children Alliance’s formal scheme highlighted in bold at the bottom.
Order represents the number of agencies that mentioned a specific factor.
Comments on Table 1
The first 5 factors in the “knowledge” column were mentioned by all seven agencies interviewed, along with the first 10 skills and the first 10 abilities. In each column, entries were listed in order of the frequency with which they were mentioned by respondents. Across the board, the most important factors were related to cultural competence and the ability to learn from others.
Most of the factors listed will not surprise readers. However, the authors wanted to highlight the fact that casework and case management were skills that all of the agencies insisted they required of staff, in addition to community organization. This information struck the authors as significant, since these skills are not often considered as key parts of global practice.
The specialized knowledge and skills required by Save the Children are very specific to the field of international practice with children and adolescents in emergencies. However, it appeared that these were not the competencies that their staff necessarily had already, but rather those that they wanted to include in a specialized training scheme.
Table 2: This table elaborates on the responses of the agencies with brief descriptions of the practice competencies. The descriptions were written by the authors, elaborated from the transcripts. The Knowledge and Skills are in normal typeface in columns to the left, with the operationalized explanation in italics in the columns on the right.
Comments on Table 2
Table 2 was derived from an analysis of the transcripts of face-to-face and phone conversations. Table 2 takes each area of knowledge and skill in one column and operationalizes the area in practical terms, so that we can understand what the respondent actually meant by each. By elaborating and operationalizing the list of competencies we can understand both the practical meanings and implicit understandings of each item on the list in order to better understand the fit with competencies understood by the social work community. Sometimes common language can be as difficult to decipher as language that is arcane and different.
For example, the skill “Able to integrate non-Western ideas into Western training/adapt Western training to non-Western ideas” is operationalized as: To the extent that practitioners have been taught these skills from the perspective of the Global North, (even where they have studied in the Global South) they should be able to utilize them in the context of the Global South, integrating and transforming their work through the infusion of local knowledge.
We note that the underlying assumption of the respondants is that the practitioners will be working in the Global South, bringing their information and biases with them and not the reverse. These are issues that professional social work would want to address.
Table 3: Comparing selected elements of the Global Standards for the education and training of the social work profession (2004) to the requirements of international agencies providing humanitarian assistance to children and adolescents in armed conflict and disaster.
Comments on Table 3
Table 3 takes specific standards from the IASSW/ IFSW global standards adopted in 2004 and places underneath them the requirements listed by the responding international agencies. Almost all of the agencies’ requirements have found a home underneath one or another of the global standards, except for those related to administration and the specific area knowledge and skills listed by the Save the Children scheme.
This makes it clear that overall competencies required for social work practice are indeed those required by the international agencies engaged in the provision of services to children and adolescents in complex emergencies and natural disasters.
TABLE 4: Knowledge, skills, and personal qualities related to social work administration, not included in Table 3.
Comments on Table 4
While these competencies were not included in the Global Standards, many schools of social work have included social welfare administration as part of their curriculum in order to prepare social workers for greater levels of organizational responsibility in the field.
Like the specialized knowledge and skills highlighted by Save the Children, such knowledge and skills could easily supplement social work education in global practice, and already is an important area of teaching and research at many schools of social work in India.
Implications of Tables 1-4
Tables 1 – 4 indicate that the knowledge and skills that social workers need in order to work effectively in programs for children and adolescents affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters are already an essential part of the global standards for social work practice. A narrative summary of the key elements of a “skills package” extracted from the tables above is included below.
What is already in place
Social workers bring critical skills in learning from communities and cultures other than their own, along with the values and attitudes that are needed to work across cultures in time of crisis. Humility and respect allow for listening and creative solutions, and assumes that populations in need are the experts in addressing the challenges that they face. These values and skills are already an integral part of the social work curriculum as noted in section 4.2.2 of the Global Standards. The agencies placed a high priority on the capacity to analyze power relationships, as part of grassroots community organizing. It is important to note that the agencies did not see the need to study the specifics of any culture, believing that learning about local beliefs and practices is a dynamic process that takes place between social workers and community members with whom they work throughout their years of practice. This approach is highly valued by the agencies that provide humanitarian assistance to children and adolescents.
Additional skills that might be helpful
Technical methods of learning from communities, including Participatory Learning in Action (PLA) techniques such as Rapid Rural Appraisal and Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation, are essential to begin to work in a new community or in an emergency context with a strengths-based understanding of the situation at hand. Such techniques formalize and streamline the learning process and can make it transparent to both community members and practitioners from other disciplines.
What is already in place
All of the agencies specifically mentioned casework, case management, skills in working with groups, and skills in organizing communities and their members. The importance of competence in social work methods is described in section 4.2.3 of the Global Standards. The most highly prized skill was that of psychosocial needs/resource assessment for communities, groups, families, and individuals. In addition, the capacity to understand assessment in the light of models that promote resilience, coping, and transformation was seen as an important skill.
It is interesting that all of the social work methods were considered important in Tables 1 – 3. Even agencies that disparaged individual methods when speaking in general terms at the end of the day stated that case work and case management skills were absolutely necessary when working with children who had become separated from family members or who had to be placed with extended family when their immediate family members died. They also cited the need for children in distress to have a home base where they could have their individual stories recounted and understood, and where placements, educational achievements, and progress to finding lost family members could be kept on track. At the same time, the extended work involved in group programs for children and adolescent clubs and sports teams required group work skills, as well as the assessment of appropriate needs and available resources. Ongoing work with communities required the skills of community organizers. Familiarity with policy is required for effective understanding of social welfare systems, as well as advocacy for improved programs and practices.
Additional skills that might be helpful
A high level of competence in the major social work methods leaves practitioners prepared to adapt their skills to new and unfamiliar situations. Complex emergencies, by their very nature, defy neat categories so it is an illusion to believe that one can be fully prepared for all of them. The participatory assessment methods mentioned above formalize learning and communicate community needs and resources early in the process so that appropriate intervention can begin.
In addition, the agencies included in this study also listed a series of specialist skills in methods that could be added as advanced practice courses. These include skills and knowledge of best practice in the development of community-based psychosocial programs, family tracing and reunification, best practices in working with survivors of violence, best practices in working with children in conflict with the law, and best practices in prevention of placement and de-institutionalization.
What is already in place
This phrase comes directly from section 4.2.1 and 4.2.4 of the Global Standards. Therefore, it is important to stress that these are skills that social workers have upon graduation from an accredited program. Social workers have also developed skills in collaboration and teamwork, as well as in rights-based advocacy. Because social workers use a rights-based perspective as a paradigm that undergirds their work, they are already skilled at translating the rights perspective into day-to-day social work practice.
Additional skills that might be helpful
An understanding of the various specialized elements of humanitarian law and the treaties that form the basis of international human rights legislation as they apply to children and adolescents in complex emergencies and disasters would help support rights-based practice.
These skills are essential parts of the social workers’ tool kit, no matter where that social worker practices.
What is already in place
Social workers are trained in the ethical conduct of research. They are taught the importance of program evaluation and accountability to program participants and the surrounding communities in which social work services are required. Relevant skills are threaded through the global standards, especially in 4.2.1
Additional skills that might be helpful
Community participatory research and program evaluation methods are taught today in development courses and might also be routinely included in a global social work program.
Rights-based management and the skills needed to care for staff members under stress should be included in a skills package. They are not always part of traditional social work programs, although they are often taught as electives in schools of social work. Such issues as management of resources, accountability systems, and grant writing can become important in working with children in emergency contexts. Complex emergencies and natural disasters, by their very nature, may breed an atmosphere of insecurity. Good practice will require support for orderly systems of care and distribution and, if they are insufficient to meet the needs of the population, the capacity to generate and manage the funds needed to support those systems in doing their work. Good management skills include supporting staff members in their ability to continue to do the work well through the use of self care and social supports.
Table 5. Information about agencies’ views of the social work profession, and the need for professional social workers in the field.
Comments on Table 5
This table sets out the main obstacles to a more prominent role for social work among international humanitarian agencies from the point of view of the agencies. While the divergent views of the social work profession amongst the respondents in this study indicate that the professional capacity of social work is unevenly understood at best, the most significant area in this table is represented by the barriers to hiring professional social workers in humanitarian programs for children and adolescents affected by complex emergencies and natural disasters, and the levels of partnership the agencies offered to remedy this situation.
Implications of Table 5
Table five includes five areas that are seen by international organizations charged with providing humanitarian assistance to children and adolescents in complex emergencies and natural disasters as barriers to the hiring of social work professionals. It also indicates areas of potential partnership with schools of social work around the world, which implies a role for schools of social work in addressing these barriers. One major barrier is the fact that countries experiencing complex emergencies, including those whose university systems are intact, may not have university level social work departments to train those professionals who could make a difference in both addressing the emergencies and in creating sustainable systems to address future crises. This barrier also affects others. When there are few experienced social work professionals or allied professionals trained to fill social work roles, international agencies do not call on them in emergencies and natural disasters as they fear depleting ministries, which leads to even fewer social workers being included in the ranks of those designing, administering, and providing humanitarian assistance. Further, when there is no university-level social work department, neither government, international, nor non-governmental organizations may be aware of the power and capacity of social work to play a lead role in the coordination, design and operation of services. The problem can become cyclical. When the social work profession is neither well known nor well appreciated, or not an available university option, highly qualified young people who want to make a difference in their societies may turn to other professions where they see their work as more effective.
The contrast is striking. As noted by Kasi, Bhadra, and Dyer (2007), when schools of social work are well established, they can become essential partners in international humanitarian assistance efforts. Further, they note that when this happens, the efforts are more likely to be indigenous, militating against the incursion of Western ideas in contexts that have a rich history of their own ideologies and practice. For example, at the time of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan China, social work was not well established on the mainland. However, in Hong Kong, social work was a well established profession, and so social work professors and students from Hong Kong, were able to move quickly to establish “social work stations” in the zone of the quake. They used a model designed to train local personnel to establish and coordinate effective, community based supports at all levels. This led to a national movement to develop indigenous social work practice throughout China and to establish the social work profession through the development of university based departments and Schools of Social Work (Sim 2009).
The IASSW is already engaged in addressing the development of schools of social work in countries that do not have them. Such projects are underway in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Botswana. However, adding such curricula to institutions in the many countries affected by increased natural disasters and complex emergencies is a difficult process. To do this work efficiently, the social work education community would have to partner with donor organizations to gain the necessary support to add social work programs to the university systems as part of the package of humanitarian assistance, as well as adding emergency social work training for professionals in allied fields such as nursing, anthropology, and medicine. The agencies interviewed in Table 5 indicated an interest in such levels of partnership.
The findings of this inquiry indicate that there is a strong convergence between the knowledge, skills, and personal qualities that are required by the major international agencies engaged in developing and implementing programs for children and adolescents during and after complex emergencies and natural disasters and those of the Global Standards of the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Federation of Social Workers. The review of the literature showed some complementary and significant trends. A number of significant voices within the profession suggest that social work should not take part in international humanitarian efforts as this may represent an imposition of Western dominated paradigms and inhibit the development of indigenous practice. However, others insist that social workers have an obligation to participate in global professional action in a globalized world. Further they contend that through the inclusion of professional social workers from the global south in humanitarian action, culturally and socially competent care will be enhanced for people in complex emergencies and natural disasters. Perhaps the most significant finding of the literature review is that outside of the United States , wherever the social work profession is well established and social workers are available, social workers are the lead professionals in providing services during complex emergencies and natural disasters. In fact, social work in some parts of the world has moved from a position of lead service provider to that of lead profession in defining both the parameters of service and the paradigms on which these service delivery systems should operate. The question that remains to be addressed is how to enhance the recognition and effectiveness of the social work profession in emergency settings, especially in programs for children and adolescents – areas in which social work competencies are crucial. An additional question is raised regarding how to enhance the capacity and prominence of the social work profession in countries in crisis or those at increased risk of natural disaster due to climate change so that professional, local social workers can take the lead, thereby addressing the more questionable practice of bringing in “outsiders” to help in times of crisis.
These questions suggest a significant role for schools of social work around the world. An important area of exploration regards the development of partnerships with universities in those affected countries that do not currently have departments of social work. Partnerships of this kind can lead to the creation of university based schools or departments of social work. Also under consideration could be the support of professional social work education and the continuing education of non-social work professionals who are highly involved in humanitarian work within their countries of origin. Further study should determine whether the increased presence of professional social work education in humanitarian assistance to children and families in situations of armed conflict and natural disaster, would increase the sustainability, cultural competence, and overall quality of the services provided to vulnerable populations worldwide.
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Martha Bragin, PhD LCSW, is Associate Professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work. She comes to academic social work following 25 years of practice experience with children and families affected by armed conflict, disaster and community violence. She is a member Committee on External Relations of the Council on Social Work Education and a member of the Interagency Standing Committee Reference Group on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. Among her publications is the Community Participatory Evaluation Tool (the CPET), a cross cultural resource that helps communities and young people themselves to design monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of psychosocial programs designed to assist them.