Picking up the pieces

Issue: 107

Tony Staunton

A review of lain Ferguson, Michael Lavalette and Elizabeth Whitmore (eds), Globalisation, Global Justice and Social Work (Routledge, 2005), £22,99

Neo-liberalism has enormously increased global immiseration over the last 40 years. For those of us involved through that period in the fight against poverty and for the promotion of welfare rights anywhere in the world, the experience has been dispiriting.

There has always been a recognition that social work is necessary for maintaining social cohesion, even if this has laid the basis for accusations of us being social pacifiers, a role most of us rejected. An atomised society is not a prerequisite for revolution, and the suffering of the poor and those disabled by society has to be addressed, whatever broader political goals we are also striving for. Today, neo-liberalism is taking the world in the opposite direction from the aims of social work, let alone socialism.

So what is the role of social work today; in a world of increasing conflict, poverty and alienation? Our traditional advocacy of social rights and redistribution to meet need has been replaced with the more ambiguous notion of social welfare and has meant, in practice, the replacement of a determined drive towards universal provision with defence of emergency responses only to dire need.

In the West, the growth and domination of non-governmental organisations of social support over the organs of the welfare state has ensured the rationing of provision through means-testing and crisis intervention. In the UK the privatisation of the majority of care provision has led to the marketisation of social work itself. Government-driven competencies have replaced the theory and skills base of social work, de-skilling and regulating the ever-dwindling elements of support to those in need. And we’re being ‘managed’ to death, with many social workers spending more than 80 percent of their working life form-filling and dealing with bureaucracy for the protection of agency, not ‘client’.

Any attempt to find a way forward for radical social work in this situation is to be welcomed. Ferguson, Lavalette and Whitmore’s contribution is even better—a breath of hope and fresh direction. Indeed, a new perspective. Globalisation and all it conveys requires a reassessment of global forces for social justice, and inside that, the implications for social work. Just as transnational corporations invade the lives of all humanity, so the counter-assertion of human rights becomes an international movement.

It is in any case refreshing to look in from the outside and observe social work across five continents in the 21st century. The globalisation of social work offers a new way of seeing our day-to-day tasks, and naturally links the theories of social development to the practice of the global social movements.

As John Harris points out, there is a contradiction resulting from the economic globalisation of capital. Just as there is greater mobility of capital, investment and new forms of technology, all of which is increasing and compounding class polarisation and poverty; so there is greater sharing of ideas and actions across the world. What he terms the ‘increased spatial freedom’ offered by international debate allows a sharing of strategies and ‘what works’ in mediating between the exploited and oppressed, and the nation state.

The export of social work methodology was one-way in the 20th century, with the colonial imposition of ideology and philosophy from the West, and particular Britain and the US, to the rest. Now we have much to learn from experiences in India, South America and Africa about the project of neo-liberalism in ensuring the retreat of the state from tackling social problems through welfare.

Indeed, there is more that unites our social work experience internationally than separates us. This collection of articles details, for example, the rise (or for us the return) of voluntary grant-funded agencies, charities or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) substituting for the state and the greater reliance of social work upon specific external funding that requires evidence of ‘positive’ outcomes, thereby falsifying the true situation and masking the issues and methodology of social work practice.

There is discussion of social development, often funded and promoted without sufficient critique. Who defines what constitutes positive social development or what power and strings are attached to aid? These issues are not only live in the poor South but in every country. Here in the UK, to what degree does the transfer of resources for children to Sure Start and Children’s Centres, or the development of Direct Payments for services for adults, constitute the destruction of principles of universal welfare provision?

In reality social work has suffered a continuing assault from neo-liberalism. Chris Jones documents the disillusionment that is the day-to-day experience of social work in the UK, while Fraser and Briskman detail the war on asylum seekers in Australia. But this is not a collection of horror stories. The final third of the book explores our potential. Marxist concepts of collective participatory opposition from below share space alongside strategies for reform from above towards a comprehensive challenge at least to the logic of the free market, and at best to capitalism itself.

Eerily for those of us with 30-plus years experience, the obvious conclusions mirror our best strategies from the mid-1970s, updated to reflect the globalised world. Then, the bible of radical social work by the time of the Thatcher offensive was offered by Brake and Bailey’s Radical Social Work and Practice. The book detailed methods for social work skills facilitating and joining with the oppressed, exploited, unemployed and abused to collectivise their struggles for social justice and decent life through mutual support and political organisation. The importance of social workers as active trade unionists was a required conclusion.

Similarly, Ferguson, Lavalette and Whitmore conclude the need for 21st century social work to be an active section of the global anti-capitalist and anti-war movements. Many people engaged in social work attended last January’s World Social Forum, there to debate strategies for social justice, debt cancellation and preventing conflict and war. The opportunity is definitely there.

The question left dangling as we return to the social work office Monday morning is: where is the space and energy to link our personal commitment to social justice with our daily practice? This book can be the social work bible for the next generation of radical social workers, and should be widely read, but just as last time around we need to acknowledge the urgency and put ourselves out to participate in the wider struggle.