Social Work’s African Outreach Yields Results

Social workers who have devoted their time and energy to helping the people of Africa overcome extreme poverty have seen their efforts rewarded, and say the philosophy of “help others help themselves” is being proven every day.

Gary Bailey, president of the International Federation of Social Workers and a former NASW president, is a member of the board of Makula Fund for Children, which provides assistance to Ugandan children who have lost one or both parents to an AIDS-related illness.

“My hopes for this continent are indeed very personal as an African American myself,” Bailey said. “I believe that the progress that has been made in so many of the African countries has been astounding given the small amount of time that some of them have been independent nations. The specter of apartheid in South Africa is still fresh in my mind.”

Esther Jones Langston, an NASW board member and professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said her first visit to South Africa in 1974 left her with a profound urge to take action. “The social worker in me said, ‘How can I become involved and make life better?’” she said. “My ancestry is there. When you look at the enormity of slavery and realize you were among those who survived, you realize it’s your time to give something back. I feel it’s my obligation to motivate others.”

Since her first visit, Langston has worked with several organizations in particular supporting educational opportunities for children in Kenyan villages.

Langston said she has learned that Africans want to help their neighbors and she believes social workers are ideally trained to educate people about methods and techniques to improve their lives.

“I love the work,” she said. “You are actually changing futures and I would like to see more social workers from America get involved there.”

SWAN initiative

NASW has taken several steps to assist social workers in Africa in recent months through its Social Workers Across Nations initiative.

NASW’s president, James J. Kelly, and the association’s Division for Human Rights and International Affairs, led by director Luisa Lopez, have been working with the Tanzania Social Workers Association, or TASWA, to revitalize the organization. At the invitation of the Tanzania Institute of Social Work, funded by the American International Health Alliance, Kelly and Lopez met with Tanzania social work officials twice in 2010. In March, NASW senior practice associate Amy Bess was in Tanzania following up on TASWA’s organizational self-assessment.

Kelly said the challenges facing Africa are numerous and systemic. “Nowhere in the world is advocacy and one-on-one assistance needed more than in most sub-Saharan African nations,” he said. “I hope social workers in the U.S. will continue to encourage opportunities for dialogue and professional interaction with our African colleagues, including teaching, research and faculty exchange.”

In another SWAN effort, NASW staff assisted the U.S. Agency for International Development and its AIDSTAR-Two Project in convening the November 2010 conference “Social Welfare Workforce Strengthening Conference: Investing in Those Who Care About Children.” It was supported by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR.

The conference included 160 participants, representing 18 PEPFAR-funded countries, 16 of which are in Africa. Attendees focused on how to promote effective strategies to strengthen the social welfare workforce in Africa, given the challenges of social work’s low recognition and lack of funding and regulations, said Evelyn Tomaszewski, senior policy adviser with NASW’s Division of Human Rights and International Affairs.

“The conference offered the opportunity to work with a range of social welfare professionals from around the world and focus on common goals,” she said. “It opened up understanding of what social work is in different countries for the participants and the possibilities for collaboration.”

Among challenges facing social work in African nations is the use of different definitions for the social welfare workforce and related job titles. There are also labor laws, human rights and economic conditions that can change from country to country.

NASW provided technical expertise to create a framework used in discussions addressing the planning, developing and supporting the social welfare workforce.

Stephanie Asare-Nti, director of Social Workers Beyond Borders and a member of NASW’s International Committee, co-led a session tailoring the framework to each country’s legislative system, labor market and economy as well as social welfare justice and child protection systems.

“It’s important to share resources. The conference demonstrated a real commitment on the part the participants to strengthen the workforce that serves highly vulnerable children in Africa,” she said.

Lopez noted that many countries, among them Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, are revitalizing the social work profession. “We are at a moment in time when the social work profession and social work skills are increasingly understood as an effective means of alleviating many societal problems related to poverty, child neglect and access to basic needs,” she said.

University collaborations

U.S. social work faculty members are also involved in various projects that promote social work education in African nations.

Mary McCarthy, a member of the NASW National Board of Directors, has personally witnessed the benefits of developing social work education in Uganda. She has worked with leadership at the Uganda Christian University to develope social work practice and an MSW program at the school. Last year, the program graduated its first class.

McCarthy, director of the Social Work Education Consortium of the University at Albany’s School of Social Welfare at the State University of New York, and co-principal investigator for the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute, said collaboration increases the number of trained African faculty.

“The number of graduate social work programs across Africa is growing and it will be important to support these program directors and faculty to come together to build a strong and viable African social work education consortium,” she said.

Uganda and other African countries are not without problems, she noted, including rampant poverty and severe social maladies. “But I have also met many people full of hope and joy,” she said of helping the college expand its curriculum.

“The faculty, students and community members all see the potential in their world,” McCarthy said. “They are part of the new Africa. There is a vision and sense of possibility that is inspirational.”

Alice K. Johnson Butterfield, a professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, echoes a similar sentiment. She has spent the last 10 years in a lead role for the Social Work Education in Ethiopia Partnership Project started by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Addis Abada University in Ethiopia. Addis Ababa University opened a new school of social work in 2004 and has admitted about 40 students into the MSW program each year. Since 2006, there have been nearly 200 MSW graduates.

Butterfield, who helped develop the social work doctoral curriculum and teaches classes in Ethiopia, said social work as a profession is highly valued in Africa.

“Poverty is the root cause of social problems,” Butterfield noted. “So social workers are seen as part of the answer.” She confirmed what other social workers have expressed: The African people take pride in working together to solve their common problems and social workers can help them by developing new programs that help their communities.

So’Nia Gilkey, assistant professor at the Tulane University’s School of Social Work in New Orleans and a trainer with the NASW HIV/AIDS Spectrum Project, noted that the college has been working on a collaborative project with the Payson Center for International Development since 2008. Its aim is to expand social work as it relates to HIV/AIDS treatment in Rwanda. The school developed a certificate program in Rwanda designed as a train-the-trainer initiative to improve knowledge and skills for the psychosocial support of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

Gilkey said she is inspired by the desire of the country’s practice and academic community to establish the profession of social work in part because it can lead to addressing the country’s social problems in a meaningful and socially responsible way.

James Herbert Williams, dean at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, said his school has research and educational initiatives in nearby Kenya. “I have a three-year research capacity-building project under way to address issues of human insecurity in the three provinces in Northern Kenya,” he said. “This project aims to reduce the vulnerability and increase human security of communities affected by conflict in Northern Kenya.”

He said the principle for capacity building is to empower people through an exchange of information, knowledge and skills to improve lives and help local communities deal with conflicts using a sustainable approach.

Other social work leaders have launched their own initiatives that promote the social work philosophy in African nations.

NASW Social Work Pioneerw Bernice Harper is founding president of the Foundation for Hospices in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which she and NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark are both board members. Harper said the organization has built 92 partnerships in the U.S. to help people are facing serious illness, death and grief in 10 African nations. Harper started the foundation in 1999 to further her commitment to help people around the world. She received a Visionary Award for her efforts from Vistas Innovation Hospice Care in March.

“This project has helped me carry out my desire to be a social worker of action,” Harper said. “We are all related.”