Why social work should have a space in policy

In this blog, Meron Temesgren reflects on her experience as a social worker. A one-size-fits-all approach, she writes, undermines the inclusion of civil society organisations and their invaluable knowledge.

I am a social worker and part of the diaspora of Ethiopia and Eritrea, countries which have two of the highest rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation in the world. These harmful practices are culturally embedded within societies, even though many countries have criminalised them. They are sensitive matters and may not always be easy to discuss and confront. So, what role can a social worker play? How can we influence our communities and policy makers to enact change towards gender equality?

As a Master student in Gothenburg, I realised that a social workers’ role in policy practice to address these issues is not always clear. In Sweden it is often associated with social services, even though advocacy and empowerment are social democratic practices that permeate the profession and have an (in)direct impact on people’s well-being. Policy practice is an integral element of social work, and it needs to be recognised in order to address potential gaps in services. For example, social workers are generally more familiar with the culture of the communities where they work. In the case of child marriage or female genital mutilation, social workers must contextualise the personal experiences of the affected families and advocate for them in policy practice by identifying the resources needed for its elimination.

During an internship with the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) in Nairobi, Kenya, I learned first-hand about the relevance of civil society organisations as a context for social work to address these issues in a culturally sensitive way. The organisation not only raises awareness about HIV, reproductive health, and gender violence, but also  provide much needed medical and counselling services, and does it all in a way that considers people’s culture and accommodates their everyday lives. In doing so, the organisation and others like it have developed knowledge and practices that are valuable for policy making.

At the time, I was unable to place the relevance of this experience in relation to policy and social change. But in 2021, I got the chance to do some research and find answers to my questions through a field study placement at the Foundation. Here’s what I learnt.

Lack of consultation and partnering with civil society actors

In Nairobi, I engaged with GVRC colleagues in their everyday work with different communities. While I learned a lot, this was only  a glimpse of their years of know-how in how to interact productively in their communities. For example, they often travel to rural areas where they set up drop-in visits for counselling and medical examinations. They know that people will not attend if they have to make appointments, put down their names, plan and schedule. While seemingly inefficient at first glance, the drop-in system allows them to reach more people in the community.

We must accept that there is still a vital need for this kind of knowledge within the policy making processes if we are to achieve the changes expected with the implementation of Agenda 2030. But there still seem to be a general lack of consultation and partnering with civil society actors in the management and implementation of the SDGs. The situation may be better in some places than others, but social workers are still being left out of the policy development arena, particularly in the African region.

Providing non-governmental organisations with ECOSOC consultative status within the United Nations is one way this is being addressed. This status allows them to attend meetings, deliver statements and share their experiences. Interviewees from my field study acknowledged that the UN affords non-governmental organisations the chance to attain ECOSOC consultative status, which the Foundation itself has, but accessing it continues to be a challenge. The primary difficulty that was identified by interviewees and the Foundation’s staff was the requirement to meet audit and reporting standards that are understood to reflect a level of formality and transparency.

Ironically, lack of funds is the primary reason that many civil society organisations do not have this type of formal structures. Given the limited resources, working towards audit compliance and reporting requirements is often not a priority. Non-governmental organisations that work with gender-based violence are focused on the immediate needs of the communities they serve.

Finding out that channels of participation were being closed in the name of standardisation struck me as paradoxical. Transparency in democratic processes is important, but it is often achieved through a one-size-fits all approach

A one-size-fits all approach inhibits inclusion

At the Gender Violence Recovery Centre, no two days were the same. Well, except for our morning paperwork. After that was dealt with, we could head out for court to hear cases of gender-based violence, go to rural areas to raise awareness about HIV, and provide counselling or address an emergency. We needed to be adaptable because there is no one-size-fits-all for providing assistance.

Finding out that channels of participation were being closed in the name of standardisation struck me as paradoxical. Transparency in democratic processes is important, but it is often achieved through a one-size-fits all approach that imposes a Western traditional standard in contexts that have very different needs. The value of the adaptability of civil society organisations often goes unnoticed. For example, the drop-in system that the centre in Nairobi developed for the benefit of the community makes their impact difficult to measure. Without the voices of people who have been on the field, both their impact and the value of their knowledge is lost to policy practice.

This double invisibility inhibits the opportunity for the inclusion of key actors in policy making. In the countries where the most pressing social and developmental interventions are required, the standard is not being met by many development organisations. The work of organisations like the Foundation is crucial for addressing this gap. They can use their ECOSOC consultative status to be a policy intermediary that provides platforms and forums for the non-state actors that cannot afford it. An inclusive policy making process is imperative for meaningful action to take place, for change to happen so that we can create resilient communities. The need for civil society participation in policymaking, through local social workers, is as evident as participation is central within the human rights discourse. By developing social resources such as people’s participation, the facilitation of behavioural change would yield greater results.

Perhaps the focus ought to be on building the capacity of people rather than forcing them to conform to a standard that is not appropriate or reflective of their cultural lives and circumstances. Human social processes are often difficult, if not impossible, to measure. The insistence on forcing service to demonstrate ‘measurable’ outcomes and processes may be more hindering than it is enabling.

Meron Temesgen By Meron Temesgen

Meron Temesgen is a student in the Master’s Programme in Social Work and Human Rights at the University of Gothenburg. She is a social worker and has worked in various units within social services and is currently volunteering at a non-profit organization in Sweden. Additionally, Meron has previously interned at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre in Nairobi, Kenya as well as through the Sweden-India Project. She did a field study placement at the Foundation in April-May 2021.