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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Are social workers the answer to transformative participatory practice in development?

Are social workers the answer to transformative participatory practice in development?

Current IDS student Katheryn Margaret Pascoe (MADev12) explains why development practitioners need to work in partnership with social workers if they are to meet the SDGs by 2030.
Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash
Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash
If the development sector is committed to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals before 2030, we need to move away from traditional top-down process, pre-set interventions and externally identified groups.

Sustainable, relevant and culturally appropriate development practice needs to prioritise local knowledge and empower communities to identify their own needs, co-create solutions, and lead development processes. To see the otherwise invisible, reach the poorest of the poor and enable the voice of the subaltern, I propose a partnership with social workers. Development is never neutral, being consistently influenced by power dynamics, and social workers bring an extensive set of skills, all tailored for working with vulnerable populations and being critically aware of their own positionality.

"Social workers skills can transform development workers harness a wide range of skills to engage in discussion with vulnerable populations"


Micro interpersonal skills for communication and active listening

Communication is not just giving information or promoting certain messages. In development, effective communication requires us to listen before we talk. Communication is a two way street which requires us to drive (Speak), and to give way (Actively Listen). Too often in development we focus on the driving, searching for the quickest route to our destination, but the faster you go, the bigger the potential mess. You must slow down and give way to avoid disasters.

This is where social workers skills can transform development practice. Interviewing is a core aspect of social work, in both formal and informal settings. Whether assessing an individual’s eligibility for welfare, investigating the safety of a child, screen for addiction or mental health concerns or conducting a general needs assessment, social workers harness a wide range of skills to engage in discussion with vulnerable populations:

Photo by Will H McMahan on Unsplash

Many of these communication skills may seem like common sense, however, they do not always come naturally when you have a script of questions in one hand, pen in the other, one eye on your watch, and not to mention the 1,000 other distractions that arise in the field. Effective communication takes practice and cannot be learnt from a book. By collaborating with social workers we, development practitioners, can adopt these skills to revolutionise relationships and data collection. Such practice would contribute to a more accurate and humanistic understanding of the lived realities, desires and strengths that communities hold.

Beyond one-to-one: Community consultation

In our resource-constrained sector, one-to-one participation is commonly replaced for group consultation to reach the most people with the least cost and time. While this raises many issues particularly around gendered access to public spaces and social norms influencing public participation, social workers are also equipped for managing group dynamic.

Whether it be parenting workshops, family meetings, alcohol and drug support groups or youth mentorship programs, social workers are trained to respond to group dynamics to ensure everyone has a chance to speak, and be heard. How to manage dominant participants, encourage contributions from reserved members, improvise to respond to unexpected disclosures, role model engagement and support group moral are the screwdrivers and hammers in a social worker’s tool box; in other words, essentials.

These skills are transferable to focus groups, community meetings, engagement with families, and group activities such as stakeholder mapping or resource mapping. For participation to be effective, we must continue to ask, who is silenced?

"unless recognised with active steps to offset them, biases reinforce misconceptions of lived realities...through reflexive practice and constantly questioning our positionality we can reduce the limitations our worldview imposes"

Reflexive practice

As so eloquently explored by Robert Chambers, there are many biases that exist in the field, often interlocking and manifesting in different ways. Unless recognised with active steps to offset them, biases reinforce misconceptions of lived realities. These active steps could be found in the field of social work; social workers are trained to be reflexive, to critically look at one’s self and analyse their own values and biases. 

Development and research can never be neutral, nor can we ever escape our worldview, but through reflexive practice and constantly questioning our positionality, we can reduce the limitations our worldview imposes, withhold our disbeliefs and make space for diversity instead of negating or ignoring difference.

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing. The above definition may be amplified at national and/or regional levels”  
International Federation of Social Workers

Congruent values

Underpinning these skills (of reflexive practice) are the professional values of social justice, respect for diversity and human rights.
Sound familiar? These values are embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and intrinsically linked to reducing inequalities.
Rather than attempting to work on communities, we must transform approaches of working alongside and for. To do so, requires effective communication, skills in managing group dynamics and reflexive practice. This is the bread and butter of social work practice. So next time you hear the term social worker, instead of thinking child protection officer, consider the range of skills they bring and how social workers could enhance participation and development outcomes as we strive to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Main Story Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash
This is one of a series of blogs written by current IDS MA students. Other blogs published include: autopsy of a failed climate change policy: the gilet jaune movement in France, inclusive governance, digital disruption and climate challengessocial protection at CSW, and women's rights in Brazil

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