Social work is booming worldwide – because it's proven to work
Investing in social services has a positive impact on societies. In Costa Rica, government and local communities have come together to effect change.
Social work is the fastest-growing profession internationally – and in many countries, statistics point towards its significant further expansion. In the US, for example, despite cuts to public administration by the Trump government, the Bureau of Labour Statistics predicts a 16% growth of the profession between 2016 and 2026.
Membership of the International Federation of Social Workers has also shown unprecedented growth, with a 60% jump in the number of recognised national professional bodies between 2011 and 2017.
There are many reasons why social work is a growing sector. One is sound evidence showing a positive economic return when governments invest in social services. When social workers are active in a community, it tends to have a positive impact on crime rates, health statistics, school attendance and employment. Another reason is that new legislation is being introduced in many countries recognising the vital role that social work can play.
One example is in Costa Rica. Despite decades of UN and government aid, 38% of the population lived in extreme poverty. Social workers proposed new a new approach. Puente al Desarrollo – A Bridge to Development – is human rights-based legislation that has seen government agencies and communities coming together to address social problems – and support people in meeting their aspirations.
The new law applies a social work approach of responding to all the issues that contribute to poverty and strengthening community systems of self-care.
Cristian Rodríguez Barrantes, a social worker on a drug-smuggling route in the Costa Rican slums, describes how the law works in practice. “We have a three-layered model, starting with encouraging all people to be involved with shaping their social services,” he says. “Communities identify their own solutions. This brings people together and they think beyond normal services. They want programmes to end violence, community-wide empowerment charters for women and girls, drug prevention clinics and basic schooling for all generations. When people are given options, they take them.”
The next layer, the development and generation of capacities, includes community education programmes, such as IT training, English and parenting. “Education becomes a part of everyday life for many,” says Barrantes.
The final layer is economic independence, which involves working with the business community to create jobs. “We have a business incubator in every slum,” says Barrantes. “People know how to sow, they know how to grow and make things, they have the skills. What they need is to know how to use their skills beyond the day-to-day; they want business planning skills.”
Although the legislation was only introduced in 2016, studies revealed that by the following year, multidimensional poverty was reduced by 41%. This was achieved without any extra government or UN funding. At the opening address of the 2016 world social work conference, the then-UN secretary general, Ban-ki Moon, said via video that sustainable development goals could not be achieved without social workers. He was right – and inspirational social workers like Barrantes are needed to shape those services.
The achievements of social workers in Costa Rica and many other places have highlighted the profession to the United Nations and governments that want to solve problems of marginalisation and poverty. Such projects are invaluable in promoting the profession – and helping to make sustainable development goals a reality.
|• Rory Truell is secretary-general of the International Federation of Social Workers, which is a joint organiser of the Social Work, Education and Social Development Conference in Dublin on 4-7 July|