The Changing Faces of Social Work

Had written this about three years back for an Odiya magazine of a local library, published where I grew up, Rourkela. Remembered it in some context and so sharing.

There was a time, when working with a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), I also handled Human Resource (HR) functions for a while. The Organisation was going through a process of visioning, re-defining what it wants to focus on and how it wants to work and achieve its objectives. We wanted our HR practices to be more employees friendly, which were inherited from a semi-governmental Organisation. Long story short, I once got a leave application for approval. Typically, there is a space saying ‘reason for applying for leave’ and the person had written “social work”. Since we were looking at systems for improvement and out of curiosity, I asked him what social work he was going to do. Turns out, he was attending a relatives wedding!

The concept of “social work” includes a very broad spectrum. It varies from helping someone, donating food and money to the needy, organising blood donation camps, organising relief,  to working towards policy changes, working on issues of minority communities, and overall, working on shaping and designing development of our country, region, city and village. For a complete understanding and perspective, it is necessary to classify these various acts of generosity, fearlessness and courage in order to frame the larger context.

We grow up hearing and reading about stories of kindness. People helping those who need help. All religion teaches acts of kindness. We are told about our karma, that what we do to others would ultimately reflect on how we live our life and what happens to us. We are inclined towards Giving. From giving alms, to giving food, clothes etcetera to your house help, to giving money to orphanage, schools, hospitals, donate blood; donate towards relief of victims of natural calamities. This feeling of munificence stems largely from a sense of pity, a sense of empathy for the one who are suffering. We would call this CHARITY. Many people have found their calling of compassion in taking up many diverse acts of charity, being of immense help to somebody in need.

The ones who do this selfless act are encouraged by the society. People praise them. They are blessed, and derive satisfaction from helping.

When we were growing up in Sector 17, Rourkela, we had an Uncle in the neighbourhood. We, the children, fondly called him Maharaj. One of his biggest qualities was he helped when there was a death in the neighbourhood. He knew exactly how to organise everything in that situation. There was another such person when I lived in Anand, Gujarat. These people have special place in our hearts for their help in difficult times. So many such people exist in this world doing all kinds of things to help people.

Now, the other end of the spectrum. We read in the newspaper about protests, rallies against corruption, displacement, against inhuman treatments etc. We read about people of minority communities, based on caste, class and gender being targeted, marginalised, and harassed by majority communities. Many such issues represent deep seated discrimination and marginalization based on caste, class, gender and ethnicity. There are many such issues which cannot be resolved only by charity, kindness or generosity. Many of them require challenging the systems, questioning deep seated beliefs, superstitions and inequality.

Sharing again another incident from my childhood. We had water supply twice during the day in the area where we lived and the water was stored in overhead tanks or sumps in people’s houses. There was times when the water supply was erratic and it was very hard to manage. We were very young, but it was the women who faced the wrath of the situation as they had to somehow manage cooking, cleaning, bathing the children, gardening etc. So one time, many of them, including my mother, gathered and went to the local office and shouted and argued. This was to register their anger against inefficiency.

This is a very simple example, where existing systems do not work and they need to be challenged. They require a different level of involvement, protest and asserting ones rights. This approach is called the “Rights” based approach in social work.

Our society is based on largely, two sets of assumptions. One, society is assumed to be harmonious and based on shared values. Second, the society is rooted in conflict over power and access to and control over resources. This translates to broadly, two approaches:

  • WELFARE: inefficiencies in society can be taken care of through reforming or adjusting the status quo in a gradual and rational manner.
  • RIGHTS: inequalities can be abolished through transforming society to redistribute power and resources fairly.

As you can see, the problems in our society need to be analysed through different lenses and resolved through different approaches. Besides, many a times, there are no either or, and there are no fixed lines demarcating how to resolve an issue.

For example, let us take Education. While generous donations to public or private schools, may meet the need of resources, the method of education, the need for integration of differently-abled in mainstream education, the need for children who are poor to be able to access education are many facets of education and they need different approaches.

The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai where I had studied Social Work, was established in 1936 with an objective to cope with the problems of a newly industrilised nation. There were four specialisations offered, Family and Child welfare, Criminology and Correctional Administration, Medical and Psychiatric Social Work, Urban and Rural Community Development. Though initially part of Social Work stream, Personnel Management and Industrial Relations was later separated to a different section. TISS, over the years of engaging with the complex issues in rural and urban India, realized the inadequacies of having only 5 specialisations and is now offering many other specialisations.

The idea that Social Work is charity is only partly correct. Our world is so big and faced with so many kinds of issues, that there is place for all, generosity, kindness, and fighting for the Right of the human beings and the many other life forms. When environmentalists fight for preservation of the Western Ghats, they are not only fighting for all the life forms in that area, they are also asserting the need to preserve ecology which is the life support systems of all living beings on the earth.

When one compares, it is possible that being generous is sometimes easier, as against fighting for a just and equal society, which challenges established system of power and discrimination.

To conclude, we live in difficult times, with new challenges around climate change, governance and poverty. We need to develop a sound understanding on the root causes of a problem, and what role we can play in helping to eliminate that problem and to make this world a better place for all of us, that we can leave behind for the many generations to come.


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