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By Subesh Pant

The main argument of this article is that, when practicing social work with local communities in developing countries, it is often necessary to facilitate political engagement in the process of addressing community needs and issues, and it is important to alter the common ideological position that social work is non-political and non-religious in practice, while focusing instead on the fundamental principles of human rights and social justice. To substantiate this argument, the article clarifies basic concepts relevant to the article; discusses some features of social work education and practice and the neglect of local communities; drawing on secondary data and the author’s observations, analyzes trends in community practice in developing countries; and shows that professional social work has largely neglected local communities. Furthermore, it presents five imperatives why social workers should engage politically in local communities in seeking to improve community conditions and people’s well-being.

Basic Concepts

It is important to clarify a few basic concepts, such as social work practice, local communities, community power structure, and political engagement, for the purpose of this article. Social work practice includes all those micro- to macro-level activities (Hugman, 2009) that emanate from the internationally accepted social work definition that reads as follows:

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work. (International Association of Schools of Social Work [IASSW] & International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW], 2004)

The word “local” in local-level communities does not carry any one specific connotation. Uphoff (1986) saw it as signifying any or all of the following: locality (a set of interrelated communities), community (a relatively self-contained socioeconomic-residential unit), or group (a self-identified set of persons with a common interest). In general terms, social work practice with local communities is practice that takes place at the local level and is ideally initiated by the local level. It may be referred to as community practice encompassing the essential processes of community organizing, social planning, community development and advocacy, and progressive social change work (Weil, 2013). It is not essentially or ideally action that occurs at the local level as a result or flow of central-level planning and decision making (United Nations Centre for Regional Development, 1988). It involves enabling local people and communities through their community structures to assume responsibility for improving their social and economic conditions (Midgley, 1992; Pawar& Cox, 2010a). Community power structure connotes the distribution and concentration of, and control over social, economic, political, cultural (including religion and education) power and resources in local communities, and peoples’ linkages to such power and resources within and beyond the local community. Generally, the poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged people and groups are excluded from, and/or exploited/oppressed by, such structures. Political engagement is not merely limited to voting and membership of organizations and associations, but includes mobilization and authentic participation of local communities, particularly the excluded and/or exploited/oppressed groups, to organize themselves to create pressure, lobby, confront oppressive structures, make decisions, and work with governance systems to improve communities and their conditions, and quality of life.

The Nature of Professional Social Work Education and Practice and the Neglect of Work With Local Communities in Developing Countries

The nature of professional social work education and practice greatly varies from one country to another. However, it is possible to identify a few common trends, which partly explain the state of social work practice in local-level communities. As professional social work is taking roots in the traditional societies of many developing countries, by and large, it is extremely difficult and challenging for it to develop an identity and recognition as a profession (Al-Krenawi and Graham, 2001; Hugman, 2009). Almost every country has a story to tell about this issue. Generally, people have problems in understanding what professional social work from the West is, and how it differs from other peoples’ activities described as social work (Pawar, 2014). In many developing countries, social work’s education and practice models, which have a predominant orientation toward work with individuals (case work) and therapy/clinical practice, have been directly transplanted from the United Kingdom, the United States of America, or both countries (Ankrah, 1992; Cox, 1995, 1997; Hugman, 2010; Mazibuko, McKendrick, & Patel, 1992; Midgley, 1981; Yan &Tsui, 2007). In the United States, although the settlement house movement and traditions of community organizing and reform that have always played an albeit smaller but persistent role in critiquing the direction of the profession, directing community-based projects, organizing for community empowerment, and in general shaping the community organizing (see Bettin & Austin, 1990; Fisher, 1984; Kahn, 1991, 2010; Mizrahi, 1978, 2001), the models of clinical practice appear to be the most dominant. Such transplanted models in developing countries do help address some social issues and needs, but they are neither sufficient nor effective for undertaking macro-level work with deprived communities beyond urban areas where poverty, unemployment, health, education, and community infrastructure are the core issues. Most social work schools in developing countries are urban-centered, though some new schools are emerging in rural areas and small towns (e.g., in India), although commonly without adequate resources. The indigenization of social work education remains the greatest challenge in many countries (Gray, 2005; Gray, Coates, & Yellow Bird, 2008; Pawar, 1999; Tsui& Yan, 2010), though some small efforts are noteworthy being usually a combination of global and local ideas and practices as attempted in Vietnam (see Hugman, 2010). For the most part, whatever indigenization has occurred has done so in the natural course of events, often serendipitously. There seem to be forces that consciously or inadvertently appear to perpetuate Western social work models that do not dovetail with developing countries’ local community conditions.

As a consequence, social-work-oriented community practice is generally neglected in local communities. In an African country context, Ankrah (1992) notes that Social work educators have attempted to move away from a basically Western-biased social work curriculum to one that addresses the needs of Ugandans and that stresses a macro level approach to education and practice that requires preparation for social development and community-based practice. (p. 155; see Hall, 1990; Mazibuko et al., 1992) In the same vein, from a developmental social work perspective (Midgley, 1995; Patel, 2005), Pawar and Cox (2010b) also have suggested the undertaking of the comprehensive development of grassroots-level communities and villages, along with its nine dimensions—cultural, political, economic, ecological, education, health, housing, equity groups, citizens and their institutions—by the local-level communities themselves . Despite such calls, neither social work education and practice nor the profession generally has given adequate attention to community practice, particularly at the local level and with political engagement, and social workers’ work with communities appears to have lost its momentum, although its increasing relevance has been recently well acknowledged (Mizrahi, 2001; Stepney& Popple, 2008). Relative to the overall social work literature, the literature on community practice is very limited with only a few texts and journals available (e.g., Campfens, 1997; Felix & Rivera, 1992; Gangrade, 2001; Hardcastle, Powers, &Wenocur, 2004; Henderson, Summer, & Raj, 2004; Homan, 2003; Ife, 2013; Kenny, 1999; Popple, 1995; Stepney& Popple, 2008; Weil, Reisch, & Ohmer, 2013; Journal Community Development from the United Kingdom and Community Development and Journal of Community Practice from the United States): Moreover, the author’s analysis of articles published in these journals shows that very few articles from developing countries are included in them. Although, following a successful project in India in the 1950s and 1960s, community development work gained momentum with about 60 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America adopting community development programs (see Korten, 1980), Korten’s analysis showed that this push failed, due to resistance, the use of state benefits by elites (community power structure) from village to upper levels, lack of access to villages, lack of coordination among inter-ministerial bureaucracies, an over-emphasis on social services, centrally led bureaucratic and reporting procedures, and a lack of involvement of communities and of linkages between them and higher-level regional units. During the same period, a lot of literature appeared on community power structures and ways of breaking and working with these structures (Agger& Goldrich, 1958; Dahl, 1961; Danzger, 1964; Hunter, 1953; Meenaghan, 1976; Oommen, 1970; Rogers, 1964; Schulze, 1958; Smith & Hood, 1966; Wachtel, 1968; Walton, 1968), mostly in the U.S. context. However, since the 1980s, very little has been published despite its relevance to community practice. Within the social work profession generally, its value orientation appears to be somewhat mixed (see Clarke & Asquith, 1985). As part of their ethical stand, social workers need, and are expected, to be non-political and non-religious in their practice (Smyth & Campbell, 1996; Whiting, 2008). They are not expected to align or be partisan with any particular political or religious groups, but are expected to remain neutral and non-judgmental, irrespective of their personal values and beliefs. Smyth and Campbell (1996) state that the social work code (in the U.K. context) espouses complex principles such as “respect for persons,” “individuation,” and “confidentiality” (p. 78), without fully acknowledging their close association with wider personal, professional, and political ideologies. This has often encouraged educators and practitioners to assume that such principles are self-evident, and politically and socially neutral. They further argue that such principles may make professionals feel comfortable, but their practice can impinge the rights of clients (Rojek, Peacock, & Collins, 1988; cited from Smyth & Campbell, 1996). Are such values and assumptions serving to silence discussion and action on important issues and approaches to resolving human problems (Dinnerman, 2003)? Although Smyth and Campbell, and Whiting’s analysis should not be taken as a guiding edict of the profession, Chu, Tsui, and Yan (2009) contend that there has been little discussion of the moral and political character of social work, and that the social work profession in many Western countries has been struggling with the withering of political bases. For example, Balu and Abramovitz (2004) point out a lack of political action among social workers by noting the paucity of professional publications on political issues of the times in the 1950s to 1960s (also see Salcido, 1984). Although it has been argued in the developed country context, the trend is concerning because social work education and practice in developing countries is generally based on such values and principles, and practices that do influence practice within the local communities of developing countries (Chu et al., 2009). Overall, this literature review suggests that generally, social workers and the social work profession in developing countries have neglected community practice with political engagement in local communities (e.g., India and similar countries).

Community Practice in Developing Countries

A General Community Profile

To provide a glimpse of community practice trends in developing countries, community practice activities across a broad range of areas have been included irrespective of whether they are undertaken by professionally trained social workers or not. Although there is a significant diversity among local communities within and between countries, in terms of historical legacies, size, geography, resources, population, income, ethnicity and religion, industrial structure, external dependence and influences, and power, political, and institutional arrangements (Todaro & Smith, 2003), they all seem to have a common profile. Most of the local communities in developing countries are commonly characterized by low income, low levels of living, poor health, inadequate education, low productivity, high rates of population growth, substantial dependence on agriculture and primary-product exports, imperfect markets, gender-based discrimination, and vulnerability (see Todaro & Smith, 2003). Likewise, local communities in the least developed countries are generally characterized by persistent high levels of poverty, large rural-based populations, an economy heavily dependent on agriculture, poor infrastructure, vulnerability, high levels of under-nourishment, and a resource gap (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2003; United Nations Development Programme, 2005). Most people in these communities live with exploitative and oppressive community power structures, and unsatisfactory governance systems.

Community Practice Approaches

Community practice in developing countries may be categorized into five approaches. The first approach, community-driven development (CDD), has been named, designed, and implemented by mainly the World Bank (2009), which claims that this approach “gives control over planning decisions and investment resources to community groups and local governments by following the principles of local empowerment, participatory governance, demand responsiveness, administrative autonomy, greater downward accountability, and enhanced local capacity.” The main areas of activity within CDD are micro-finance, a disability focus, youth inclusion, natural resource management, and urban development (World Bank, 2007). Second, some international/non-government organizations, such as CARE and Oxfam, and some others use a rights-based approach, which aims to realize human rights by laying the emphasis on rights and responsibilities and human dignity rather than charity, and by directly addressing the causes of poverty. It is based on the ethical stand that all human beings are entitled to certain minimum standards. Third, the asset-based approach is essentially a strength-based approach that recognizes and builds on existing communities’ assets, which mainly include the assets of individuals and groups, local associations and institutions, the local physical aspects and economy, and formal and informal relationships, skills, and capacities among all participants. It is very much rooted in the local setting and aims to use such assets for community development rather than being preoccupied with needs and problems (see Foster & Mathie, 2001). It is generally used by the U.S. aid agencies. Fourth, the sustainable livelihoods approach focuses on poverty reduction by focusing on people and by converging bottom-up and top-down strategies. It comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources), and activities required for a means of living. The Department for International Development and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS; 2007) seem to follow this approach. Fifth is a local-level development approach that essentially draws on social development ideas, values, and principles (Midgley, 1995, 2014; Patel, 2005; Pawar, 2010). It focuses on comprehensive dimensions and multi-levels. This approach is yet to be widely used in its full or comprehensive form in local communities (Pawar, 2010). Depending on the funding agencies and implementers, all these approaches are used in developing countries. Although the nomenclature of these approaches varies, many of their features are common and some overlap. Thus, many of these approaches can be combined. They all emphasize participation, empowerment, and people-centered development, though to what extent these are practised in local communities is an open question.

Community Practice Trends

A broad survey of current programs and projects that have a community practice focus suggests a wide range of activities, which may be categorized under 15 themes, though these are not exhaustive and may overlap with others, and I might have overlooked some practice areas. However, these appear to be the major ones in the available data. Generally, community practice processes were mixed in terms of bottom-up and top-down approaches. In many countries and communities, (a) self-help groups (SHGs) and micro-credit schemes were very popular. These mainly included small economic enterprises that directly benefitted individual members of the SHGs by lifting their income levels, which in turn positively affected (though gradually) other aspects of life such as health, education, and housing, thereby often lifting these people out of poverty and generally improving their standard of living. (b) Agriculture was a major area of community development practice and included a range of activities such as extension work, watershed development, and improving farming practices, and has great potential to expand further. (c) A number of international non-government organizations (INGOs) and NGOs were active in promoting and practising community forestry to raise awareness among various stakeholders (community members, groups, local bodies, and NGOs), develop necessary policies and procedures, and make decisions by organizing and involving community people so as to sustain forests and livelihoods, particularly for poor people (CFI, 2007). (d) Water has emerged as an important area of community development practice. INGOs such as IRC (International Water and Sanitation Centre) and WaterAid, in partnership with several agencies, worked in six countries (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Timor Leste) in Asia and the Pacific to provide water, sanitation, and hygiene education to some of the world’s poorest people (WaterAid, 2007). (e) Infrastructure and service development was a key area of community practice and people were effectively mobilized to build basic infrastructure in their communities, and there were many good examples in developing countries where this was accomplished (Guggenheim, Wiranto, Prasta, & Wong, 2004). (f) Development-induced and disaster-led displacement was common in developing countries, particularly in China and India, and community practice approaches were used to settle and rehabilitate displaced people with different degrees of success (see the World Commission on Dams, 2000; Fuggle et al., 2000, cited by Stanley, 2004). (g) Lack of sanitation has been a major issue in many developing countries and several community practice models were implemented to effectively address this issue (see Kar, 2005; Sulabh International, 2006; World Bank, 2006b). (h) In many conflict-torn areas, community development projects were attempted to prevent further conflict, promote peace, and thereby develop or rebuild basic infrastructure, harmonious networks, and participation in governance (World Bank, 2006a). (i) Community practice relating to indigenous populations included a focus on land, gender, livelihoods and natural resource management, indigenous knowledge, culture and institutions, identity and self-esteem, and microenterprises (IFAD, 2006). (j) There were also good examples of small-scale community development led by community people themselves without external aid, and such projects are worth emulating elsewhere (see Hazare, 2003). (k) By using cooperative principles and processes, a number of cooperatives were developed to productively engage disadvantaged groups such as street children and scavengers (Medina, 2000). (l) In many countries, a number of associations, clubs, and interest groups, such as Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, sports associations, and religious groups, offered voluntary services, such as conducting a medical camp, blood donation camp, and an eye camp, and building a small community center or school or a bus stop, which activities may or may not contribute to sustained community development. (m) Community practice was also used to meet the needs of vulnerable groups such as children, women, the disabled, the sick, and the elderly. (n) A number of innovative projects were being experimented to see how information and communication technology could be used to achieve community development (Cecchini and Raina, 2002; Solution Exchange, 2009; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2004). (o) State-initiated significant community practice platforms were created in China and India (e.g., “Sheque,” Villagers’ Committees, Panchayati Raj) for participatory community development activities (Choate, 1997; Derleth&Koldyk, 2004; Pawar, 2009).

A General Lack of Professional Social Work Presence in Local Communities, and Particularly in Political Engagement

Although community practice is undertaken to varying degrees in developing countries, both by professionally trained social workers and others who are interested in community development, it appears that such practice appears inadequate relative to the vast number of local-level communities and the severity of their conditions. This is not to suggest that there are no good and successful examples of community practice. Several individuals and organizations have, with passion and commitment, demonstrated effective community development practice. For example, Anna Hazare’s (2003) comprehensive village development in Maharashtra state of India, Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in villages of Rajasthan, India (Roy, 1997), scavenger cooperatives in the Philippines (Medina, 2000), Sarvodaya’s work in Sri Lanka, Kamal Kar’s community-led total sanitation, and Grameen Bank’s micro-credit work in Bangladesh and elsewhere demonstrate that such community practice examples are worth replicating with necessary adaptation in other communities. Similarly, many faith-based (religious) organizations with political affiliations have significantly contributed to community development through a range of health and education provisions. Although these community practitioners are not professionally trained social workers, against

 A Pathway for Community Development: Brought from “Social Work Practice With Local Communities” by Manohar Powar Specially for Nepalese Social Work Student who tends to work for the betterment of marginalized community (Subesh Pant)


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