By Tony Staunton
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International Social Work and the Radical Tradition

This article is over 14 years, 7 months old
Editors Michael Lavalette and Iain Ferguson, Venture Press, £15.95
Issue 315

Free market globalisation has brought not only increased poverty, inequality, social and personal problems, but also a consequential growth in social work. Most who seek to practise social work do so from a desire to help address the problems that affect people’s lives. Such people are everywhere. Throughout the world the ideas and values of social work developed in Western liberal democracies are extremely influential, yet few would deny that social work in those very countries is in crisis.

The devastating political hurricanes of privatisation, welfare cutbacks, “surveillance”, regulation and micro-management (towards zero tolerance of everyone from young people to refugees) are creating a digitised, commodified and controlling social work practice.

The contradiction between progressive human development and capitalist social control is not new, but the tensions are much greater than ever before. The authors have been at the forefront of building a new movement for radical social work and compiling accounts of new ideas and practice, launching a manifesto for social work and social justice in 2006.

Lavalette and Ferguson have here compiled a further offering of the best examples of contemporary radical social work from Palestine to Manchester and South Africa to Slovenia. The fight for human rights and social progress in the 21st century is drawing in millions – into the people’s movements of India, the immigrant communities of Canada and the soup kitchen movement of Peru.

This book is worth its political weight for chapter nine alone, where Lindsay, Faraj and Baidoun report on the emergence of social work in Palestine: a convincing read for any doubters of social work as a trade allied to real social progress, documenting the collective punishment by Israel and the US, but detailing the immense resilience of people amidst grinding poverty. It is an honour to read accounts from the Palestinian Union of Social Workers.

Alongside Chris Jones, seasoned champion of radical social work of over 30 years, the editors encourage and portray “partisan” social work – placing at the centre a material understanding of the class nature of global capitalism and documenting their outrage at state brutality and disdain towards the poor or in need. They point to a growing confidence among a new generation of practitioners growing just as new grassroots mobilisations form and ferment.

There is a demand for justice, peace and deeper understanding. There is outrage, not only at the great injustices, but also at the betrayal by governments, educators and employers of the social work commitment to social welfare. Groups of practitioners and students are, for the first time in many years, coming together to discuss their ideas and strategies – the rebirth of the social worker as agitator.

I write this review after speaking with my 23 year old daughter on a disjointed satellite phone somewhere in southern Zambia, as she cycles between villages supporting social development initiatives. The non-governmental organisation she works for is progressive but poor, and it scratches and begs to get resources to areas of great need.

She describes how the wealth has been sucked out of the people, now shrivelling in the excessive heat wave of a climatically changed African winter.

She wants to help and promote social change through the empowerment and liberation of people – the very definition of social work. She is learning that to do so involves a constant collective challenge against the funders and managers of the system as well as the day to day challenges of human existence.

I’m sending my daughter this book.

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