What are some of the implications of internationalisation?

By Michelle Lefevre
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With the approach of World Social Work Day on 19th March my attention has turned to the nature of social work education as a global endeavor.  As deputy editor of Social Work Education: The International Journal for the past four years, I have had the privilege to work with academics, educators and researchers all over the world who are grappling with how best to prepare the next generation of social workers.  One aspect of this which continually stands out for me is the ways in which a country’s social, cultural, political and economic context alters the shape of the profession and throws up particular challenges for qualifying training.  How do we develop a sense of social work education as an international discipline, underpinned by a definition of social work set out by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), when there is a need to also ensure that it prepares students for practice with service users and carers within a particular context?

Every year the journal provides free access to one article in celebration of World Social Work Day.  This year, with the IFSW theme of ‘Promoting Social and Economic Equalities’ in mind, we have selected a paper from Africa on The challenges of Social Work Field Training in Lesotho  by Professor Pius Tangwe Tanga from the Department of Social Work /Social Development at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa [The free access link can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/r/WorldSocialWorkDay2013].  I asked Professor Tanga to set out some of the struggles that African programmes face in grappling with these issues.  In conversation, he shared some of his thoughts with me:

“Although social work in Africa was initially based on Western models introduced by colonialisation, it has subsequently sought to find a way of confronting the particular unjust socio-economic and political relations in African countries.  This injustice has given rise to poverty, unemployment, discrimination, violence and other social problems. The precarious socio-economic and political situations of most African countries has meant that social work programmes are faced with a myriad of difficulties including inadequate teaching staff and infrastructure. The field work agencies where our students are placed generally have horrendous working conditions including limited office space, lack of equipment and inadequate finance.  There are insufficient numbers of trained social workers to supervise student social workers so many do not receive the professional guidance and education they need in fieldwork placements.  But, because of the ever escalating social problems on the continent, some governments have put pressure on training institutions to increase their intakes of social work students regardless of the aforementioned problems and this exacerbates the difficulties.

“Despite these challenges, African social work programmes are resolute in their commitment to preparing their students for practice in the ‘Global Village’.  Programmes seek to adhere as far as possible to the IFSW minimum standards set out in the Global Standards for Social Work Education and Training.  Students are regularly exposed to transnational and transcultural social work theory and practice within courses which enhance students’ knowledge of global issues, through exchange programmes  and by fieldwork placements in other countries, perhaps within large non-governmental organisations in Europe or America.  Such attempts to internationalise the curriculum facilitate the transferability and portability of social work qualifications gained in African countries and further the opportunities for our graduates to compete in the ever increasing interdependent world economy and global labour market.  It has also been argued that exchange programmes increase the sense of ‘global responsibility’ that students from those other countries hold towards those who are poor and oppressed within developing countries.

“Many practical and ethical challenges are faced, however.  Programmes’ aspirations are often compromised by the huge economic and social challenges faced by many African countries.  Exchange initiatives need  sponsorship, which is very limited in its availability. Social work practice and theory which has a basis in cultural or indigenous practices and social norms may also sometimes end up marginalized, with the result that service users and carers do not always receive a service which is locally responsive and culturally appropriate.

“Given this, the IFSW standards should be seen as ‘aspirational’ rather than necessarily achievable. The conceptualisation of internationalisation should be broadened to address how global issues influence local realities or conditions.  By establishing models that blend Western models with indigenous social work models and practices, this will enhance a recognition and acceptance of plurality and diversity within social work education in developing countries.”

So, what implications do these ideas have for the theory and practice of social work education in Western and developed countries?  Please share your views!

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March 17, 2013. World Social Work Day. Leave a comment.