Beyond frontiers

Even though it is not strictly playing by the rules, we have a moral duty to use our expertise to help develop social care structures in other parts of the world, writes Philip Cotterill

It often goes unnoticed, but at least 50 UK local authorities have been working in more than 40 countries to help improve the lives of people.

In Russia, colleagues from Edinburgh are working with the families whose lives were shattered by the Beslan massacre. And social care is now very much on the agenda throughout Romania. This is in part due to the development of social care by colleagues from local authorities in Yorkshire and Humberside. They have worked with several cities in Romania, a country where only recently there were no social care networks and where social work training has just been reintroduced to university curriculums.

Many past and present social care professionals are involved in training people in eastern Europe to develop social care services. In many of these countries there is still extreme poverty. So is this international social care challenge the responsibility of social care workers in the UK? For those of us who always go by the book (I confess I am not one) legally the answer is no. However, I would argue that there is a moral obligation to share our knowledge and skills to help change the circumstances of people in our increasing global village.

Professionals in my own department have worked in the city of Arad, western Romania, since 1997, accomplishing feats that have been outside their comfort zone. I remember the look on the faces of two of my home care managers when I said I wanted them to go to Romania and establish a home care service within a fortnight.

They gave every excuse for why they could not do it. However, in just two weeks they created something sustainable that changed lives there and benefited their own managerial development that no formal training could have achieved. Six years later, the home care service in Arad is still changing people’s circumstances. In a reciprocal move, social care professionals from Bulgaria and senior managers from Russia have all spent time at our department at Kirklees.

Working with an eager council abroad is far from easy. Many issues have to be taken into account, principally the different culture and values. In wishing to achieve the same outcome, such as setting up a home care service, or remodelling residential care for older people, the starting point is very different. Our community care approach was a major threat to Arad’s model which was based on the medical profession. For example, to contain older people, medics would prescribe drugs and order constant bed confinement. It was a major culture shock when the Romanian practitioners were shown what we did here, but they did agree to jointly start a process that moved their service forward.

We did not impose our values and expectations. We said that how we provided care might not work in Romania; it was for them to determine the pathways and for us to help in setting achievable goals. Care workers were not used to being asked for their point of view; instead, they unquestioningly allowed managers to instruct them. Our staff adapted their approaches to ensure full involvement, confidence soared and the issues became commonly owned.

Our staff had to adapt quickly to working in a new environment where everything was translated. New skills were learned in the way we shared information. Many of us became aware of the power of body language.

In setting goals and targets we had to be clear that they were achievable within the local budget which the mayor tightly controlled. To raise more money for the social services budget we had to convince him of the need to place his priorities on social inclusion and regeneration as well as economic regeneration. A suggestion was made that he spend a day in a wheelchair without his chauffeur-driven car. He did and became most agitated and frustrated, especially when required to travel by tram. As a result, Arad now has dropped kerbs, the city’s theatre is accessible for disabled people, tram accessibility has improved and a ramp has been installed in the city hall.

The staff who once dealt with the “disease of old age” are becoming more familiar with assessments, core values, user involvement and, for the first time, supervision. Older people are more valued, while some have left residential care and now live at home again with some support.

The Association of Directors of Social Services has encouraged authorities to work beyond their natural boundaries, despite all the changes that are occurring to our own structures. It works closely with the Association of Directors of Social Work (ADSW) in Scotland and with other European directors. We are trying to co-ordinate our activity and learn from each other.

Colleagues from Salford have recently been advising the city and university of Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurt Republic in the Russian Federation, on delivering social care training and services and Izhevsk staff will be visiting Salford.

Kirklees and Salford are not alone in their desire to improve the lives of those in less developed regions. Warwickshire has been involved in establishing a post-qualifying framework for social workers with St Petersburg University. And North Yorkshire has hosted several visits by the Chernobyl Children’s Project and Belarus social care professionals who have been establishing fostering and adoption services.

After the tsunami, directors from England and Sweden met to compare how we had approached the local responses to the disaster which affected so many lives within our own boundaries as well as in the devastated areas. Was there a legal requirement on us to counsel the bereaved? No. Was there a moral imperative to use our counselling skills? I believe there was.

The ADSS is working closely with the Red Cross and the Foreign Office to ensure that in future our skills can be used to support people whose lives become dramatically changed by disaster. We, in social care, have much to offer and we have to think not only outside the box, but beyond the boundaries too – when that happens we will all benefit.

Philip Cotterill began his career in social care in the London Borough of Croydon in 1971. During 1976-9 he led a team of social workers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He has worked for Kirklees since 1986 and has been the director for 12 years. He was awarded the OBE in the 2004 Queen’s birthday honours.

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This article challenges social care professionals to respond to changing international circumstances that have created demand for skills and knowledge that are often taken for granted in the UK. Are we ready to take up the challenge and think beyond our borough and national boundaries?

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