Life in the slow lane

A country with no social security system, scant resources and ravaged by war sounds like a hopeless case for social work, but Rachel Curtis says local projects are gradually having an impact on child care.

Social work centres were established throughout the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1970s and continue to be the key local government institution for supporting vulnerable people in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, since the war ended in 1995, they have had to deal with greater social problems with considerably reduced resources. No social security system is in operation.

I am based in a small centre for social work in a rural area, which works with all client groups. The law, much of which has been amended or updated only minimally since the 1970s, regulates the work. There has been little emphasis on preventive work, or exploring community-based options to institutions or joint working with other agencies.

The main focus of my work has been to help the centre’s staff perform in a more user-focused way and introduce modern ways of working. Although my colleagues are qualified, there has been no tradition of continuing professional development; and many practices and ideas, and the type of language used, have not been seen in Britain for many years.

The pace of change is slow. For example, changing the focus of work to the client’s point of view is taking time but progress is being made. When users arrive at the centre, there are now signs pointing them in the right direction and the names of workers on their office doors. We have plans to further improve the reception process and are developing leaflets about rights and services for users.

There are no care homes locally. Therefore anyone who needs residential or nursing care and is unable to live with their family must be placed in a home some distance away. There has been no tradition of social workers visiting or reviewing the placements, and no plan of work. Along with my colleagues, we visited all the placements, undertook a small review and developed a plan of work.

The team recognises the importance of local care. They set up a small project to promote fostering, with a view to recruiting a bank of foster carers to provide care for both children and older people. I prepared a course called Preparation for Fostering that my colleagues ran for two groups of interested citizens. This focused on the needs of people in care and the skills required to foster, and was well received by the course leaders and the participants. One leader said it was “the most enjoyable work I have done in years”. A group member said the “presentation was great, interesting and inspirational”.

Plans are now being implemented for two children in care to spend holidays with a local foster family and others are working with the local home care team to care for older people in the community.

Rachel Curtis is a social work adviser with Voluntary Services Overseas at the centre for social work in Trebinje in the south of Bosnia-Herzegovina. VSO is recruiting social workers, particularly in the area of disability. Go to


  • Bosnia-Herzegovina is about one-fifth the size of the UK.
  • The population is 3,989,000 comprising Serb 37.1 per cent, Bosniak 48 per cent (a term in part to avoid confusion with an adherent of Islam), Croat 14.3 per cent, others 0.6 per cent. Languages spoken are Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian.
  • The Dayton Agreement, which led to the end of the war in 1995, divided the country into two entities, the Bosniak/Croat Federation and the largely Serb Republika Srpska.
  • At least 19 per cent of the population live below the general poverty line.
  • Trebinje is in south east Herzegovina, with a population of 35,000. It is the most southerly town of the Republika Srpska with a majority Serb population, many of whom are displaced from other parts of the country.

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