With World Social Work Day on 16 March, Andrew Mickel speaks to social care professionals about their experiences abroad, and looks at opportunities available to UK practitioners
Ever considered packing your suitcase and taking your social work skills to needy areas across the globe? Many British professionals have sought fresh challenges abroad – but the path is seldom straightforward.
For example, Paul Murphy’s journey to Haiti, where he is working as a child protection adviser with Save The Children, took in five-month placements in the central African state of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the province of Kashmir in the Indian sub-continent.
“Following my return from the Congo I decided to spend a few months in the UK,” says Murphy, a former teacher who worked as a pastoral care manager in London before entering Save the Children’s trainee scheme. “I’m on a contact register, so when the earthquake hit Haiti in January I was automatically e-mailed to see whether I was available. Within a week I was on my way.”
Murphy’s situation is rare – getting on such programmes is hard, and funding for Save the Children’s ends this year. Similarly, the number of social care professionals who go to work overseas is said by the International Federation of Social Workers to be “small”, as most are trained in the UK.
In Haiti, for example, the lengthy roll-call of international aid workers dealing with the aftermath of the massive earthquake so far includes relatively few social care professionals. Instead, it is more common for social workers to help in fragile states – countries that may not have ongoing wars or crises, but whose services need help to develop.
Neil Whettam, a social work training officer at East Lothian Council, has worked with VSO, the international volunteering charity, and other organisations in Belize, Kosovo and Kyrgyzstan; the expertise he developed in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, resulted in the United Nations asking him to evaluate their projects to help street children.
“The UN was doing a lot of work with few resources, but the focus seemed to be on clearing kids off the street, and that’s not always the right approach,” says Whettam. “Often you need to provide services on the street because they are still trying to secure an income for their families, so you provide schools and food on the street instead. [After my evaluation] they were beginning to change their approach with children.”
Whettam’s experience exemplifies the challenges facing anyone who wants to do international work: you need experience in the field you want to enter (in Whettam’s case, he knew about secure residential child care before his first overseas job with VSO, advising Belize on its national juvenile centre); and you need the ability to work with and, preferably, experience of different cultures.
However, Murphy says that despite the difficulties of fitting an already tricky job into a new context, making a difference still comes with its own rewards.
“With this kind of work it can sometimes feel that you’re going round in circles and not moving forward,” he says. “You have to take time to recognise the achievements of the team and acknowledge that the work is moving onwards.”
A deaf exchange programme between Preston, Lancashire, and Nepal was co-run by VSO and the British Council. Nine 18- to 25-year-olds from each area went on an exchange for three months on each leg, volunteering with local community organisations during their stays. The aim is to encourage inter-cultural learning and understanding.
Democratic Republic of Congo
A small team from Save the Children works with local, community-based partners on child protection. Work includes a reintegration programme for former child soldiers and family tracing programmes. Local partner agencies are supported with on-the-job training and instruction on information-gathering.
Paul Murphy, child protection adviser, is running Save the Children’s family tracing and reunification programme following January’s earthquake, heading a team of 19. He says: “The main problems I have to deal with relate to the overall scale of the situation here. Not only does this make it difficult to remain focused and calm, it also means that local systems are not functioning fully.”
Last autumn the Philippines were hit by a series of cyclones and storms. An emergency response was set up by Save the Children, focusing on psycho-social programming, and providing activities through schools for arts, drama and sport to restore normality. That also helps identify children who need protection. The response is expected to last a year.
Hellen Nyangoya, international social worker: “You must be humble, adaptable and accepting”
Hellen Nyangoya was a social worker with Norfolk Council before she replied to a job advert from Save the Children to start an international career in social care. She explains why it turned out to be the right move:
“International social work is uniquely rewarding, but challenging. You need to be patient, humble, adaptable and accepting. I have met some exciting people, learned many languages and about other cultures. Professionally, we work long hours, we lack resources and face multiple challenging child protection concerns daily.
“I have worked with social workers in Bihar, India, as part of Save the Children’s flood response team helping to reunify more than 500 separated children with their families, and working with communities to respond to child trafficking. I also worked with child labourers in brick-making industries and domestic workers in Kolkata. Similarly, I have worked in Sudan, working with internally-displaced people and refugees, and on violence against girls and women and children associated with armed conflicts as child soldiers.
“I now work in Afghanistan as a social work adviser. The main part of my work is supporting and capacity building of social work trainees, as there is no formal social work training institution in Afghanistan. We have 60 trainees, who work with street children, children in orphanages, rehabilitation centres and shelters.
“I have learned to appreciate the value of professional social work training, and the ability of social workers to use their inner resources to bring smiles, happiness and hope to children in difficult circumstances.”
➔ Save the Children has launched a fundraising appeal to help families living in poverty in Afghanistan. To make a donation or for more information visit the embedded website link or phone 020 7012 6400
This article is published in the 11 March 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Global vision”.