Special Articles / Shankar Pathak / Social Work and Social Welfare
The profession of social work in India is more than thirty years old.* Yet, I am afraid, it does not seem to have come of age. Mature thinking, broad perspective, sobriety born of the felt responsibilities of work in a problem-ridden society, a sense of identification with progressive thought, of belongingness to the community and the culture of which it is a part, and a sense of mission and creative innovation in the realm of thought and action-all these are the hall-marks of a mature profession where clients are human beings as individuals and as collectivities. We may scan the social work horizon to discern the evidence of these, but we see a disappointing and depressing picture. Professional social workers have not shown themselves to be vitally concerned with the serious issues of our time and our society. They are in a state of peace and contentment; they have no right to be, given the living conditions of people in our country today.
What are those conditions? A vast expanse of poverty and deprivation, millions on the verge of starvation, economic exploitation and social degradation for the many, and power and luxury for a small group, ranging from pedlars of potatoes to pedlars of the intellect. This inhuman situation of apocalyptic contradiction will confront the social worker, wherever he may choose to work. Here, in brief, we give an idea of the character and size of the human problems social workers have to deal with.
At the outset, let me say a few words about the nature of a profession. The words are provoked by the constant emphasis laid by the majority of professionals as well as non-professional social workers, on one aspect of a profession, which is least important and not unique; the question of remuneration. It is very tragic and unfortunate that whenever social workers start discussing the nature of the profession, this aspect is brought to the fore, to the exclusion of many other vital issues pertinent to the discussion. I think it needs no serious discussion to see that the social worker, like any other human being, has certain natural, therefore, normal animal and human urges and needs, which call for satisfaction and so he should have a minimum of material well-being. Whatever may be said in theory, I can say, with all the authority of my personal experience of twelve years in the company of social workers of all types, Sadhus, Sarvodayites, Quakers, Christian missionaries, professionals per se and so on, that, whether formally drawing a salary or not, one and all without exception, make a call on the resources of the community in return for the services they render. If anybody, anywhere, at any time, has made or still makes a statement to the contrary, a little searching of his conscience is the only prescription for this malady!
Here, I would like to record a discussion I had recently with Shri Dhiren Majumdar, the veteran Sarvodaya thinker, who, in spite of his old age, continues to be a field worker. I requested him to throw some light on the question of a social worker's standard of living. On this issue, there is as much enervating confusion and contradiction among Sarvodayites as among profesional social workers, because of the religious insistence of the former on austerity in principle, most often violated in actual practice. Dhiren Da, as he is affectionately called, declared without reservation:
He (the social worker) shall live in dignified comfort. He said that the social worker would be a fool if he tried to live in the same poor and unimaginative way as an ordinary villager. At the same time, while working in a community, the social worker would lay claim only to such resources as are available to the majority. But, he would use his better knowledge, training and experience in such a way as to exploit his resources in more effective ways and thus extract a larger output and income. He would also aim at a more rational use of his income so as to obtain more and better satisfaction for the present as well as the future. In this way, with the same resources as those of the average villager, the social worker would be able to enjoy a better life than the latter and by this example he would arouse the curiosity and aspirations of the villagers for a better life. He would, in short, act as a pace-setter for change and for a more rational pattern of work and living.
What a refreshingly frank, rational and balanced view on a controversial question!
Many of the shortcomings of professional social work in India can be attributed to the unthinking and wholesale adoption of the values, concepts, methods and techniques evolved in foreign cultural conditions which are so different from ours. Like the foolish fish we seem to have swallowed, not only the hook, but the line and sinker too. I admit that this is a national malady, and not peculiar to professional social work.
Undoubtedly, there are certain universal truths in every aspect of human experience and they need to be seriously studied. At the same time, we should not forget that the particular elements are so many and cover such a vast area of human affairs that we can ignore them only at our peril. To take only one instance: the naure of professional social work. The undue emphasis on remuneration which distinguishes the profession in the U.S.A. was born of the predominant place of pecuniary values in a commercial and industrial society based on free enterprise. A society which has always experienced a relative shortage of labour, and is based on competition and free enterprise has depended upon the price-system for the regulation of the economic system and the correct allocation of resources. So, professional social workers and carpenters alike must have a price; all commodities, whether gold or onions, must have theirs. In such a system, all these have a necessary meaning and value. But, even in that society, the distortions of such a system are many: a professional social worker may be paid much less than a plumber or a truck- driver! Therefore, if we adopt such an exclusively pecuniary concept of the profession in our country, where mass poverty and unemployment are rampant, we shall be introducing one more contradiction in a society already riddled with many. Therefore, the central question in this regard is: what is the standard of living or comfort that a social worker should expect to receive from the community for his work? How high is high to be? In arriving at a sensible and rational norm the most important consideration seems to be to view the problem realistically in relation to the average living condition of the majority of the people. Beyond this, I feel, no sacred or inviolable principle, whether of sacrifice or affluence, need be introduced. Such an irrelevant exercise will only confuse the issue which will be worse confounded by a series of contradictions in actual practice. On the other hand, an effort to relate one's expectations regarding one's share in the national cake to the actual share enjoyed by the majority of the people in the country will be highly rewarding, particularly for a person who claims to be a social servant. Another aspect of this question is that of the community's investment on the education and training of a social worker. It has to be noted that the community's investment per capita on the professional social worker's professional education and training is considerable. (I have no exact figures- but it may be between Rs. 2000 to 3000, the average per capita annual income in India in 1966 being, a sobering thought indeed!). So it is but natural and justifiable, if the community expects everyone of them to treat his equipment and skills, acquired through the community's efforts, not only as a means for his personal welfare but also for the promotion of social ends. Thus viewed, the professional social worker, in some measure, will be giving back to the community in small installments a return for the investment it has already made on his behalf. We should grow out of our restricted and selfish individual shells and grow up into true social persons contributing to the emergence of a more humane society, a society where we share ourselves and our possessions with others. I am not excluding others from this discussion; however, for obvious reasons, social workers have a greater responsibility in this regard.
A Profession Distinguished from a Trade
A profession has to be distinguished from a trade, because it is more than a trade. Brother Anonymous, in his illuminating book, Impertinences of Brother Anonymous, has pointed out four points of distinction between the two:-
(i) In the case of a profession, a longer period of preparation of the intellect and emotion is required; training for a trade involves a longer period of preparation in skills.
(ii) In the practice of a profession, greater intellectual effort is involved; in the case of a trade, greater physical effort.
(iii) A profession, particularly a service-profession, deals with human beings; a trade deals with non-human material.
(iv) While the members of a profession organise themselves into a professional association, persons working in a trade get themselves organised through a trade union. A trade union is primarily intended to safeguard its members' interest and welfare. It is governed by rules and laws formulated and enforced by agents external to and independent of it.
A profession, on the other hand, is intended primarily to safeguard the quality of professional service and standard, and to protect the community of clients against sub-standard, unethical and fraudulent practices on the part of any individual member of the profession. Again, the professional association is governed by rules and laws formulated by the general body of members. Besides the operational rules and regulations, every profession formulates a code of conduct for its members based on certain special norms of professional practice.
While a professional association may, in some situations, justifiably play the role of a trade union in order to safeguard the legitimate interests of its members, it must guard against the danger of functioning from the standpoint of narrow and sectional interests of its members without concern for the larger interests of society. Ultimately, the basic question is: What is the primary focus of the professional association? Is it to be protection of members' interests, or of the quality of professional service and standards? Even though there may not be any inherent contradiction between the two, one can visualise situations where a conflict between the two functions may emerge. Here, it may be worthwhile to quote the following sane advice given to an association of teachers, by Mr. Lussier, Rector of the University of Montreal: “You will raise yourselves to the professional level, will rise above the trade union status, on the day when the Grievance Committee becomes less important than the Committee on Professional Advancement." Advice worthy of serious consideration by our professional social workers.
The points of distinction between a profession and a trade given above acquire added significance in the case of social work, since it has to deal with people who, in most cases, are faced with problems in the solution of which they need the help of others. In discharging his task, the most important tool at the disposal of the social worker is his own whole person - his trained intellect, his sympathy and awareness, and his skills in working with others, all acquired in embryonic form during his period of training and further developed, refined, and stabilised through years of field practice. However, it is not enough if the social worker functions only at the level of his intellect and his skills in a mechanical way. He has to import into his work certain personal qualities which are called for by the special relationship between two human persons-one needing help and the other giving it.
The Confrontation with Distress
The uniqueness of social work also stems from the fact that it is a service-oriented profession. To render service to another occasionally is one thing, but to take to service of others as an occupation and a vocation, obviously calls for a specific set of personal attitudes and attributes. The latter need no elaboration since they are well-known to professional social workers. These attitudes and attributes must be firmly rooted in and be perennially nurtured by a consciously felt concern for and commitment to the cause of our fellow humans in distress. In short, a social worker is not worth his name, nor can he retain his personal integrity and occupational efficiency for long, if he does not experience in the inner core of his being, a conscious identification with the brotherhood of suffering humanity. Such an identification cannot be acquired through mere intellectual effort. It can be felt and cultivated by an individual only through a planned and regular personal confrontation with concrete and specific instance of suffering, deprivation and other human problems. A confrontation of this nature is essential for a social worker in this country, where poverty and deprivation are the daily experience of countless millions and where it is so easy for the better-off to immunise their hearts and souls against the joylessness and sordidness of the human condition. The social worker cannot afford to function only as a social technician or engineer, a social technocrat, I believe, is the current term. He has to preserve his basic character as a servant of society. When he starts functioning from this broad base, his skills as a technician will be more effective and his efforts more rewarding.
The Conscience Keepers
With a definite commitment to the cause of the "underclass", professional social workers as individuals and as a group must retain a continuing and alert awareness of the social situation and the emerging social problems. In collaboration with other organised groups or independently as the situation demands, they have a responsibility to focus public attention on specific social problems and their solution. In short, the social work profession is essentially a custodian of social concerns and in a limited way one of the conscience keepers of the community. These characteristics of the profession could manifest themselves in the social realm, through the effective intervention of the profession in support of the maintenance of a system of human values. Whenever there is a violation of such values, whether in public policy or the practice of organised groups, social workers have a duty to mobilise public opinion and to take such other organized action as is deemed necessary for putting an end to such injustices. I wonder whether professional social workers in our country are aware of these serious social implications underlying their profession. Is it not time that a serious discussion of these vital issues is undertaken?
I have had occasion to be in the company of sarvodaya workers during the last three years. Whatever be their other short-coming I have found that both as individuals and as a group, they have in some measure, a sense of commitment to the cause of the underdog. It is a verifiable fact that, in spite of their limitations in approach and method, the sarvodaya workers in large numbers are working for the poor and the down-trodden in our rural sectors. It is a welcome development that during the last three years, a serious attempt has been made to build a bridge of understanding between the two streams of social work in our country. May we hope that out of this encounter will emerge a new tradition of social work theory and practice, nurtured by a deeply felt sense of commitment by new knowledge and skills? Here is an unprecedented challenge and opportunity for all social workers.
May we also hope that a similar effort will be made for working out a programme of constructive collaboration between professional social workers and other categories' of voluntary social workers? At present there is an undercurrent of hostility between the two groups, generated by ignorance of each other's objectives and methods, confusion about each other's roles and the failure on the part of both to recognise each other's achievements and limitations. A partnership between these groups will add to the quality, variety and volume of effort for social welfare because it will, in effect, mean a partnership between the pioneering zeal of the volunteer and the technical competence of the professionals.
Professional social workers as a group seem to be concerned much more than they should about their recognition in society, their security and future. Are they, in equal measure, concerned about some of the burning social problems our country is facing today? I am not aware of any effort by organised groups of professional social workers even to discuss such live problems as famine in many parts of the country, untouchability, communal conflicts, the problems of widows, the fate of the community development programme and so on. In view of this situation, can we escape the painful conclusion that professional social workers are not adequately aware of their social responsibilities? If social workers attend to their part of the bargain, I have no doubt that society, on its part, will give them the recognition they deserve. Social recognition has to be earned the hard way, through sustained and organised work among the people, never by passing resolutions or submitting memoranda.
Working with People
I would like to touch upon one important aspect of social work, which is very much ignored in our country. Social work is a profession of practice; it is absolutely essential that its members should have an irreducible minimum of regular field practice. Such field practice is the only valid justification for the claim of any person to belong to the profession of social work. This provides the minimum of professional contact with living human beings and their problems, so necessary for keeping alive one's sense of commitment and for sharpening one's knowledge and skills. Possession of a mere degree or a diploma in social work, without this minimum of field practice, can by no stretch of imagination be considered as adequate justification for one's claim to belong to the profession. In the same way, persons with diplomas in social work, who have gravitated into such diverse occupations as salesmen, army officers and personnel managers, cannot be considered as social workers. The operational approach and methods of their work are in many cases not in conformity with the values and principles of social work. Again, I may not be far from the truth if I say that, in our country, the number of professionally trained social workers whose sole concern is with wooden desks and papers is more than that of those who work with people. I am not unaware of the fact that when we work with people, some paper work is involved. However, how much time shall we spend with people and how much with papers is the basic question. One of the fatal weaknesses of the profession in our country is its failure to recognise and enforce the cardinal principle that its members should not only profess to be social workers, but also do a little field practice which requires the use of social work knowledge and skills.
The Welfare State: A Disturbing Conception
A tradition of pioneering, a spirit of adventure and creative innovation all these seem to be conspicuous by their absence in the average professional social worker who feels like a poor fish out of water, when he is called upon to function in a situation where there is no structured agency or organised programme or urban facilities to which he is accustomed. Perhaps this is the reason why the professional social workers have left the rural sector severely alone, in spite of the challenges offered by the variety and magnitude of the problems there. They have remained silent spectators of a long process of distortion, of faulty implementation and the slow liquidation of the community development programme, now on the way out, but which had all the potentialities of evolving into a mass movement of self-help.
Why have the professional social workers failed to establish a dynamic tradition of taking up worthwhile social challenges? When will they wake up from their unduly long slumber and blaze a new trail of protest against the "sordidness of mean streets" and "the joylessness of withered lives" we see all around us?
What has been the contribution of professional social workers in making this dream a reality? While the state has a legitimate function and duty to perform in relation to the welfare of its citizens, it is neither feasible nor desirable to expect it to take on the total responsibility in this regard. Moreover, the state is least suited as an agency for undertaking pioneering tasks, especially in the social realm; it can, at best, intervene in support of an experiment pioneered by a voluntary group, when its purpose, need and usefulness to society has been proved beyond doubt. Have our professional social workers assigned to the welfare state the role of the pioneer and to themselves, only that of caretakers? A very disturbing thought, indeed, particularly when, in our country, a vast voluntary movement-Sarvodaya -is engaged in mobilising the power of the people for their socio-economic development based on self-help and self-reliance.
These lines have been written by a friend, not a foe. The exercise has not been a pleasurable experience; but, it was undertaken with a view to provoke a little fresh thinking on some basic issues. I am aware of the many positive achievements of professional social workers in our country; but I have deliberately chosen to highlight what I consider to be the negative features which are inhibiting their full participation in the task of creative social endeavour. I have not considered the twin areas of social work knowledge and methods which, I hope, will be taken up for examination by persons with better credentials than I have, in these areas. Also, I have not dealt with some of the practical implications for professional training and functioning which arise out of the theoretical positions I have taken.
First published in Social Work Forum in 1967 and reprinted in International Social Work-a rare honour! It is reprinted here again because the author’s observations are relevant today, even after 45 years since it was written.
S.S.Iyer –An Introduction
S.S.Iyer obtained a first class M.A in economics of the Madras University. He taught economics at Assam and later to undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University College ,Trivendrum and D.M. College , Moga in Punjab . In 1955 he joined the Delhi School of Social Work as a Lecturer in Social Economics. In 1973 ,he decided to lead the life of a Sanyasin, having taken the vows some years earlier. At the moment of writing , he is reported to be at Kamakhya near Gauhati, known as Swami Charanananda. After leaving the Delhi School of Social Work, Mr.Iyer spent a year discovering rural India. He spent some time with Quakers at their rural project in Purulia, Hoshangabad District (M.P) and at another project run by the Sir Rattan Tata Trust at Bettiah in Bihar. Later, he joined the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, where he came in close contact with Jayaprakash Narayan and Sarvodaya workers. He became almost a Gandhian in dress, manners and by conviction.
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