Special Articles / B. Devi Prasad / Social Work Profession in India: An Uncertain Future
Voluntary sector and professional social work share certain common goals and concerns though they are two different worlds in terms of the nature and the background of the respective fields. Social work profession is a systematic evidence-based practice with a sense of commitment and a value base. Voluntary sector comprises legally valid, non-profit voluntary initiatives by people in social spaces for a common or a public purpose2. In the present day globalised and highly interconnected world, both fields are facing challenges to keep their programmes and activities competitive and relevant. While voluntary sector is one of the major recruiters of the professional social workers, the sector’s growing visibility and importance is a challenge to the profession indirectly.
Though both of them work for a common goal, i.e., social development, there were occasions where one thought the other is less professional or not committed enough to realise the goal. As a person who had the opportunity to associate with both the worlds–the profession of social work and the voluntary sector – I seek to relate from an educator’s point of view the strengths of and opportunities for the two sectors in the changing scenario. The paper is divided into four sections including the introductory section. A SWOT analysis has been used to examine the trends in the sectors. The second section briefly covers the scenario of the voluntary sector and the third section discusses the profession’s concerns. The last section touches upon the aspects about where and how the strengths of the two fields can converge to contribute toward building a better world.
In India, there is a rich tradition of voluntary action and the roots of voluntary initiatives can be traced back to spiritual movements, reform and freedom movements that shaped the destiny of the country over the ages. As compared to the times earlier, we are now living in a hyper-connected and rapidly changing world impacted by information technology and globalisation. The current socio-economic order has not only opened up new areas of work for voluntary sector but also to new challenges and problems as well. It is in this context that one needs to look at the strengths and opportunities of the sector.
The first strength is the diversity of areas covered by the voluntary sector. They range from relief and rehabilitation to development and advocacy. More specifically, the sector covers a range of areas such as education, primary health care, HIV/AIDS, child rights, environmental degradation and climate change, water and land issues, agriculture and wasteland development, Dalit, women and indigenous peoples’ issues, local self- governance, micro credit, tourism and many other areas of work3. In terms of its scale, while the Planning Commission’s website lists out around 55000 voluntary organisations (VOs)4; others would place its number at 20000 to 30000 (Chandhoke, 2011:174). Another study estimated that the number of VOs was more than 1.2 million (but nearly half of them are unregistered) with 20 million persons working in the sector either on paid or voluntary basis (PRIA, 2003).
The diversity is also in terms of typology and size of organisations. There are a large number of professionally managed development organisations, research and training institutes, and advocacy organisations. In the Indian context, depending on the stand taken, they fall into two broad categories: service providers, and advocacy and development oriented, though the distinction is not rigid. The 1970s saw the emergence of foreign aid5 for development giving rise to a genre of service delivery agencies. Adding to the diversity of the voluntary sector, this period saw several Gandhian reconstructive organisations, civil liberty groups and other advocacy groups. The early 1990s witnessed a revival of debate on civil society organisations giving birth to a wide range of initiatives dealing with issues of justice relating to caste, gender, resources, governance and citizenship. Among these there were many organisations with strong value framework which made excellent contribution to many fields of social sector in the country. There were also organisations set up by former bureaucrats, political leaders and industrialists mostly with a view to capture the government and foreign funding opportunities. A significant number of these organisations were co-opted by the state to implement its programmes (Goswami and Tandon, 2011). Thus, the face of voluntary sector as of now significantly differs from what it was a few decades ago. Even in terms of size, unlike huge organisations such as BRAC from Bangladesh, most of the Indian VOs are small and medium sized with staff strength varying between 30-60 members.
The second and the most important strength is the sector-specific expertise that they have brought to their areas of work. There has been a shift in the attributes of leadership from that of a self-sacrificing, service-minded volunteerism to a more career-oriented voluntarism, and a systematic approach to their work with an overarching commitment for the disadvantaged and the marginalized. It is through this professional application of expertise, that the sector could develop a wide range of sector-specific knowledge in areas such as micro credit, literacy and non-formal education, bio-gas, pollution and environmental issues, water management, local self-governance, sanitation, social forestry and so on. Through their work in these areas, they could draw the policy makers’ attention to these issues and sometimes resist anti-people government policies. Examples of the work of organisations such as SEWA (Gujarat), MYRADA (Karnataka), PRIA (New Delhi), CINI (West Bengal), Sulabh International (New Delhi), Seva Mandir (Rajasthan), and M.V.Foundation (A.P) can be mentioned in this regard. There are many more such organisations which have contributed to the development of policies and programmes in the country.
This sector has also grown to be a reservoir of policy knowledge and experience. Some of the VOs developed a vast resource of policy knowledge, which they can bring to national debates and other discussions. By virtue of their hands-on experience in their programmes, or through their close links with organisations doing similar programmatic work, these organisations in the voluntary sector have accumulated a level of policy intelligence, which a number of government and intergovernmental organisations are now recognizing and harnessing. The work of Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi is one such example.
The third related strength is its innovative role. The voluntary sector is known to experiment and promote new areas of development work. To mention a few, they have made pioneering contribution in areas such as SHGs, child rights, ageing, literacy, drinking water, sustainable development, environment and climate change. The government and other sectors, in their programmes, have adopted some of the innovations made in these areas. Another role is the incubator role which involves developing solutions that require a long gestation or payback period before being launched [World Economic Forum (WEF), 2013]. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, Non-formal Education Programme, mental health, disability, and water conservation programmes are some such examples.
The fourth important strength is its nearness to people and its ability to take on social movement mode by giving voice to the voiceless and the marginalized. As voluntary initiatives begin at the grassroots and work with and among people, it is possible for them to become a movement and bring about the desired social change. They can make the local voices heard better and get incorporated into the larger policy frameworks. Presently, if global decisions are impacting local realities, then there is a need to think locally and act globally. A growing number of VOs are increasingly becoming involved in making local voices heard globally (Sheth, 2004). Examples of such initiatives are public campaigns on environment (Narmada bachao and Chipko andolans), drinking water (Centre for Science and Environment), democracy and citizenship (Society for Participatory Research in Asia: PRIA), climate change (Laya), and so on.
The last and the recently emerging area of strength of the sector is its linkages or alliances. This means the wide range of relationships that VOs establish with other similar and dissimilar actors in the area of development to function effectively. About a decade and a half or even much earlier, the VOs were working devotedly in their constituencies and relating themselves with their funders but maintained a safe and functional distance with the government agencies and their bureaucrats. While the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector has always been a difficult one, the voluntary sector’s relationship with actors such as people’s representatives, private sector and with the other civil society organisations had also been very limited and selective.
However, there has been a significant change in this situation. The traditional roles of these sectors are changing so much that new frameworks for collaboration and partnership between them to address the societal challenges are emerging (WEF, 2013). Now, the VOs are forming alliances with a wide range of actors – among themselves as networks and with others such as the elected representatives, the government, the academia and the market. Thus, the ability to bridge alliances with similar as well as dissimilar partners is seen as an emerging strength of this sector. For example, the largest area through which they have come to work with elected representatives is local self-governance – the panchayat raj and the urban municipalities. Similarly, VOs’ work in the areas of community forestry, wasteland development, watershed management, micro credit, information technology etc., in collaboration with government and business sectors, is resulting in bringing these services to the betterment of the community. See Box 1 for a brief overview of the roles of this sector.
Apart from the above, voluntary sector is increasingly seen as an alternative site of knowledge production. Universities are no longer seen as the sole producers of knowledge. Thus, the traditional knowledge of cattle rearers of Rajasthan mapped by an NGO is in no way inferior to the knowledge generated by a University. Therefore, unlike earlier times, VOs are now consciously cultivating and strengthening useful collaborations with academic bodies, and research organisations to create a better impact on the communities they are working with. This is the basis for University-Community engagement which is currently talked about in the process of making higher educational institutions socially accountable (Tandon, 2008).
Changing opportunities and roles
Presently, VOs are facing rapidly changing socio-economic environment, funding and policy environment external to them. This is leading to changes in their programmes, redefinition of their roles and functions as VOs, and their relationship with external stakeholders such as State, market and most importantly with the communities they serve. With these changing realities, the programmatic responses are also changing leading to modifications in the forms of governance, design (should it be a society, mutually aided coop society, or a company under sec 25, or a trust?) and size (reduce or merge) of organizations, and most probably the ideological frameworks and the areas they work with. In the present scenario, financial sustainability is the top priority and major concern for many VOs.
The opportunities and roles of voluntary sector have been influenced by a number of changes both external and internal to the sector. The external changes have influenced the nature of formation of voluntary spaces, funding to the sector, policy environment, and their legitimacy in the larger social and political spheres. They in turn had an impact on how the sector has been changing in its internal design, governance, and its vision and mission. An attempt is made here to briefly capture these changes.
First, globally, two important events, the Washington Consensus in 1989 emphasising the minimalist role to be played by the State by giving space to the market, and about a decade after, in 1998, the declaration of the business community at World Economic Forum at Davos about the corporate social responsibility, have changed the concept of development and the roles played by the three sectors – State, market and civil society, though the boundaries are porous and changed depending on time and context of the country. The civil society (collective space for citizen action) gained visibility as a sector outside of state and market to work for social vision.
Second, in the Indian context, changes in the availability of institutional funding and the policy environment have considerably affected the opportunities for and roles of voluntary sector. In fact, the VOs have travelled a long way from relief and welfare work to community development and policy advocacy depending on the changes in these scenarios (VANI, 2001). While 1970s saw a spurt in foreign funding from OECD countries converting many VOs into a service delivery mode, a number of organizations working around struggles such as caste and gender justice, the protection of civil rights, forest and environmental issues taking a predominantly advocacy role have also come to exist during this period (Sheth and Sethi, 1991). At this time, the government -VO relationship was complex and conflict ridden. After the famous J.P. Movement, Kudal commission was set up to look into the affairs of some voluntary organizations and subsequently the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 1976 was passed to regulate foreign aid to VOs. The 1991 decision of the Indian Government to liberalize economy shifted the development model from socialism to capitalism resulting in the gradual withdrawal of the state from social sector thus giving more space to voluntary sector in the management of social services (Devi Prasad, 2003). This is only a short lived phase as some of the important social sector services such as education, health, communication, housing etc have later moved into market sphere during the last few years with the adaptation of neoliberal model by India.
Besides these trends, 1990-2000s witnessed several important changes which had a direct impact on the development work of voluntary sector. They are, to mention a few, introduction of 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Act in 1992 (which came into force in April 1993), the Right to Information Act in 2005, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (renamed in 2009 as MGNREGA), and the Right to Education Act of 2009 (came into force in April 2010). Voluntary sector has contributed significantly to these developments. This period, in fact, witnessed a resurgence of voluntary action in the country (Goswami and Tandon, 2011; Chandhoke, 2011).
However, during the last few years, the neoliberal model adapted by India has changed the scenario of the voluntary sector drastically. Two developments are note worthy in this regard. (i) India became a donor country and began giving aid to countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Afghanistan etc. Considering India’s positioning in the global context (Roychoudhury, 2008), the OECD/DAC moved India to lower middle income category country. Because of these changes, with the exception of a few areas such as HIV/AIDS, climate change and so on, the international funding to Indian VOs for development work has been rapidly declining. (ii) The emergence of the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), though not new, with the passing of the Campanies Bill 2013 mandating the companies to spend 2% of their profits on CSR. The Schedule VII of clause 135 of the Bill lists such CSR activities as eradicating extreme hunger and poverty, promoting education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability, enhancing vocational skills, contributions to government relief funds etc. The companies are free to decide which activities they would be willing to support. What kind of relationship will this shift forge between the business sector and voluntary sector is yet to be seen (Maira, 2013; Tandon, 2013; Venkatesan, 2013). These changes raise some crucial questions regarding the nature of development work, and the direction and design the voluntary sector will take in the country.
As traditional funding sources shrink, VOs are caught in the midst of issues pertaining to financial sustainability and autonomy. Grants for traditional areas of development work and advocacy are drying up. New areas, spaces and activities are emerging. Many of them may not be focused directly on marginalized and vulnerable sections of population like climate change and environment, new energy options, carbon farming, governance and democracy, health, water and sanitation, science and technology, and consultancy. As many VOs have staff and have built infrastructure, they need to maintain and sustain them even if they shed some of these paraphernalia. Hence they may be pursuing programmes which will bring financial sustainability. Earlier, the focus was more on nurturing and encouraging small and medium organizations. Now, small organizations, and groups working with marginalized communities are no longer valued. The focus now is more on network-based, larger organizations which can create an impact. Now, some of them are speaking a new language - investments rather than donations, markets rather than donors, and though not explicitly stating, surplus in the place of profit.
Thus, there is a possibility that the role of the VOs as watchdogs and champions of the vulnerable can largely become ineffective. Even their roles and priorities may often found to be impacted by the availability/non-availability of funds. One may argue that the strong value framework of the organization may ensure that the development work may continue. But it would be a struggle for many VOs to retain their earlier vision as the market is stronger in abrogating the vision and functions of the VOs.
Third, definitions of voluntary spaces where people act and interact for common or public good are also radically changing. Now, they comprise different groups from different spaces with contesting identities, ideologies and agenda but with a broader common goal, that is, public good. ‘An ever wider and more vibrant range of organized and unorganized groups, are experimented with new organizational forms, both offline and online’ (WEF, 2013). One example of creating common spaces for building broader goal is World Social Forum where the civil society/voluntary groups from different parts of the globe meet, despite differences on ideological, political and other levels, with a common goal: opposition to neo-liberalism and one-way globalisation advocated by multilateral agencies under the patronage of global institutions such as World Bank, IMF or WTO. Another example is the emergence of a number of micro and macro social movements as non-party non-NGO formations reframing the definitions of development and people’s participation in the democratic processes (Sheth, 2004; Goswamy and Bandhopadhyay, n.d). The protest movements like the anti-corruption movement in India by Anna Hazare, and anti-POSCO movement in Orissa are some other instanes. More importantly, the IT revolution and growing internet access have ushered in new forms of voluntary spaces for action such as facebook and twitter6. Such networking sites may not be the decisive forces which drove these movements. But they provided the connectivity which is important to convert the dissent into a people’s presence on the streets. The new online media is thus ‘creating the conditions for the emergence of ... a mass of loosely connected, small-scale conversations, campaigns and interest groups, which might occasionally coalesce to create a mass movement’ (Leadbeater, 2011).
One frequent criticism levelled against the voluntary sector is that the extreme diversity and vibrancy within the sector make it difficult to bring unity within it. There are big and small organisations in terms of size, resources and spread. Thus, while diversity adds to its richness, it also gives rise to problems about whose voices are heard, at what levels and so on.
The other criticism is about representation by VOs. Whom are they representing? Whose voices are they carrying? It is sometimes said that some of the voluntary groups don’t represent the views of anyone but themselves and some do not have roots at the field level at all! Some organisations may be carrying the voices of their funders or other constituencies! Questions about the legitimacy of VOs are also raised by political agencies. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and its impact to amend Lokpal bill are in fact an answer to the question about the legitimacy of civil society.
Challenges about the transparency and credibility of VOs come from many quarters. They often come from political leaders or government circles. It is often said that these organisations are accountable ‘upwards’ to their funders rather than ‘downward’ to their beneficiaries. Credibility is an important resource needed by VOs to bring legitimacy to their work. Credibility can be earned through transparency in governance and financial operations, and accountability to one’s constituencies. Credibility Alliance, a consortium of VOs, was formed in 2004 towards enhancing ‘Accountability and Transparency in the Voluntary Sector’ through good governance. A look at the number of accredited organisations, which is not even 400, speaks about its impact.
Funding is another issue basing on which the credibility and legitimacy of the VOs are questioned. While some see accepting funds from the government as a threat to autonomy, for others accepting foreign funds is construed as incorporating imperialist agenda into their work. Sometimes the organisations’ activities may become more fund driven, confrontational rather than vision driven (Sethi, 2003). Whatever be the source of funding, resources in future may not continue to be available to the VOs in the context of the changing scenario.
Professional Social Work
With these observations about the voluntary sector, let us turn to professional social work. In India, the beginning of professional social work can be traced to the period of 1930s. Since then the profession has made important contributions to the sectors of welfare and development in the country. Reputed social work educators and practitioners contributed to its knowledge base and to the consolidation of the professional education in the country. Nonetheless, with its moorings largely in western social work knowledge base, social work in India had always struggled to have an indigenous identity of its own in terms of knowledge, methods of work, and a perspective (Desai and Narayan, 1998).
Strengths of the profession
The strengths of the profession are: its professional base, which has a historical background and a track record of performance globally. It has become a global profession with its presence in 144 countries7. This gives legitimacy to the profession. Its academic (university) base gives it credibility. Its code of ethics gives it accountability. The profession has a knowledge base and an identity of its own as a branch of discipline that has been exclusively relating itself to development issues at different levels. More than any other profession, it’s essential goal is to respond to the country’s changing socio-political, economic and cultural realities, challenges of globalization, socio-economic disparities, ecosystem changes, disasters, etc., and to update social work education methodologies to meet such challenges. In a recent National Consultation, the profession has reaffirmed its commitment and obligation to meet the challenges emerging from the neoliberal regime and marketisation which are overwhelming the social sector and shrinking the State’s responsibility towards the poor and marginalized. The profession has resolved that: as professional social workers and representatives of social work educational institutions across the country, we are together in solidarity for social justice and equality in favour of the poor and the marginalized sections of the society (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012). Compared to the stand taken up by the profession of social work in other countries such as UK, USA, Sweden, Spain, Germany etc., in the changing neoliberal context (Weiss-Gal and Welbourne, 2008; Reisch, 2013), this statement of professional boundary identification of social work profession in India is unique and reflects its strength. The network of social work institutions in the nation provides an institutional base with their various capabilities. There are around 300 social work educational institutions in India spread over 17 states (including some of the Northeast states), and 2 Union Territories. Of these 67 are located in Maharashtra and 60 in Gujarat. Thus, nearly half of the social work educational institutions are located in the Western region alone.
Social Work education in India can be described as ‘a sea of mediocrity with islands of excellence and visibility’. Thus, the uneven distribution of the programmes and the quality of most of the institutions have become matters of great concern (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012). As of today there are five key deficits which must be addressed if the profession of social work in India is ever to effectively relate itself with other stakeholders in its environment – be it voluntary sector, government, or others, and to contribute to social development.
The first is the knowledge deficit. While there is consensus that the methods of social work could be universal, it has been argued that some methods are more relevant than others to work with people in the Indian context. Thus, community organization and social action were seen as more relevant methods though in the changed scenario, this became a case for debate (Siddiqui, 1997; Gore, 1997). Moreover, not much practice-relevant indigenous knowledge did develop around these methods though a wealth of literature and creative writings relevant to social work exist in the Indian context (Desai, 1997).
Perspective-wise, many social work schools in India still continue the ‘elitist, urban middle class, clinical and welfare-oriented’ paradigm, though there have been attempts by some schools, during 70s and 80s, to incorporate developmental and systems change perspective into the profession. The Second Review Committee report (UGC, 1980) facilitated this change though there was a debate about the scope of its impact on the profession (Pathak, 1981 & 1982, D’Souza and D’Souza, 1981). Furthermore, during the last two decades, new and challenging areas of work have emerged in the development sector. However, professional social work could address only a limited number of these areas. In some of the new areas such as for example local self-governance, dalit and tribal issues, disability8, micro credit, displacement and rehabilitation, water issues, the number of social work- specific interventions are either minimal or non-existent, as the profession did not effectively relate itself with these areas. Though social work could build some sector-specific information in such areas as family planning, counselling, HIV/AIDS, alcoholism, child rights, women and child development, the emerging and new fields were largely left unattended.
Broadly, three trends have contributed to the knowledge deficit. They are : i) lack of academic work ethic and scholarship, ii) lack of identification with social work profession, its intellectual and theoretical traditions, and iii) lack of ability to use social work lens to look at social issues and concerns.
i) For a profession, the major contribution to the production of knowledge comes from its academics and field practitioners. However, the contribution of academics is seen as inadequate, and of practitioners far less. Pathak (2000) expressed that compared to other disciplines, professional social work lacked academic work ethic, a vibrant tradition of scholarship, and a commitment on the part of practitioners to contribute to social work knowledge. A study of the trends in articles published for over two decades (1971-1990) in the Indian Journal of Social Work showed that authors with social science background were found to publish more as compared to the authors with social work background. Articles by the social work practitioners were even less in number and indicated a downward trend over the two decades (Vijayalakshmi, Devi Prasad and Rao, 1996). Several factors have led to this situation. One is the quality of social work products. Probably, over the past three decades, in the context of globalisation and growing market economy, the STEM disciplines (namely Science and Technology, Engineering, and Management) were given emphasis resulting in the joining of bright and promising students in these disciplines much to the disadvantage of social sciences and humanities, including Social Work. This concern is in fact global as of late writings noting the decline of social sciences and humanities have been appearing more frequently (Lewin, 2013; Mukherjee, 2013; American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2013). The STEM fields are seen as disciplines contributing to the national productivity in the current era where wealth creation is emphasised as one of the important functions of knowledge society (National Knowledge Commission (NKC), 2009) leading to the gradual eclipse of social sciences and other helping professions in the process. As a teacher of social work I have witnessed, since early 1990s, the decline in the quality of students opting for social work. My colleagues from other disciplines have often endorsed this trend in their fields as well. The mediocre quality of social work students is reflected in the research scholars which in turn affected the quality of curriculum content and teaching. Obviously, the faculty quality and their academic vigour decide the nature and perspective of curriculum and how it is taught and it eventually impacts the knowledge produced by them. Thus, the widely perceived drastic decline in the quality of social work instruction (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012) in a majority of the social work programmes in India at present is an outcome of this situation.
ii) Another important trend one often comes across with is the erosion of identification with social work profession among the social work faculty. Factors leading to this situation are more complex. To my mind, the most important are: a) identity crisis among young social work academics and their reluctance to identify themselves intellectually with the ideologies and theoretical traditions in social work; and b) shying away, in their writings, from drawing implications to social work or making other perspectives and frameworks relevant to social work practice and knowledge.
There are two contexts which have a close bearing on the above factors:
First, historically, many social work programmes in our country were initiated as adjunct programmes of Departments of Sociology, Education, Economics and such other social science subjects. Since social work programmes were started as fledgling courses in these departments, they have to continue their existence for a long time under the academic dominance of these disciplines.
Second, there was also a time during late 1980s and after, when a majority of social work programmes in the country recruited social scientists (sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, economists, etc.) with the assumption that their teaching and collaboration with social work would sharpen the social workers’ understanding of the concerns of individuals and communities they work with. The teaching of the courses in these subjects was either performed by a full-time or part-time faculty depending on the availability of funds. The usefulness of this arrangement/collaboration was also subjected to intense debate (Ramachandran, 1983; Pathak, 2013).
However, in both contexts, the relationship between social work faculty and social sciences faculty proved to be disharmonious (Ramachandran, 1983) and led to debilitating tensions though Gore chose to see it as ‘dynamic tension’ (Pathak, 2011) . In seminars after seminars, discussion about this conflict/disharmony used to surface quite often. This scenario has not changed much and might have gotten worse where even journalism and business management departments have reportedly started the social work courses (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012). To some extent, this has affected the boundary identification of the profession. In a Seminar on Social Sciences and Social Work held in the TISS in 1978, social scientists were given to understand that they “need to develop an abiding interest and commitment to social work and learn about social work theory and practice at least in so far as it is necessary to be able to apply their social science knowledge to the social work field” (Ramachandran, 1983:469). I have heard similar sermons in other institutions as well.
But, collaborations between disciplines do not work in that simple manner. By early 1950s, most of the social science disciplines such as economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc were established fields in their own right, were taught in a number of institutions and had also acquired a wider academic base. A cursory glance at the reviews of the social sciences and social science research would show the prominence of disciplines such as economics, sociology, political science, education, etc in that order (ICSSR, 2007). Whereas, within the much underfunded social science research, discipline-wise distribution of research projects for the years 2006-07 to 2009-10 show that less than 2% are from social work (Govt of India, 2011).
These external realities of the disciplines invariably influence their interactions with other disciplines and the position of social work located in social sciences departments/environments in the country is not an exception. Similarly, in a premier institute of social work, the internal changes at the level of teaching courses and constituent teaching units led to a unique phenomenon, where the original social work programme – the whole – became a part of the larger social sciences environment thus changing its status and then its defining identity (Pathak, 2011).
This situation, that is, social work programme located in social sciences departments/environments, which is the result of historical and establishment-related factors has plagued social work in India since its inception and the overall ‘dynamic tension’ continued. Thus, during their many encounters with social scientists, social workers were often asked what theory building do they do, and how effective and current are their methodologies? The point here is not to minimize the need to face such questions and thereby have critical self introspection, but to state the fact that social workers do build and borrow theories where unlike social scientists, their preoccupation is with how to use them to improve their work with individuals, groups and communities, and not with how to do theory building.
Social work professionals are like surgeons. Surgeons are neither anatomists nor pharmacologists but they study these fields to be effective surgeons. In the same manner, social workers are neither sociologists, economists, psychologists nor anthropologists. They need bits and pieces of appropriate theories and perspectives from these fields to inform and make their practice with the individuals and communities better. Does a voluntary worker bother about being a sociologist or a political scientist or about what kind of knowledge that they garner would be useful in addressing a social concern that he/she is currently addressing in the field? I do not think social work professionals should think differently either. They need to bring the social work lens to understand the issues and concerns that they are addressing in the field and then plan how to address them. This multidisciplinarity is seen as their foundation and strength (Adiseshiah, 1981; Desai, 1985). Social workers need to know who they are, who they stand for, and what their roles and ideology are. Many social scientists miss this point and social workers often fail to emphasize this aspect of the profession.
One of the cumulative outcomes of this situation is that some social workers began emulating dominant social science disciplines by bringing in social sciences’ content and points of view in large measure into their academic writings. As a result, they preferred to use a sociological lens and not social work lens. Their writings looked more like sociological papers with references to sociological or other theoretical frameworks. They are sprinkled with the observations of Agamben, Karl Popper, Foucault, etc. A majority of these writings do not reflect scholars in social work – be they Indian or of other countries. Much of their writings were devoid of either reference to social work knowledge or implications drawn to improve practice. In fact, some of the social work educators felt awkward to or even failed to draw implications for social work from their studies. Thus, most of the young faculty though seemed to be social workers in their outer skin, ended up trying hard to be social scientists from within. Understandably, they are in an identity crisis - neither could they flaunt their identity as social workers nor would they pass off as social scientists in full measure and be accepted by them. I consider this as the major threat to the development and strengthening of knowledge building in the social work profession in India which is the reason why knowledge production and adaptation in social work, had been so poor and inadequate.
The next is the competency deficit. Competency is the knowledge and skill set of a person or an organization to perform a task. Lack of appropriate knowledge about the relevant areas of work in the development sector made the training of students in social work less focused and not infrequently, irrelevant (Siddiqui, 1987). Though fieldwork is an important component of professional social work training, because of lack of touch with the current development issues, and emerging areas of work, the fieldwork training could not provide the needed exposure and skills both to the teacher and the taught (Singh, 1985; Deviprasad and Vijayalakshmi, 1997).
Social work students are facing stiff competition from others such as students of management and development studies, and the products trained in rural and development management institutes. Many VOs, government departments, and corporate-funded foundations have large scale social development projects to be managed. This gave rise to the need for management and strategic planning skills which put social work students at a disadvantage as many of them do not possess such skills. Social work students have a development perspective and excellent exposure to grassroots realities in the field and can work well there. This attribute doesn’t however compensate for the lack of programme management skills as the current situation signals the need for incorporation of such subjects in the curriculum of many social work programmes. Similarly, social workers trained in a majority of the schools in the country lack knowledge of political economy which is the critical knowledge needed by them to understand the changing external environment of their client groups. Some leading schools of social work have incorporated this knowledge in their course instruction under the component of Foundation Courses, which is useful in building this competence among students.
Similarly, so far the profession could not evolve an effective human power policy either in its sector or in the related sectors such as voluntary sector. After 1970s, in addition to the lack of information about the educational/training needs of the social work professionals working in the social welfare field (Pathak, 2013; Thachil and Kumar, 1997), there exists a hiatus between the growing information needs and skills required by the personnel working in the voluntary sector and the expertise available in social work educational institutions. The fact that a considerable number of jobs in the field of social welfare and other related fields are held by people not trained in social work reflects in a way the low status of the profession. Further, very few social work educational institutions can claim to be competent to meet the training needs pertaining to such areas of work as local self-governance, environment, micro-credit, HIV/AIDS, civil society development, organizational management, strategic planning and so on. In a globalised world, professional courses struggle to keep their curricula contemporary by consulting with their alumni, faculty, students and recruiters of their products. A major source of such change can also be from a comparison of the school’s curriculum with a set of schools in a global context (Anshuman and Chandrasekhar, 2004). None of the UGC review committees on social work education could achieve this purpose satisfactorily for a variety of reasons.
The third one is the professional deficit. It is exemplified by the deteriorating quality of professional social work education thereby the quality of the profession, and lack of a cohesive and well established professional body. The recent trend in commercialization of social work education with market driven specializations such as human resource management is a matter of great concern. The commercial interest got entrenched giving way to high fee structure, capitation fees, and growth of self-financed programmes in social work. The fact that ‘the western region of the country witnessed an unprecedented spurt in schools run by families and often inside their home’ reflects the gravity of the situation. To my mind the commercialization of social work education is an indication of making social work market-driven and co-opting it to the needs of growing neoliberal economy in the country. Thus, the major challenge is not only the decline in the quality of instruction in social work, but also the extreme variation in the social work curriculum in different schools and the trend of distance education in social work (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012). Prompted by the Planning Commission of India, TISS initiated a series of consultations under the National Network of Schools of Social Work starting from September 2011 for quality enhancement of social work education in India. One of the goals of the national consultation is to evolve a minimum social work curriculum and to encourage the schools of social work to adopt it (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012). One has to see how many programmes would go by this idea in the present context.
Next, the profession of social work, for a considerable period of its existence in India, did not have the consistent guidance of or steering by a professional body. Of the two professional bodies started in the early 1960s, the Association of Schools of Social Work in India (ASSWI) and the Indian Association of Trained Social Workers (IATSW), the latter became defunct within two decades of its existence. As regards the former, if the institutional membership base of a professional organization could be measured as its strength, the fact that only 27.8 per cent of the institutions of social work during late 1990s were members of ASSWI, makes the matter clear about its strength as a professional body. Then, from where does the profession get its direction or identity? When will, the much awaited draft of the National Council of Social Work (NCSW) in India Bill (1993), become an Act? In spite of several limitations, ASSWI made attempts to bring in several important publications, and contributed to profession’s development (Nair, 1981; Nanavatty, 1997). However, by early 2000s, the association became dormant again. Thus, there is an urgent need for an autonomous regulatory body or standard setting authority to provide direction to the profession in the country. As stated by Nanavatty: ‘the absence of effective functioning of professional associations of social work practitioners and educators is the most pronounced handicap in professional development in the country. Unless these are revived and made effective, the future of the profession of social work is likely to remain bleak’ (1997:299).In 2013, the efforts made by several social work educators at the national level to enhance the quality of social work education finally led to the initiation of the Indian Association of Social Work Education (IASWE). An ad-hoc committee of the association was formed on 3rd December ,2013 in the national consultation meet organised by the TISS at Mumbai.
Then there is the governance deficit, which broadly refers to the existence of social work programmes under varied affiliations, and to the inadequate capacities of a majority of social work educational institutions in the country. At present, social work programmes are coming under different affiliations such as (Nadkarni and Desai, 2012):
This situation had an impact on social work education since in many instances it had resulted in adhocism in teaching, shortage of faculty, inadequate leadership due to vague affiliation patterns leading to lack of identification with the profession, and to the control by different ministries such as Education, Social Welfare, etc over the social work programmes.
Next, coming to the capacities of a social work educational institution, they can be of three types.
i. The intellectual or analytical abilities and accomplishments of the faculty of the institution
ii. Institutional capacity comprising its internal and external network with other actors in the field, and
iii. Its physical infrastructure, resources, and other technological assets.
Many institutions of social work in the country may need strengthening in these areas. Two reasons have led to this state of affairs. a) Lack of a standard setting and regulatory authority in the profession, which led to the proliferation of social work educational institutions thus resulting in the sprouting of weak and inadequate institutions. b) Lack of resources to improve the institutional facilities and competencies of the faculty. Very few institutions are in a strategic position to attract funds from government bodies such as UGC and ICSSR to improve their financial and infrastructural resources.
The last is the ideological deficit. By this deficit I mean the absence of any significant discussion in the light of changing socio-economic context in the country on questions such as: What type of desirable society that social workers envision and what role can they play in realizing such a society and in sustaining it? How to realign the roles of professional social workers in the present context of changing roles of state and market without losing sight of the profession’s value framework and pro-poor commitment?How far the knowledge monopolies influence these thought processes? Are multiple conceptions of an ideal society possible or desirable, and in the Indian context, who defines the notions of a desirable society? Disciplines connected with social change did engage themselves in such debates (Desai, 1981). Answers to these questions will give direction to the profession and help identify models and approaches to train competent students to work with the three sectors – the state, the market and the voluntary sector. Though the first two questions have been debated during 1970s to 90s by social work educators (Dasgupta, 1982; Desai, 1985; Desai and Narayan, 1998; Drucker, 1993; Nanavatty, 1993; Pathak, 1997; Siddiqui, 1987), there is a noticeable absence of discourse during recent times on social work’s vision of a desirable society and about the changing functions of social work in the context of globalisation and related changes.
The ascendency of neoliberal regime created several contestable ideological assumptions about social services, social policy and the functions of state, market and civil society. The institutional and ideological stances thus generated have been influencing the goals and values of social work. Globally, as most of the functions of social work are linked with the roles of welfare state, withdrawal of the state from its predominant welfare functions changed many roles of social workers. Moreover, for the first time in the history of the profession, its knowledge base and philosophy are challenged (Loakimidis and Teloni, 2013; Reisch, 2013). Therefore, to remain relevant, social workers will have to reframe and reconceptualise their relationship with the three sectors.
More than any other profession, social work is primarily committed to social justice and equality in favour of the poor and the marginalized. From the stand point of this value framework, social workers refuse to accept the inevitability of the neoliberal regime just as they previously refused to accept the inevitability of poverty. Therefore, social work profession should strive to present an alternative vision of socially just society by reframing its discourse over vocabulary such as justice, equality, freedom, inclusion and citizenship (Reisch, 2013).
This leads us to the next position of how to relate with other sectors especially with the state. It has been shown that too close an alliance with the state obviously takes away the autonomy of the profession. The situation of social work in UK and China are examples of what it means to be working closely with the state (Ying Liu , Ching-Man Lam & Miu-Chung Yan, 2012; Idit Weiss-Gal and Welbourne, 2008). One of the outcomes of such relationship is that the state would appropriate and reframe the functions of social work to suit its needs. As social work is an academic discipline with a university base, it is possible to take positions in favour of the poor and the marginalized because of the academic autonomy enjoyed by the educational institutions.
It is true that both the voluntary sector and the professional social work are changing as a result of the ascendance of the neoliberal regime. It is from this point of view that an attempt has been made here to understand the pathways of change occurring in these sectors. Now, in this context, where can the strengths of the two sectors meet? Where do they diverge? How can the meeting points be revitalized to make the two sectors responsible partners in building a better world?
The first meeting point is the commitment both the sectors share for the poor and the marginalized. As mentioned earlier, with the changing sources of funding, the areas of work are likely to change. However, as compared to the products from other social sciences, students of social work are more attuned to work with these groups. More specifically, fieldwork in social work and the social work methodology develop this orientation among the trainees. All this facilitates the supply of young professionals with a perspective to work with the disadvantaged in the society.
The second point is helping VOs in their training andcapacity building. To fulfil this competently, the profession needs to forge and scale up its engagement with new and current issues relating to development. Though most VOs take up training for various groups such as SHGs, elected representatives, youth, etc., they themselves need capacity building at different stages of their development in such skills as programme formulation and management, documentation, organizational management, and strategic planning. Schools of Social Work because of their professional background and networks are better suited to be the providers of these services.
Third, the above two functions can be better facilitated if social work educators have opportunities for interaction with the voluntary sector by way of exposure to its diverse areas of work. There is an increasing recognition among social work educators and practitioners that the expanding voluntary sector has really opened up new and varied challenges for social workers. They are also emerging as alternative sites for knowledge production. Therefore, the profession’s interaction with the sector through visits, field placements of students, research , consultation and other collaborations should continue. They can help the educators understand the specific requirements and training needs of the voluntary sector better. Moreover, the profession can make use of this opportunity to explore new areas of work and develop appropriate knowledge about these areas.
Fourth, a number of VOs take up advocacy work on a range of issues , though the scope of this landscape is fast changing. To do effective innovation and lobbying on such issues, there is a need for adequate documentation and research. Also, in such contexts, politicians and bureaucrats occasionally challenge the legitimacy of the voluntary sector advocating the issues, and the credibility of the issues raised. Therefore, documentation and research taken up in collaboration with educational institutions would likely to enhance the credibility of such endeavours. Of course, the legitimacy of an organization to raise an issue is also the outcome of combination of other factors such as the track record of the organization’s work, its credibility among its constituencies, and its transparency of its activities. Further, as both the sectors engage in mobilization of people, they need to take cognizance of the growing influence of IT and social media as they are transforming the boundaries of people’s participation in protests and movements.
Fifth, VOs do extensive work in their respective areas of operation, be it micro-credit, human rights, displacement or governance. Such experiences can be transformed into practice-relevant knowledge that can be useful for both the sectors – to inform practice as well as to sharpen the training they impart to people who work in both sectors. Similarly, fitting this experience into a theoretical frame work, that is, theory building can take place at the same time. As both the profession and the voluntary sector need such knowledge, social work educators can take up these functions and draw upon the extensive work done by the voluntary sector to develop practice-relevant theoretical frameworks.
And the last is about the dangers of professionalism. Both voluntary sector and social work profession are wary about professional managerialism getting hold of their work with their client groups. They do not want to get clogged with logframes and assessment forms, and in the process lose sight of the grassroots realities of the people and communities they serve. There exists in both the sectors a strong argument in favour of retaining the flexible, humane, non-hierarchical approach to ground realities (Desai and Narayan, 1998). Comparatively, social work profession in India, because of its greater engagement with community work and social change, did not assume the worst manifestations of managerialism and clinical orientation witnessed in countries such as UK and Greece (Idit Weiss-Gal and Welbourne, 2008; Loakimidis and Teloni, 2013).
Next, the points of divergence between the two sectors are not many. An important point of departure could be about their relationship with other sectors, i.e., the state and the market. This is an area where a lot of debate is currently taking place. Though there were no definite answers, a few challenges were already indicated in this essay. So far, some of the aspects where the two sectors can come together to build on their strengths and to compensate their weaknesses have been covered. However, this is not an exhaustive list. Neither does it mean that such interactions are not currently taking place. As an insider of the profession I strongly feel that there exists a relative impasse between these partners even though there are immense possibilities for mutually beneficial interactions. In 1964, Sri Jayaprakash Narayan had initiated a dialogue between voluntary activists and professional social workers (Dasgupta, 1967). To my knowledge, that did not result in bridging relationships as expected. With a shared commitment for the poor and the disadvantaged, it would not be difficult for the two sectors, i.e., the voluntary sector and the profession of social work to find a meeting point.
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