By: Ann McLaughlin, MSW, ACSW, LICSW
Fall 2005, Volume 12, Number 4
International Social Work I: Poverty Is a Grind
The intention of this article is to help build a foundation for doing international social work. It is the first in a 3-part series on international social work written by Ann McLaughlin, MSW, ACSW, LICSW, who has 25 years of social work experience and now directs nGoAbroad: Custom-Fit International Service.
Why did we have to study the English Poor Laws?
The English Poor Laws were:
1. Legal statutes to address begging, workhouses, "the poor house," and assistance given to the poor.
2. A pain in the neck for generations of social workers taking accreditation tests.
3. Great for Then; what about Now?!
Picture how the bubonic plague devastated England. Or don’t picture it, imagine the stench of dead bodies. People knew that contact with the black, rotting bodies likely meant their death, too. Nearly one third of England died in the Great Plague and famine in 1348-1349. The extreme poverty of the Middle Ages was the fertile ground for the plague that precipitated the first English Poor Laws.
Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution. Hear the factory whistle blow and weary miners or textile workers trudge home. Picture Charles Dickens’ slums of London, where children beg for "more gruel, sir." Shifting from peasants working for their feudal lord, there was a growing underclass that toiled for the factory bosses and owners.
Fast forward to now. What do the English Poor Laws have to do with life today? Why were social workers required to study the English Poor Laws? Studying the English Poor Laws was like taking cod liver oil!
Social work, with our emphasis on poverty and context, is uniquely suited to international humanitarian service.
It is not so much the English Poor Laws that are relevant to today, but a consciousness about poverty and the conditions in which people live that is social work' tradition and future. Of all the helping professions, social work is the most valuable in international humanitarian work because of our emphasis on poverty, community organizing, and the context in which people live. (Social work is the most valuable but the most under-valued and under-paid of professions all over the world.)
Many people who want to enter or make a difference in international humanitarian work offer to do psychotherapy with trauma survivors. I admit that I have thought that way myself.
Psychotherapy is alien to many cultures.
But psychotherapy is considered a luxury by people who are starving. Psychotherapy is a quaint idea to many cultures. When I was in Guatemala, people would ask about my livelihood. I’d tell them I was a counselor. The mother of my host family squished up her nose and said, "Why don’t they (your clients) talk to their sister?" And this was said by a woman who had dumped her alcoholic, abusive husband and figured how to make a living and raise her daughters in a country wracked by civil war!
I learned, once again, that what is considered helpful is not shared by all cultures. I sought out people in the Cambodian community to offer post-traumatic counseling for those who had experienced the horrors of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge.
One Cambodian man said to me, "We don’t talk about that. We would prefer to help people get citizenship." A Cambodian woman explained, "We are devout Buddhists. We believe all events in this life are due to behavior in another life. Therefore, if a person experienced some horror, they must have done something in a past life...my first year in the U.S. was harder than anything under the Khmer Rouge. We need help with our youth who are struggling with how to fit in two cultures, and we need help getting jobs and moving out of poverty."
Poverty is a grind.
I see. Poverty is harder than almost anything. Rather than a discrete event, it grinds you down every day. The un considers that two out of five African slum-dwellers live in a poverty that is literally "life-threatening," not to mention discouraging.1
In the course of my work as director of nGoAbroad: Custom Fit International Service, I match people' skills, interests, and goals to international humanitarian service. Many Africans find their way to my Web site. One man from Cameroon asked if I could help locate resources for his village so that the women do not have to walk to get water. It' that long walk with the water buckets that makes days long and life short.
Kizito Wenani, through our correspondence, has taught me about how discouraging life can be in Kenya. Kizito is extremely well qualified to do humanitarian work: he' bright, he' committed, and he' a social worker. He has considerable experience with AIDS and refugees. I assisted Kizito in finding job openings to paid international positions and assisted with polishing his cover letter and résumé.
In his later correspondence, Kizito reports: Greetings from Kizito, hope that you are ok. Nice reading from you. Well, at the moment I am working at a local community school only two hours a week! I am teaching the students about HIV/AIDS education. Two hours a week is so little and it can’t help me a lot. I had applied to some NGOs within Nairobi, and I was called for the interview and I was told that I am the best, but up to now I haven’t heard from them. The NGOs here in Kenya are corrupt whereby people employ only their fellow relatives and so forth. It is painful because you only get a chance if you are known by one of the members working within that NGO! And it has ended up being a family or friends business. You get one NGO, for example, that is full of a particular given community only(Tribalism)!! So I have no hope, since it has taken long time, over a month, I imagine, since I did the interview.
People from many countries and cultures have taught me what is helpful. Most people want help finding a job and a way to live a better life. Social work, of all professions, is suited to help with poverty. Like some teenager now older and wiser, I am grateful for the social work curriculum that insisted that we learn about Jane Addams and Hull House.
Good social work is responding to a need.
Social work, to be truly helpful, must grasp the challenges. You must do a thorough assessment of the individual, community, or international challenge that you intend to tackle. That is why this article is the first in a series about international social work: many people have no idea of the conditions or current events in other countries that would impact their work. Good social work is responding to a need.
How well do you know the people that you would serve if you did international social work? Do you know their beliefs, history, interaction patterns, and living conditions?
According to the World Summit for Social Development and Beyond:
• 1.2 billion people-a quarter of the human race-are living in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering and want.
• Between 600 million and 700 million children, representing about 40% of all those in the developing world, are currently struggling to survive on less than $1 a day.
• Nearly one billion people in the world are illiterate.
• Approximately 1.3 billion people lack safe water.
• Over half of the developing world' population (2.6 billion people) are without access to adequate sanitation.
• If the world were to invest an extra 30 cents out of every $100, all children would be healthy, well nourished, and in primary school.
• Studies in more than 30 countries indicate basic social services receive, on average, between 12% and 14% of total public spending. Two thirds of these countries spend more on debt servicing than on basic social services; several spend three to five times more on debt. (See the next installment, International Social Work II about debts.)
The scene that you might picture in Dickens’ London-the squalor of the slums, teeming with social problems, people scrabbling for food or work-is now something that you see in Lagos, Nairobi, Rio, Kolkata, Mumbai, Jakarta, or Lima. The conditions that prompted the second wave of English Poor laws are now international in proportion.
Historically, people migrated to cities for a job. In the Middle Ages, the mercantile and guild system laid the foundation for a rising middle class and the growth of cities. During the Industrial Revolution, people flocked to the cities to work in the factories. And now?
It is still the allure of jobs, but there are no jobs to be had. Peasants flock from the countryside because they are hungry. Lima' forefathers assured that the hungry and the poor would not threaten their position or possessions. Hernando de Soto writes in The Other Path that the city-fathers would not grant work permits or building permits to the poor of Lima. The result? Lima' poor work creatively in the informal sector and build and live in shantytowns.
Lagos is the epitome of a developing world mega-city: lotsa people, no jobs; or lotsa people, no toilets. Writes Mike Davis in Planet of the Slums, "An estimated 57% of urban Africans lack access to basic sanitation and in cities like Nairobi the poor must rely on ‘flying toilets’ (defecation into a plastic bag).2 In Mumbai, meanwhile, the sanitation problem is defined by ratios of one toilet seat per 500 inhabitants in the poorer districts. Only 11% of poor neighborhoods in Manila and 18% in Dhaka have formal means to dispose of sewage.3
Slums, poverty, and squalor are not the only needs in international social work, but they are very important. If you do not know how one quarter of humanity lives, you will likely be missing the mark.
Are you drawn to international humanitarian service? Great! The world needs you! We need a generation that will rise to the challenges that we have before us.
Global Urban Observatory, Slums of the World: The face of urban poverty in the new millennium?, New York 2003, p. 12.
ibid, p. 25.
ibid, p. 99.
Ann McLaughlin, MSW, ACSW, LICSW, a psychotherapist and social worker by trade with a passion for world cultures and international affairs, founded and directs nGoAbroad, which matches your skills, interests and goals to international humanitarian needs. For more information, e-mail: info@nGoAbroad.com, or call 1-877-237-1965 (Pacific time) toll free in Canada, the US, and the Caribbean.
StartFragment Copyright © 2005 White Hat Communications. All rights reserved. From THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Fall 2005, Vol. 12, No. 4. For reprints of this or other articles from THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (or for permission to reprint), contact Linda Grobman, publisher/editor, at P.O. Box 5390, Harrisburg, PA 17110-0390, or at email@example.com .