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Strenghtening the social workforce

June 28, 2012

Yesterday saw the sixth webinar in the series about Social Service Workforce Strengthening, hosted by The focus of this edition was about child protection system mapping and assessment, and what can be learned from such mappings and assessments in terms of the social service workforce.

Many of the issues discussed resonated with the topic of the previous webinar in April, which was on case management and referral mechanisms for children. During that webinar, I presented preliminary findings from a regional study with UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa that sought to provide a review of initiatives across the region and elicit lessons learned about the way forward. Despite encouraging examples, challenges pertain to the lack of vision and mandate to support a cross-sectoral, and thereby comprehensive, response to vulnerable children, the fact that the responsibility for a response to vulnerable children often sits with under-resourced government bodies and the poor linkages between statutory sectors as well as community-based and statutory interventions.

The latter was also discussed in detail during yesterday’s webinar. One of the presenters raised the issue that expectations from the statutory social services workforce (i.e. social workers) are not in line with resources available, both financial and human, but also that they do not resonate with expectations from that workforce in the community. Whilst social workers may be formally required to perform certain tasks (which often include a large administrative burden), community members have quite different expectations as to what a social worker should do. This lack of congruence between formal expectations and what is wanted and desired at community-level, coupled with resource constraints, leads to high dependence on work by volunteers at the community-level.

Although bottom-up involvement of community volunteers in the response to vulnerable children has important advantages, not in the least because they present the frontline response in the majority of cases, it does present challenges of its own. Issues that are being raised in our forthcoming study refer to acceptable levels of responsibility for volunteers, linkages to statutory services and other community-based interventions, training and capacity and appropriate levels of remuneration. One of the discussants in yesterday’s webinar argued that community-based interventions are not duly taken into account into our initiatives to strengthen the social services workforce. He was not only referring to the amount of attention paid to such community-based services – they are widely recognised to play an important role – but also to the lack of sensitivity when considering community-based mechanisms. In particular, he referred to adverse effects that social service workforce strengthening can have; for example, by providing a community-based volunteer with training that has not been appropriately tailored or geared towards the community context, thereby undermining the community structure that was in place before the training and weakening its mechanisms as a result of that training.

It is encouraging to see that many people attended yesterday’s webinar, as well as previous versions. It is obvious that many challenges are still be addressed in the future, and it is of utmost importance that discussions take place across separate silos of child protection, health, social protection and other policy areas. We hope that the forthcoming study for UNICEF will contribute positively to that debate.

The webinar series can be found on the website:


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