ON the 26th of December, we commemorated the first anniversary of the worst mass disaster that we have experienced in this country in our living memory. Much criticism still occurs with regard to the rehabilitation effort in the material infrastructure which was badly damaged.
Some of the pledges made by prospective donors have not materialized and some receipts have not been properly and expeditiously put to use.
At the human level the tragedy was immense and Sri Lankan tsunami victims were visited by a flock of psychosocial workers who were intent on rehabilitating them by this new found stream of psychosocial work.
As this is mostly a Third World phenomenon it is best to critically examine the origins of the multidimensional perspective in social work plus the implications and impact of its delivery in Sri Lanka mainly through the non-governmental sector.
This foray into their domain is important to the Ministry of Social Welfare which is the mandating body in Sri Lanka.
There are a number of reasons why this is urgent. The government has a responsibility to the citizens who are now exposed to the interventions by these workers and therefore it is necessary that they are delivering a service that is of acceptable quality.
The Government is also conscious of the need to be alert to the fact that it is the international donors who most often make the allegation that the millions of dollars remitted for the people of Sri Lanka have had little or no impact.
On the other hand the people themselves ask what support they have received out of these millions of dollars sent for their welfare.
Since these are services delivered solely by the non-governmental sector there is no monitoring body that either oversees the quality and nature of their work nor evaluates the impact of what they do.
Of course some of these are international non-governmental agencies and they are self regulatory in nature. There are no gatekeepers of their knowledge as such for they claim to be all things to all people which in one sense are the nature of their multidisciplinary focus.
The State is also interested in knowing what codes of conduct guide them for they belong to no professional group. Finally is the question of sustainability. These are issues that need closer scrutiny in the interest of all psychosocial workers, the stakeholders, clients and the State.
This paper will address these in a dispassionate way hoping that the psychosocial workers will get their act together in the interest of the clients they serve.
What is psychosocial work?
Is it something new? It is both yes and no. Like all workers in the social arena they will defend their turf by claiming that they do something that others are failing to do. The workers who claim to do psychosocial work come from different fields and many from the various subject areas in the humanities.
There are cultural anthropologists, lawyers, sociologists, psychologists, geographers, counselors, a few psychiatrists, and many others. Not all these are tertiary qualified and moreover there is no formal training as such in psychosocial work. In fact there is no governing body or a certifying mechanism or a course as such in psychosocial work.
Because of these lacunae they seem to describe psychosocial as an attitude or a perspective in which case it is unfair to pronounce someone as a psychosocial worker for it is patently not true. An approach is something that anyone can learn in a matter of days and it has no claims to professional status.
The author believes that this is a legitimate attempt by various social and psychological scientists to enter the social arena. They have a worthwhile claim to serving the people by becoming a team member.
The social workers on the other hand are trained to become generalists having learnt the fundamentals of most liberal arts subjects in the universities prior to embarking on social work practice on that foundation.
But psychosocial graduates have only been taught their own discipline with a smattering in the practice area. Hence they can only become a team member among others who are also working in the field.
All human services work is psychosocial work and no one can claim ownership to the total individual other than being a member of a multidisciplinary team. Social workers have been traditionally dominating the field as workers who have some special skills and the capacity to work alongside psychiatrists, medics and others.
There are international covenants calling for many professionals to recognize the interconnectedness of the work and also the importance of the social component, which is salutary. But that does not legitimate a special group of people as gatekeepers of that proviso.
However if psychosocial work is an approach that demonstrates the interconnectedness then there is no reason why a group of professionals cannot provide that systems knowledge in a professional manner so that others may find it compelling to incorporate that element in their professional training.
The medical faculties now have psychologists and social workers and psychologists do community studies and sociology. Psychosocial work is a new development in the academic world which hitherto taught human sciences in isolation and jealously guarded their turf.
In Sri Lanka sociologists who were reluctantly admitted initially to the universities then barricaded themselves by not allowing vocational professionalisms such as social work or social policy to the faculty.
When they realized that they could not enter as professionals to the social development field they surreptitiously dabbled in community development, social work, international relations, and human rights work, as elements in applied sociology.
When the universities in other countries are quick to accept the new developments in technology and science our universities tend to still cling onto traditional disciplines as sacrosanct and then the foreigners swamp the country at every opportunity.
When tsunami struck there were no social workers who were tertiary brained and the foreigners who flooded through were totally alien to the culture and society of Sri Lanka. But they came with the goodies and hence they were called the leaders in the rehabilitation effort.
An embarrassment of riches?
Sri Lanka needs workers of all sorts in the human services. We have just started the Bachelor of Social Work at the National Institute of Social Development which functions under the Ministry of Social Welfare only in December this year. It will produce about 50 qualified social workers every year. But the need is great.
In the estimates done we have about 2000 working as social workers, though not university trained. But by international standards, including India the need exceeds 40,000.
In hospitals, schools, children's homes (34000 children) certified schools, prisons, field workers to prevent abuse, domestic violence, probation, social services, housing community development, etc. Psychosocial workers work in these areas but predominantly in the conflict zones where non-Sri Lankans are in need, as well as comfortable.
The sector of psychosocial is virtually donor driven and it operates mostly outside the State mainstream services. What is necessary is for the State to know what they do and whether what they do conform to the standards set by the international covenants.
It is always possible to transmit unsavory commodities in the name of human services for we are told that some organizations which are proscribed in other countries operate here under the guise of psychosocial.
Given the numbers of workers and the thousands of dollars which are presumably donated to Sri Lanka we are curious to find out the impact of the work they do. If the claim that there are over one hundred such agencies in the North and East and a similar number in the South then we ought to be a happy, bubbling community with all our psychosocial problems been attended to.
We must be psychologically and socially a fit and proper society which is far from the truth. A cursory examination reveals that the problems are getting worse.
A need for ground investment?
There is one thing blatantly clear. However much many of these workers may not like it much of this donor funds are consumed by the workers themselves. The State is rather perturbed that there is very little of ground investment of this dollar. What we mean is that all dollars are circulating among the experts from afar and the middle class local workers.
The poor are only receiving the therapeutic sweet talk. These poor people are assessed over and over gain, interviewed by so many, promised so much but at the end of the day the material impact is nil or negligible. Although so much of research is done on them and they receive very little of the money for their crying need which is poverty.
In the social field there is no need for exploratory research because we have this information, except for nationwide compilation of existing research which none of these groups does. The psychosocial work is to relieve the poverty of spirit but underneath that lies poverty of material living. We must be able to alleviate that at least to some degree.
Generally people have good coping skills in times of grief and loss but that resilience has a lot to do with the fact that this strength depends on a material base. To go on with their life they need both a sound mind and a good economic standard.
Losing loved ones is distressful to say the least but, let's not forget, it was also a loss of livelihood. Psychosocial workers and donor agencies must put aside a part of the money to lift people up materially because therapeutic talk is insufficient.
One thing in favour of social workers and psychosocial workers is that unlike the specialists such as doctors and psychiatrists these are generalists who coordinate with others to deliver a package of services. In that regard they are performing a valuable role.
In a country without many qualified social workers these workers are necessary but only as an adjunct to material supplies. I am sad that many of these donors who are from rich countries fail to understand that psychosocial work in their respective countries is given to people who have a sufficient material base to manage the other needs and wants.
For them it is mostly poverty of spirit but to our poor people it is mostly absolute poverty. With kin supports, good cultural education, etc., they can lift themselves easily only if the former is made available. This is the fundamental truth that all social workers in a developing country ought to realize.
There lies the difference in the practice of social work between developed West and the developing countries. That is social sensitivity without which any psychosocial work becomes meaningless.
Counseling and advice about child rearing, good hygiene, holistic health, fulsome nutrition rings hollow to a person who cannot fork out two square meals for the children.
To say that putting one's children in an institution is a betrayal of the mothering responsibities is not only bad advice but also a cruel allegation to a poor mother.
The 34000 children in the children's institutions in Sri Lanka are not much because of poor parenting skills but deprivation and poverty. It is about time that all psychosocial workers, particularly those good intentioned souls who come on mercy missions need to understand.
The Government ought to demand that from every donor program a good portion is directly put into the people as a ground investment which will at least be fair in the distribution stakes.
It will also contribute to the sustainability of many of these programmes once the donor funds and the donor funded personnel are gone.