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International Social Work and Social Welfare: Africa (Sub-Sahara)

Abstract and Keywords

Africa is one of the world's poorest regions and it faces numerous and complex challenges as it strives to achieve its development objectives. The main challenges relate to poverty and its alleviation, economic growth, democratization leading to political stability, improving social welfare, and generally creating a just and equitable society. The resolution of these issues is critical to social work if the profession is to make an impact.

Keywords: Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, social work, social welfare, socioeconomic conditions, social development

The region covered in this entry consists of 48 countries south of the Sahara Desert, and although it is often referred to as sub-Saharan Africa, the term Africa will be used here. The total population of the continent is 933,448.292, and the number of the countries in all Africa is 53 (, 2007). The region's estimated population of 643 million people is projected to reach 878 million by 2015 (Cason, 2006). It faces more daunting tasks in its efforts to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals than any other region in the world. It has 34 of the world's poorest 48 countries ( of countries by GDP (ppp) per capita, 2007), and 29 of the 31 countries with the lowest Human Development Index (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2006). Its poverty levels doubled from 164 million to 314 million between 1981 and 2001. The efforts to improve governance and human rights, empower women, improve maternal health, reduce child mortality, provide social services, and eradicate poverty have been severely constrained by the HIV pandemic. There are also serious political conflicts in various parts of the region that prevent continent-wide collaboration and cooperation (United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA], 2006).

Economic and Political Features

Africa is a major producer and exporter of primary commodities, with little or no industrialization except in South Africa and Mauritius. The majority of the region's economies have performed poorly during the past 20 years. The 1980s are commonly known as the “lost decade” because annual growth rate plunged to 1.8% in 1980–1990 and 0.9% in 1990–1994 while population growth rate was at 2.9% (Belshaw & Livingstone, 2002). Economic reforms have failed to bear fruit due, in part, to state incapacity, corruption, and human resource deficiencies (Harbeson & Rothchild, 2002).

The total economic output of the region was about U.S. $316 billion in 1999, with an external debt of U.S. $216 billion. The poorest countries (on the basis of annual gross national income per capita) are Ethiopia ($100), Burundi ($120), and Sierra Leone ($130). The richest countries are Mauritius ($4,090), Botswana ($3,240), and South Africa ($3,160) (Cason, 2006). Africa loses U.S. $340 billion a year to service the U.S. $ 2.2 trillion debt. Capital flight is more than U.S. $10 billion per year since the 1970s (Bond, 2005). In addition, corruption costs the region more than U.S. $148 billion per year (Masire, 2006), about 25% of the region's GDP (Phiri, 2006).

Foreign direct investment (FDI) flows primarily to the mineral and oil sectors. However, in spite of an increase in investment in the 1990s, overall, Africa's share of FDI as a percentage of the total for developing countries has been falling. Aid flows have dropped to 40%, and official development assistance has also been declining. The net amount of assistance to Africa fell from U.S. $19 billion in 1994 to U.S. $12.5 billion in 1999. In addition, the region receives less than 5% of all capital flows (Cason, 2006). Despite the many problems, there are positive signs of economic growth. For example, with improved economic governance, growth of GDP of about 6% per year in at least 15 countries has been recorded. In addition, the annual gross national income per head now averages U.S. $506, ranging from about U.S. $120 in Burundi to over US$7,000 in the Seychelles.

Pluralist politics, based on multiparty elections, rule of law, and respect for human rights, are relatively new to most parts of the region. The region is also characterized by weak and fragile states, primarily because of civil wars and political mismanagement, for example, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Zimbabwe. It falls short of effective democratic governance with respect to free and fair elections, working democratic institutions and administrative systems, and principles and values that ensure government's accountability (Patel, 2005). Since the 1990s, Africa has undergone democratic transitions. There are some countries such as Botswana and South Africa with stable and open democratic political systems, resulting in the growth of civil society associations. These have become critical partners in the democratization process and socioeconomic development.

Social Conditions

A majority of the world's poor reside in Africa, where about half of the people are poor (African Development Bank, 2002). The World Bank (2003) indicates that almost half the population lives on a dollar or less a day. Approximately, 70% of the population lives below the international poverty line of U.S. $2 a day. Between 1990 and 1999, 250 million people did not have access to safe drinking water, more than 200 million had no access to health services, 140 million youths were illiterate, and more than 2 million children died annually before reaching their first birthday. The World Bank (2005) indicates that about 150,000 children die of malaria every year while health expenditure averages U.S. $13 per head (excluding South Africa). The Human Development Index places the region in the low human development category, below 0.5, because of low per capita income, life expectancy of 30–40 years, high infant mortality rate, high HIV infection rate, and low levels of adult literacy. Of the 31 in the low human development category, only 2 are not sub-Saharan African countries. The lowest is Niger (ranked 177), Cape Verde at 106, and the highest is Seychelles at 47 (UNDP, 2006, p. 283).

Africa has the highest incidence, remains the global epicenter, and accounts for two thirds of the world's total HIV/AIDS infections. It was estimated that more  than 25.8 million people had HIV in 2005 (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), 2005). Southern Africa has the highest prevalence rates. For example, Botswana's national adult (15–49 years) HIV prevalence is about 37.3% (34.6% according to government figures); Swaziland, 38.8%; Lesotho, 28%; Zimbabwe, 24.6%; South Africa, 21.5%; and Namibia, 21.3% (Southern African Development Community [SADC] 2004). The World Bank (2005) estimates that the HIV and AIDS pandemic costs sub-Saharan Africa about 1% of its per capita income per year because of loss of production due to illness, absenteeism because of sickness, hospital visits and funerals, and loss of skilled human resource.

Social Policies and Welfare Services

Most of the poorest African governments have formulated Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. There are also safety nets and other programs targeted at the poor, such as food for work, and free education and health care. The system of informal social security in Africa works through a process of mutual reciprocity among families and communities. However, formal social security schemes vary across the region, depending on traditions, experiences, and levels of economic development (Kaseke, 2005). Although social security is seen as a human right (Kaseke, 2005), the current scope of accessibility of formal schemes is virtually confined to those in formal employment. This leads to income insecurity for the majority of people outside the formal sector, and undermines their capacity to meet basic human needs.

In the 1980s, because of poor economic performance, most African governments undertook economic structural adjustments geared toward withdrawal of state involvement and control of the economy, and the privatization of state enterprises and services. This prompted three actions: the active retargeting of the poorest in society; the reemergence of self-help in development and service provision; and the reintroduction of private welfare and community-based social provision (Osei-Hwedie & Bar-On, 1999). Social provision in the region is often residual (remedial), rudimentary, fragmented, and uncoordinated. The family is still the major social security and service provider despite the waning of the extended family's influence.

Generally, formal social assistance has remained largely underdeveloped. The emphasis is on building capacity and infrastructure (such as schools, hospitals and clinics, roads, and water supply) as the main aim of social development, and therefore shifting from esidual services to more institutional or formal systems. In this respect, community involvement in service provision is on the increase. Since the 1990s, this has taken the form of community self-help, volunteerism, use of traditional institutions, and local practices.

Social Work

Social work in Africa is mainly remedial and usually involves the provision of basic needs in support of the status quo (Osei-Hwedie, 2002). There is at least one school of social work in each of the Sub-Saharan countries, with a concentration of schools in South Africa. In the Southern African region, there are over 25 schools of social work. In many countries, the profession is underdeveloped and takes a generalist approach. However, in South Africa, it is relatively well developed with some specialization in fields such as child welfare, aging, and mental health. Apart from South Africa, the region does not have many private social work practitioners, with most employed by governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to provide casework, group work, and social and community developments. However, currently, there is an increasing emphasis on social development. This aims at developing culturally relevant social work practice. Apart from fulfilling basic needs, programs aim at human capital development, improving the economy as well as peoples' livelihoods, and developing and sustaining democratic, just, and open societies. Thus, social work is involved in creating a development process that is equitable, sustainable, and redistributive. It is for this reason that social work in the region calls for developmental social work models that acknowledge the structural causes of social problems, and contribute to sociocultural, economic, and political reconstruction. The social work curricula are changing to reflect local needs and problems, and are increasingly becoming developmental in nature, to focus more on socioeconomic development and prevention of poverty, human rights abuses and inequalities than individualized interventions (Osei-Hwedie, 2002).

Africa has two affiliates of international organizations of social work: the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW—Africa region) and the Association of Schools of Social Work in Africa (ASSWA). The IFSW-A, like the IFSW, promotes the social work profession in Africa. The IFSW-A has a total of 14 members, of which 11 full and 2 provisional members are from sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike the IFSW-A, ASSWA has not been functional. The first African Social Work Education Association (ASWEA) was launched in 1969 but became moribund after a while. In the mid-1990s, efforts were made to revive ASWEA culminating in the launching, on April 30, 2005, of ASSWA in Nairobi, Kenya. These regional associations aim to provide opportunities for consultation and collaboration both regionally and globally, and to contribute to the solutions of problems of socioeconomic development. Generally, African schools of social work and national associations (where they exist) have been working in isolation, except in South Africa, where there is a significant collaboration and cooperation through the Association of Social Work Education Institutions (ASAWEI). It is the only fully functional subregional body of schools of social work in the region. The main problems affecting the regional associations include lack of financial resources, lack of political support, instability, and large-scale poverty. There are also difficulties of communication across the region even through electronic medium because of inadequate financial resources, lack of access to technology and infrastructure, as well as poor technical expertise and facilities. Other challenges include incorporating the divergent knowledge, values, and skills across the continent into a professional social work body of knowledge, and create unity in this diversity. The most successful is the South African experience of collaboration, cooperation, and networking among school of social work. Positive developments can be discerned within the SADC region in terms of collaborative attempts between South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe schools of social work through joint research and journal publications, and ASASWEI. For social work to be meaningful in the rapidly changing, and poor socioeconomic environment of sub-Saharan Africa, there needs to be a reorientation that emphasizes appropriateness of practice. This is because social work in the region has mainly depended on Western ideas, theories, skills, and models. This is the export model and what Midgley (1983) refers to as professional imperialism. The reorientation, therefore, should include a reappraisal of the knowledge, values, and skills necessary for contextualized and locally appropriate social work interventions (Osei-Hwedie, 2002).

A major issue is how social work can contribute positively to reform, reconstruction, redistribution, democratization, governance, and the general processes of socioeconomic change in the region.


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                      Further Reading

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