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International Social Work and Social Welfare: Asia

Abstract and Keywords

Asia contains more than 60% of the world’s population and is the fastest growing economic region. However, it faces challenges, including poverty, HIV and AIDS, and human rights concerns. In the midst of rapid changes in the social–political context, social workers and welfare organizations are making a significant contribution in addressing these challenges and improving social well-being in the region by broadening indigenous social networks to incorporate private, public, and community interventions.

Keywords: Asia, social and economic change, social development, social welfare, social work

Asia is home to the world’s earliest civilizations and the roots of many of the world’s religions. It is a vast region with 49 nations, covering a land mass of 44.6 million square kilometers. With more than 60% (4 billion people) of the world’s population living in Asia, the area is as diverse in its people as in its geography (Global Geografia, 2012; International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 2012; World Population Clock, 2012). More than half of the 10 most populous countries in the world are in Asia: India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Japan (Internet World, 2012). It is estimated that the population of Asia will increase by 1.8–2% per year (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis; United Nations Development Program, 2012b). There is a great variation in the age profile of Asians. The median-age person was a teenager in countries such as Pakistan, Laos, and Cambodia as of the year 2000. However, in 2012 the median age of Asia was 28.1 years (Worldstat, 2012). In contrast, in the years 2003 and 2012, leading Asia’s median age, 17 and 22.9% of the total population of Japan was older than 65 years, respectively (Eberstadt, 2004; United Nations Population Fund, 2012; Worldstat, 2012).

Although the rate of urbanization in Asia is slower than that of Latin America or Africa, more than 60% of the increase in the world’s urban population over the next three decades (as of 2012), will occur in Asia, particularly in China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—which means greater challenges in job provision, transport and infrastructure development, housing, and social services for these countries (Population Reference Bureau, 2012).

Economic and Political Contexts

There is a huge disparity in wealth among Asian countries, with Japan being the world’s second largest economy and North Korea being one of the world’s poorest nations. About one in three Asians is poor—according to the World Bank (2012c), 14.3% of the population in East Asia and the Pacific and 36.4% in South Asia meet the poverty headcount ratio of US$1.25 a day. These figures would double at US$2.00 per day. Income disparities in Asia, however, are not as drastic as in African or Latin American countries (United Nations Development Program, 2012a). The Gini index, a measure of inequality, ranges from a high of 49.2 for Malaysia to a low of 24.9 for Japan (NationMaster, 2012; United Nations, 2006).

The Asian economy is the fastest growing in the world, fueled mainly by China and India. In 2006 Asia’s economic engines delivered a growth of 12.7% (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2006). In terms of per capita gross domestic product, Singapore ranked highest, followed by Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Brunei. The growth in gross domestic product in South Asia, however, lags behind, with unemployment rates of 4.4% (International Labor Organization, 2007). Although economic growth in Asia has generally slowed, it is projected to be 6% in 2012 before gradually recovering in 2013 (International Monetary Fund, 2012).

Asia is rich in natural resources such as lumber, minerals, and oil. Higher productivity in agriculture, such as rice and wheat production, is vital for feeding Asia’s population. Forestry and fishing are also important Asian industries. Manufacturing has been a key sector, producing items from computers and other electronic goods to cars, cheap toys, and clothes. Much of the world’s supply of clothing and footwear still comes from China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

Asia’s financial centers are Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Asia, including Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and Malaysia, provides “call-center” as well as information technology services for many multinational companies. With increased globalization, Asia’s economy tends to move toward free markets, decentralization, and increasing privatization (Chan, 2004; International Monetary Fund, 2012).

A range of governments and political regimes exist in Asia, from monarchies such as those in Brunei and Nepal to the military dictatorship in Myanmar and parliamentary democracies in Bangladesh and Malaysia (Banks, Muller, & Overstreet, 2006). There has been political unrest and armed conflict in Sri Lanka, Indonesia’s West Papua, and Myanmar. The situation in Myanmar, with promises for democratization, seems to have improved, but grave concerns remain with regard to human rights abuses (Human Rights Watch, 2012b).

Social Conditions

Asian societies are in constant tension between the need for rapid economic development and the need for a reasonable state of social well-being in terms of health, education, and housing (Tan, 2006). The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) is one of the least developed countries. Infant mortality is high at 64.4 per 1,000 births (in year 2000), but has declined sharply to 42.1 per 1,000 births in 2010 (World Data Atlas, 2012). Laos, as well as developing countries such as Cambodia, Pakistan, and Timor Leste, is achieving improved access to health care, drinking water, and sanitation, especially in rural areas.

According to UNAIDS, the number of people living with HIV has almost tripled since 2000. In 2005, a total of 270,000 people in Central Asia (and Eastern Europe) became newly infected with HIV (World Bank, 2012b), and the 2009 estimate was 1.4 million (UNAIDS, 2012). High-risk groups in Central Asia and other countries severely affected by AIDS, such as Thailand and Cambodia, are vulnerable to infection, and the inclusion of the marginalized groups in policy processes should be a key strategy to dealing with HIV and AIDS (World Bank, 2012a, 2012b). With a prevalence rate of 0.29%, it is estimated that nearly 2.3 million HIV-positive adults live in India (Hate & Gannon, 2012). Trafficking for sexual exploitation is also reported to have victimized some 30 million Asian women, men, and children. Recommendations include strategies toward involving community-based organizations, HIV prevention, and care (World Bank, 2012b).

North Asia has a notorious human rights record (Derechos, 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2012a, 2012b). The control of the press and civil society in China and the denial of civil and political rights in North Korea have been highlighted by civil rights groups. In Mongolia, human rights groups have reported arbitrary detention and prisoner’s welfare as causes of concern (Derechos, 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2012a).

In South and Southeast Asia, civil war, ethnic conflict, religious persecution, terrorism, and discrimination against minorities are problems named in a number of countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Child prostitution and child labor are relatively common, and both children and adults in countries such as Cambodia risk injury or death by land mines. There is also reportedly restricted freedom in expression and poor conditions in many prisons across Asia (Derechos, 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2012a).

Social Policy and Welfare Services

Asian countries, depending on the stage of development and the degree of colonial influence, have developed differing models of social policies and services (Tan, 2006). Most of the nations have limited means-tested public assistance and have adopted residual approaches to social policy. Social welfare expenditures are often a means to quell unrest and maintain political stability. Party competition in democratic elections and pressures stemming from social movements have resulted in increased welfare commitments in some states, especially Taiwan and South Korea (Aspalter, 2001, 2006).

Asian culture generally relies on traditional systems of social support from the family and community, along with the values of diligence and social responsibility to the community. The focus is on human capital development, emphasizing education and training to further economic competitiveness. In the long run, the key to enhancing social well-being for many of these countries is in the development of work opportunities and increasing income through raising wages.

Many Asian countries have developed reasonably sophisticated social security systems. Singapore has utilized the Central Provident Fund to provide comprehensive social security benefits for old-age income maintenance, health care, housing, social insurance, and education. Hong Kong and Malaysia have similarly introduced universal, contribution-financed social security. Child allowance benefits and free health-care services for the elderly were introduced in Japan (Aspalter, 2006; Walker & Wong, 2005). Although a trend toward increasingly universal social security and welfare programs exists (as in the Philippines and Japan), it is expected that public welfare expenditures will remain low and that privatization of social insurance will increase.

The Role of Social Work

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) has 16 member countries in the Asia–Pacific region (IFSW, 2012a). The influence of social work in this part of the world has grown, and more schools of social work have been established since the mid-1990s. Many social-service agencies have also been initiated by nongovernment organizations as well as by religious and professional groups.

There is great potential for social work to contribute to charting new grounds, for example, in Timor Leste and Cambodia, where pioneer social workers help develop social policy and engage in community work and service provision. There is a need to move beyond traditional social-work practice and develop new social-work strategies, including social development and social justice approaches as well as interdisciplinary collaborative strategies (Tan, 2006).

New problems, including flu epidemic and calamities, have emerged in Asia (Rosenthal, 2005). The earthquakes and tsunami (at their worst in 2004 in Indonesia and 2010 in Japan) and the Asian economic crisis of 1997 have left their mark on the economy as well as on society in general. The severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu epidemics have taken their toll on both human lives and the economy. Social workers must respond to outbreaks of epidemic or natural disasters in a professional manner, as with the Families and Survivors of Tsunami project initiated by IFSW–Asia Pacific and the Commonwealth Organization for Social Work. Social-work professional assessment and intervention in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and other tsunami-affected areas utilized the principle of empowerment and capacity building to enhance community bonding and development (Tan, 2006; Tan & Rowlands, 2004). The IFSW has also reported an “increase of social work capacity to contribute to disaster prevention, mitigation, response and recovery” (IFSW, 2012a, p. 2).

The development plans of the IFSW include an increased effort to engage social workers in the Asia region where a national social-work association is yet to exist, such as Vietnam and Myanmar, as well as support for member nations still in the early stages of organizational establishment. An explosion in the number of social workers in China, estimated at 1.4 million social workers by the year 2020, is expected (Beijing Health Authorities, as cited in IFSW, 2012b).

The Commonwealth Organization for Social Work, which is also active in Asia, seeks to develop members and network social workers, especially in commonwealth countries where there are no formal social-work associations or where these associations are not members of the IFSW (2012a; Tan, 2006).

The Asian and Pacific Association for Social Work Education has 177 member institutions (Asian and Pacific Association for Social Work Education, 2012). Social-work education is generally at the undergraduate level in many Asian countries. China, with more than 200 universities and colleges providing social-work training, has the most rapid growth of social-work education, and Vietnam has started 3 schools of social work. Japan alone has 143 undergraduate schools and 81 graduate social-work programs (Asian and Pacific Association for Social Work Education, 2012). Malaysia currently has 5 schools of social work; countries such as Japan, India, Singapore, and the Philippines have had social-work education for many years and have developed high standards for graduate social-work education.

The traditionally more structured societies of Asia are experiencing transformation. The trend is toward greater civil participation through nongovernment organizations. Wars and natural disasters necessitate the participation of citizens in responding to community concerns and human tragedies. Social workers should increasingly harness community resources to augment professional helping (Tan, 2006; Tan & Rowlands, 2004). Prevention and developmental strategies must be systematically incorporated in social-work intervention, especially in rural contexts. Pragmatic approaches involving community self-help, mediation of conflicts using indigenous leaders, and mutual aid associations are more acceptable in the Asian context (Tan, 2006).

The principles utilized in social work are those of solidarity and self-help. Social workers specialize in working with different marginalized groups, empowering them to actively participate in the social, economic, and political life of the community. Midgley (1995) advocates for a social development approach that relies on the notion of “social investments” and requires clear economic return for government programs. This is a useful model for Asian countries. Macro social-work intervention, including community and social development, administration, policy and institutional approaches to social security, housing, and health care, must be included in Asian models of social-work practice.

There are many obstacles to social well-being in parts of Asia, such as absolute and relative poverty, natural disasters, health concerns, and political situations. Asia is developing its own “brand” of social work, which is better suited to the region and the various social political contexts, to meet these challenges (Tan, 2006).

The contribution of indigenous models of social work is to provide the cutting edge for effective practice within the cultural contexts. As is the nature of many countries to include informal kinship and informal networks, the enlarging of the networks by incorporating the private sectors, communities, and families to deal with social issues and problems is akin to the Asian way (Tan, 2006).


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