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Historical latin America

Maricela Gonzalez
Directora Escuela de Trabajo Social Universidad Santo Tomás

Social Work Education: Some Historical Notes on Latin America


The origin of professional social work in Latin America is linked to three historical and concurrent processes towards the second decade of the 20th century: first, the social and political crisis caused by a marginalised integration of Latin American countries into the global economic system from the mid-1850s, that led to the impoverishment of the proletariat and a social upheaval strongly suppressed by oligarchs, populists or the elite. The second is the appearance of an intellectual movement, essentially of the emerging middle class, consisting of new politicians, writers, artists, doctors and other professionals who denounced the living conditions and —in some cases through protest movements — they raised reformist demands and proposed social legislation to protect the vulnerable groups of society (such as children, women and the sick) and workers. Third, the influence of global social work developed in the United States and Europe in the last decades of the 19th century, various forms of social assistance, sponsoring aid organisations to help the poor and improving professional training, at various educational centres and universities, in order to intervene in these social problems

Latin American Social Work

The first School of Social Work in Latin America was started in Chile in 1925 and it was owned by the Junta de Beneficencia, a secular organisation that governed all the hospitals and other health centres. Over the next few years, schools were opened across the Region, in some cases under the auspices of philanthropic or state institutions similar to the Chilean organisation — for example, in Argentina, its first School was related to the Social Museum — or closely linked to the Catholic Church, as in Bolivia or Brazil.

The Chilean School was an education and training centre, which expanded over the next few decades to other Latin American countries, and was responsible for, as direct advisor, the foundation of social service schools, such as in Bolivia, Paraguay, Guatemala and El Salvador. These first schools were health orientated, i.e., they understood the social problems entrenched in the social-health conditions in which people lived. Progress was based on better urban planning, taking into account priority issues, such as health and preservation of life to integrate individuals and families into the social system. In most cases, education was initially influenced by social service schools in Belgium, Germany and France, but from the mid-1930s, as a result of the “Good Neighbour” policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt towards Latin America, the United States grew closer and its presence became manifest in the education of social workers who furthered their studies abroad, in study programmes and in the emphasis on intervention practices. Traditional methods of “case”, “group” and “community” date from this period, when they penetrated, in successive waves, the education system at the various Schools.

Particularly, community work became very important in the 1950s, when the United Nations began providing development guidelines for Latin America and the U.S. dominance became increasingly evident after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The Pan American Sanitary Bureau — where social workers had a very significant presence in the 1960s — and subsequently with the Alliance for Progress created by John F. Kennedy, promoted development plans to prevent revolutionary outbreaks and supported various community development programmes, providing technical aid to improve urbanisation, literacy and eradicate extreme poverty in Latin American rural and urban areas. Advisors, such as Caroline Ware or Jan F. de Jongh, travelled around Latin American schools and education in the 1960s took on a developmental view, incorporating subjects such as rural development, community intervention, programming and planning.

During this decade, the Reconceptualisation of social work in Latin America was also organised, a movement that criticised and questioned the epistemological, theoretical and methodological basis of this profession, congregating professionals, academics and students to analyse and rethink its tradition. The movement proposed a social work profession committed to social change and transformation of unjust structures, underdevelopment and inequality. Reconceptualisation resulted in different work methodologies with shantytown dwellers, workers and peasants, searching for fewer directives and more democratic proposals, with new social actors and focused on raising public awareness, public education and even political education. The schools were only able to partially incorporate these new guidelines into their study programmes, whether it was because the institutional conditions were not appropriate or because some academics were unwilling to accept the conceptual and programmatic changes affecting the profession. However, social workers did learn about ethical, instrumental and theoretical elements “in the field,” influenced by the teachings of Paulo Freire, Herman Kruse and other intellectuals who were exiled and travelled to other countries or who participated in various Latin American Seminars, that became real schools of thought for young social workers. The work carried out in shantytowns, industries and rural areas was also a “school of life”, where different types of participatory methodologies were applied to families and their own organisations. Miscellaneous and scientific publications helped to train social workers; a symbolic case was the collective group ECRO and its magazine Hoy en el Servicio Social, which had in-depth discussions about disciplinary topics, subsequently supported by Editorial Humanitas. The latter and other editorial spaces helped to spread and translate the emblematic work of western thought and the ideas of local authors.

In most countries, the reconceptualisation process was aborted the following decade due to the wave of military dictatorships that hit the region from the mid-1960s. For a while, exiled intellectuals sought refuge in neighbouring countries and hence they were able to exchange experiences and theoretical proposals, but the conservative change in the region and, in general, the unease of the western left wing about the real possibilities for a revolutionary change made social work withdraw its ideas and actions. Many professionals were exiled from their country of origin, schools and reflection spaces were closed and education became more technological, scientific. “Value neutrality” was a slogan for academics who continued to work in universities and sought in a sterile approach to social work a way of surviving in a dangerous political environment.

The neoliberal transformation of the socioeconomic system was not absent in social work education. It had an impact on the social conditions of the poorest sectors, when state welfare policies took a backward step, it also affected university education, the number of schools increased in nearly all the countries, the social work labour market was saturated and, consequently, work conditions became precarious and unemployment increased.

Furthermore, during the 1970s, Latin American social work became more varied and developed unevenly in different countries. In some countries, it became stagnated due to the intellectual narrowness at the time (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay), while in other countries, such as Brazil, it led to the improvement of education, with the discipline developing through postgraduate specialisation, research and high-quality scientific publications. This diversity also implies more complex societies, with less definitive discourses and that acknowledge the differences between each country and sub-region. Its strength lies in the fact that today it has generated an exchange between professionals and academics from different countries, who regularly meet at different academic and professional events to discuss relevant topics: migration, displacement, political and social crises, poverty and exclusion. The challenges for social work education will be to include these and other local topics in their curriculum for the future of a discipline that updates its commitment by overcoming injustice and by creating a more humane and dignified society for all Latin American citizens.