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By Alicia Nijdam (Flickr: Rocinha Favela) [CC BY 2.0 (By Alicia Nijdam (Flickr: Rocinha Favela) [CC BY 2.0 (link)], via Wikimedia Commons)], via Wikimedia Commons

Sara Caro Dr Psicología Escuela de Trabajo Social UC

The State, Social Policies and Social Work in Latin America

This article argues that the relationship with the State is embedded in the identity of social work in Latin America’s Social Work discipline. The discipline of social work, except for some subtle differences, has participated both in the genesis as well as in the subsequent organisation and consolidation of the State. This also provides the contextual dimension of social work, as social intervention is directly related to its surrounding context, it has to face these contextual components; therefore, it has to deal with the region’s individual and collective history. Nevertheless, the history of any State in Latin America is also part of the history of social work and the permanent tension between society, economy and development.

Latin America Social Work

Latin America is not homogeneous across the region; on the contrary, between countries and even within each country, there are contradictions and contrasts. Nevertheless, these societies share common elements in their history: an identity built upon a colonial structure; young nations with a recent history; long-lasting military dictatorships, that represent periods of oppression of civil liberties and violations of human rights, followed by periods of political instability; economies highly dependent on exports of raw materials, making them extremely vulnerable to external factors; political and economic elites who dominate the decision-making process and, even more so, the persistence of profound social inequality.

A key element in the history of the Latin American State has been the weight of both political and economic international debates in the decision-making process regarding social issues. This has led to a constant tension in society and in the development processes, leaving the State to act as an intermediary between the prevailing economic model and citizen demands.

In the mid 1920s, most of the countries in the region had large families who lived in poverty as well as high illiteracy rates and unemployment coexisted with housing problems and unhealthy living conditions. In this scenario, the States fulfilled an essentially protective role. Social work represented a space from where information was organised in order to improve resource management (chiefly benefits) and alleviate the deprivation in basic subsistence levels. Through intervention instruments – such as home visits – the few public agencies at the time brought to families the State’s concern about their welfare, creating an educational and regulatory space in people’s homes, focused on solving specific issues related to allowing human life in contexts of deprivation.

As the States made progress in the above areas, they gradually became welfare States, responsible for funding, managing and providing social services, significantly increasing public spending. A key driver of the relationship between the State and social work in Latin America goes hand in hand with defining specific situations of exclusion as social problems. In other words, when society begins to question specific situations that until then had been considered to be normal, it sets out agreements about the importance of solving these situations and the need for an active role of the State. This paradigmatic change enabled the State to implement social policies regarding employment, benefits and community assistance. Most social schemes provided universal coverage, highly dependent upon the centralised state apparatus. Thus, a new way of understanding the State is identified, not only because of its position towards social problems, but also the management strategies used to help short and long-term planning, and to take action and use resources to achieve such goals. Furthermore, directly and indirectly, designing, implementing and assessing the social policies issued by the public administration, and also promoting the implementation of social schemes and services, today create important spaces where social intervention is entrenched.

Undoubtedly this Welfare State, which to a certain extent, helped to establish a tradition of professional social work with vast experience and an identity towards public service, also to spread and validate techniques from different fields, such as medicine, public administration and economics. By conducting social surveys through home residents, home visits, mortality or poverty measurements, social work provides valuable and detailed information to the State about its inhabitants and their living conditions. Towards the end of this period, social work was particularly important, in terms of protecting the victims of political violence in the countries under military dictatorship, protecting the lives of those people – even while in hiding – and demanding respect for human dignity and human rights.

After the dictatorship era, the States rapidly focussed on economic growth, promoting policies for productivity growth and having a secondary role. A characteristic of that period is the dramatic decline in social expenditure, and at the same time States also focused on social programmes and benefits for the poorest segments of society, as well as on privatising health and social welfare - for example social services – for the people who did not live in poverty. This decline in the State’s involvement in social issues and in the demands of the more vulnerable groups was more evident in some countries (such as Chile), where the neoliberal, economic model put the individual’s interests first before solidarity in the decision-making and production processes.

Today Latin America represents an even more heterogeneous region; modernisation and globalisation processes have not had the same impact on all countries. However, they still have the same problems, such as social inequality and economic vulnerability caused by the crises of other world economies. The different States move between protective welfare and neoliberal policies, and at least a quarter of Latin America’s population still lives in extreme poverty. Therefore, social work has had an active participation in the current debate about the role of the State and its mechanisms of action. Discussions about social welfare systems, the need for a State that ensures respect for human rights, the relevance of public-private alliances, as well as civil society organisations have taken over the public agenda and provide social work with spaces for advocacy and political influence.

Today, the design and analysis of social policies also forms part of the professional tasks carried out by social workers, permitting this discipline to participate in and put into place ideas and projects of change based on the various political views, and these measures have a direct impact on the lives of people. Notwithstanding the foregoing, these intervention spaces also create ethical dilemmas among professionals, straining the political and reflexive dimension of social work practice. An ongoing discussion is created about public and private spheres, the recognition of the region’s history, the importance of indigenous peoples and their coexistence with modern society. Except for subtle differences, there is still suspicion about the role of social workers who are reduced to merely executing State initiatives for vulnerable groups, becoming functional players instead of a critical ones.

Latin American States continue to face many challenges, such as reducing poverty, increasing social equality, establishing a solid economy and improving the human development index. This requires an institutional strengthening that has the capacity to guide and contain such transformations; therefore, the discussion regarding the structural transformation of the State that involves social and economic planning, has never been more valid than today in Latin America.