Challenges facing Social Work Practice in Guyana
The 1940s marked the period of the introduction of professional social work and the expansion of social services in the Anglophone Caribbean region. Upheavals and riots in the 1930s highlighted the plight of colonial working-class citizens and disrupted the economic bases of the capitalist plantocracy. These events triggered the urgent need for responses to alleviate social problems. Approximately eighty years later, social work practice and social work education have seen significant developments. This article examines challenges for the profession in Guyana and is based on current research undertaken by the author as part of her doctoral education. Presented are critical contemporary issues, some of which have entrenched historical roots while others are currently emerging and influenced by internal and external factors. Social work’s positionality in national development, therefore, makes it imperative to develop a plan to appropriately respond and contribute to social and economic development.
The historiography of social work in Guyana locates its emergence in the activities of social and religious groups seeking to enhance the wellbeing of formerly enslaved Africans, by way of self-help and community development initiatives. Current research findings reflect that social work practice has developed significantly since the 1930s. Impetuses for this are measures instituted by both the colonial powers and subsequent independent governments to achieve social welfare goals. This article seeks to highlight the significant influence that shaped the nature of social work practice and social work education and examine the contemporary issues facing the profession.
Social work in Guyana and the Anglophone Carribbean
Many historical, political, social, and economic factors have shaped the evolution of social work practice and education in Guyana, and the Anglophone Caribbean. The most significant was the colonial rule of Britain, under whose watch upheavals and riots erupted in the 1930s. The investigative Royal West Indian Commission (Moyne Commission) summed up the causal factors of the disturbances as citizens’ desire for better living conditions (Benn, 2011). Moyne Commission’s recommendations to resolve the conflict had a rippling effect: The provision of social services expanded, professional social workers were introduced in state-sponsored social agencies, and modern social work practice evolved. Baker and Maxwell’s (2012) work provides further insights into colonial influences on social work practice in the region.
An important paradigm shift for Guyana was the process of change in the role of government and the state as agents of coordination and integration of social welfare services (Danns, 1990). While non- governmental groups relinquished their role in social services, the plantocracy-controlled sugar industry did not for capitalist reasons. However, in the early 1940s social work practice was incorporated within existing social services provided by the state apparatus, the Third British Guiana Legislative Council. The rationale for this was availability of decentralised facilities, framework planning, concentration of financial resources, and machinery for social control.
Integrating a new cadre of professionals into conventional systems came with challenges. Most notable were the questions and responses from skeptics, who interrogated the value and role of social work professionals, likening their positions to forest rangers. Notwithstanding, practitioners formalised government’s social work agenda. Activities emphasised remedial work and community development, including corrections, familial dysfunctionality, juvenile supervision, social security, schools’ welfare, and formalisation of cooperative societies.
Contemporary Issues for Social Work
The focus in this section will be on selected contemporary challenges for social work practice, bearing in mind that some have historical roots. These include the dimensions of development, political instability and upheavals, social work training, and professional association and legitimacy.
Dimensions of social development
Guyana’s economy has grown significantly following the implementation of a structural adjustment programme and neoliberal policies 1988/89. The current growth rate is 3.4%, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) 3.676 billion USD, and the Human Development Index 0.654 (United Nations Development Programme, 2018). Notwithstanding this positive economic overview, the reality for Guyana is that severe multidimensional poverty affects 6% of the population, and youth unemployment is 26.3% (UNDP, 2018). The saturated public service is the major occupational sector, however, 85% of all university graduate are lost to brain drain.
Chronic diseases including hypertension, cancer and diabetes are prevalent among the population of 748, 000. Of particular concern to officials is the impact of HIV/AIDS, suicide, teenage pregnancy, and domestic violence. HIV prevalence rate among the 15 – 49 age group is 1.6%, on average 85.8 of every 1000 births are to adolescent girls 15 – 19 years old, and suicide rates for males and females are 46% and 15.5%, respectively (UNDP, 2018). Successive governments have sought to develop a system that can adapt and respond to developmental obstacles and threats to the attainment of global compacts such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Trends in social problems make this an arduous task. As I write, Guyana’s social services are grappling to effectively deal with the increasing refugee population in the hinterland regions. Venezuela’s political crisis has forced hundreds of migrants across Guyana’s porous border in search of peace and livelihood opportunities. This, and other existing socio-economic challenges form the core social dimensions of development.
Political instability and upheavals
Guyana’s current political stability is extremely vulnerable. The Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruled on June 18, 2019 that the no- confidence motion tabled against the coalition government by the opposition was validly passed on December 21, 2018. National and regional elections are therefore constitutionally due; however, the executive arm of the state is yet to announce a date. Discontent (see Figure 1) is clearly evident in the activism and opinions expressed through the media daily.
A historical review suggests that the current political conflicts can potentially cause disruption to social and economic activities. These conflicts are structurally entrenched and rooted in the country’s colonial experiences, and the divide and rule strategies of politicians during the cold war era. The population is ethnically heterogeneous with six groups, dominated by East Indians (43.5%) and Africans (30.2%). Multiculturalism is a public façade during national festivals, and when unmasked during election cycles contribute to episodic violence (see Figure 2). This is linked to a consistent track record of racial voting and the winner-take-all politics.
Citizens anticipate the demonstration of political maturity to mitigate any disturbances, particularly in light of Bajpal’s (2019) pronouncement that the economy is expected to grow by 33.5% and 22.9% in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Guyana is on the precipice of drawing first oil in May 2020, which predicts a fortune from the fourteen discoveries high quality, oil-bearing sandstones reservoirs. All political parties contesting the next general elections have championed the use oil of proceeds to provide free education and direct cash transfers to citizens.
Training for social work practice
The national goals to feed, clothe and house the nation by 1976 established a nexus between social work and development. This amplified the need to bridge the gap in social work education. Resultantly, the University of Guyana launched the Diploma in Social Work in 1971 to train a cadre of professionals who could embrace national development by using their skills to foster social and economic development. Like the nature of practice, colonial legacies permeate social work education. The curriculum was in alignment with the recommendations for a two-year training course for the development of social work found in the Younghusband Report on Education and Training for Social Workers (a British product). Early cohorts included paraprofessionals from public sector agencies, who completed their requisite field experience under the tutelage of professionals trained in Europe and North America.
Social work education growth has been slow both in terms of the expansion of programmes and in keeping with the global advancement of the profession. Twenty years after the diploma, a partnership with Dalhousie University resulted in the baccalaureate degree and the development of a critical mass of social work educators. In 2017, the Master of Social Work (MSW) was launched under a servicing arrangement with York University and support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Notwithstanding these influences, issues relating to a human rights and social justice philosophy are scarcely infused in the curricula. Guyana has ratified ten human right treaties and is a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals compact. Bearing this, and the frontal focus of human rights in the international definition of social work used locally, a pertinent question is, what resources social work education needs to bridge the gap of inadequate human rights content in the social work curricula? Responses must be placed frontally in any restructuring of the curricula.
Professional association and legitimacy
Professional association is a creature of political directives grounded in pragmatism, and rationalised on the basis of the government’s thrust to link social work to national development and the recognition of social workers as professionals. After the first decade and one-half of its legal registration and vibrancy, the Guyana Association of Professional Social Workers is struggling to remain relevant in social and economic development discourse. Its position is compounded by the lack of visibility and inability to sustain active membership. Bearing in mind that the University of Guyana has produced approximately 1600 graduates of the Diploma in Social Work to date, less than one percent are currently recorded as active members of the professional association.
Keynote speakers of the Inaugural Conference on the Practice and Standards of Social Work (July 21 – 22, 2016) challenged over 200 social work professionals to respond effectively to the current realities of Guyana. The conference was a collaborative attempt to influence regularisation of the profession, a feat that eludes the discipline and is necessary to concretise its legitimacy. The momentum gained has somewhat eroded, but social workers have recognised that notwithstanding the low remuneration packages they receive; their skills are needed and necessary for the development of Guyana.
Challenges and the way forward
The envisioned economic windfall from oil and gas production provides hope for the expansion of social services and the general welfare of Guyanese. Plans are evolving to develop a local content framework to ensure that Guyana benefits from the proceeds of the emerging oil and gas industry. Irrespective of this, the complexities of the social dimensions of development situate the role of social work and social workers in a place of prominence. Probable risk of the Dutch Disease further compounds this, since contrary to the commonly held belief; improvements in general welfare are not automatic outcomes of natural resource discoveries. Therefore, the need for social work practice and social work education to take account of their roles cannot be overemphasised. Correspondingly to the nations’ preparation for economic buoyancy, social work needs a concrete plan for its upward mobility in order to remain relevant and support social and economic development. Such a plan must account for the following:
- collaboration and cooperation of social work practice, social work education, professional association, policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders to address social development obstacles
- strategies for constructing and documenting indigenous practice models, and the incorporation of evidence-based practice in interventions
- systems and mechanisms for building social cohesion
- assessment of social work education to determine training needs in light of the gap of a human rights and social justice philosophy in the curricula and the impending rapid economic growth
- approaches to influence national discourse and social policy trajectories
- measures to advocate for a regulatory framework for social work practice, and to generate public support for the critical roles of social workers in nation building
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