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123 MAY 2009
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THE PROFESSION

Common Challenges and Beacons of Hope

Mark Smith

I’ve just returned from a conference in the beautiful Croatian city of Dubrovnik. The conference, Different Legacies, Common Challenges organised by the European Network of Social Action, (ENSACT) was an attempt to bring together different international bodies involved in social care and social work to discuss, as the title suggests, the common challenges faced by such professions across the globe. And despite the European focus it was a truly international affair with over 700 delegates from most corners of the world, although no-one as far as I could work out specifically from a North American Child and Youth Care tradition. This might be a bit unfortunate given that we were moving into world Child and Youth Care month. Certainly there are common ways of working between and common challenges faced by Child and Youth Care workers and the European profession of social pedagogy.

What was fascinating from the conference was the global nature of the challenges social work and social care professionals face. There are pressures across the world to introduce greater “accountability” to the social professions. The operative component of accountability seems to be “count” “we want interventions that we can measure and that are ostensibly economic and efficient. And across the world, to varying degrees, the way that such regimes are implemented is through increasing managerialism. Professional knowledge is subsumed beneath ever more injunctions from accountants and HR personnel and regulators who want to remove the messy bits from care. Of course they use weasel words “they call this process “modernisation” and “improvement” The result of it all is to limit our liability to care; rendering the relational and vocational elements that used to be and need to be at the heart of care, all but invisible, eclipsed behind managerial injunctions towards economy and consumerist mantras of choice, as though the kind of care that many children need were something that they contract to in the same way that we might choose a hotel room.

A colleague from Stirling University, here in Scotland, gave one of the keynote addresses and located these common challenges convincingly within the global dominance of neoliberal political and economic regimes. Now last year Child and Youth Care workers might have regarded arguments that locate the state of the sector within politico-economic doctrines as somewhat far-fetched. The banking crisis, and the effects that this is having and will have on children and families across the world however, brings such concepts to the centre of human experience. And because the effects of these failed philosophies are global then responses likewise need to be understood and formulated at wider levels “we face common challenges and have common cause with Child and Youth Care professionals, whatever they may be called in national context, across the world.

While, in many respects, prospects are bleak there are also beacons of hope emerging from the connections that people in social care are beginning to make. Foremost among those connections that are beginning to be forged are those between practitioners academics and service users. Despite what the managerialists tell us about responsive and flexible services (more weasel words) what service users want from those they work with are honest, friendly and accepting human relationships. At a theoretical level academics, particularly those interested in Ethics, are beginning to assert this talking, unashamedly, about notions of vocation and “calling”, and passion, ideas which have felt somewhat quaint in contexts of economic and scientific reductionism. We can also state confidently that evidence-based practice movement’s pursuit of an elusive “what works” hasn’t worked. Indeed, we should never have lost sight of “who works”. For it is the personal relationship between the cared for and the one caring that is ultimately going to make a difference to children's futures.

So as we enter Child and Youth Care month let’s remember and indeed name the global challenges that face us and those we work with. But let us, too, hang on to the beacons of hope that become possible when we assert the fundamental principles of our calling, that we can help people change through the strength of the relationships we build with them.

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