Ravages to social welfare, the social protection floor and social work have been rife throughout many countries following the 2007 fiscal crisis and often responded to by the world’s neoliberal leaders by the adoption of austerity measures. This is having significant consequences for people in both low- and high-income countries, and the gaps between high and low earners are becoming even starker. Poverty and extreme poverty is not being adequately addressed.
Social work has a part to play in bringing narratives of human suffering to the attention of governments and world leaders, as well as to the general public. To do so, social work needs to confront its own liminal state as both a product of the neoliberal system that gave rise to the crisis but also a potential solution to some of the ills it has created. This is no easy task but something that begins with recognition of suffering and a willingness to ‘speak truth to power’.
Professor Jonathan Parker and Dr Sara Ashencaen Crabtree of the Centre for Social Work, Sociology and Social Policy at Bournemouth University and visiting professors at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and Sharima Ruwaida Abbas of Universiti Utara Malaysia were fortunate to have been invited to share their research, reflections and experiences with students, staff and NGOs at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Although held on 24 March 2014, the seminar celebrated World Social Work Day, and demonstrated social work’s potential for positive change through student engagement, questions and presentations reflecting their volunteering roles.
Social work and political engagement has a long history and, although not all good, the better part can be situated within a context of tension – challenging its employers and paymasters, and learning to criticise authority when this doesn’t come easy. Drawing on Parker, Ashencaen Crabtree and Abbas’ research and experiences, the seminar heard that the future of social work in dealing with poverty and economic and social crises, in its different forms across the world, required strength of character in challenging the powerful, critical reflection, a focus on social justice and the ability to live with disagreement and diversity.