Social workers. We have the power, but what stops us from taking action?

Anna Martine Jarlvang Karsrud is currently interning with the Department of Social Work in Arusha, and reflects here on the insights that are emerging for her. 

As a social work student from Norway, I have been given lectures about the power of being a social worker. Tutors stressed the matter on our first days of studies and at the time, I don’t think I fully realized the meaning and the scope of it. Today, I am absolutely positive that social work is even more powerful than I realize.

My experience of social work is from the West; where I have been taught that social workers have the ability and the knowledge to empower people to be able to help themselves. They are advocates, and a voice for those without voices. A social worker has the power to do, and the power not to do. It is a great power, but also a great responsibility. A Danish author and philosopher once said that when helping another person we carry a part of that person’s life in our hands.

Being here, in Tanzania, has made me realize that I have to moderate some of my expectations about the role of a social worker. The basic principles of a social worker are the same the world over. But, when it comes to implementation the context matters. 

Tanzania is a collectively oriented society, where people tend to depend on family and the community more than on the government when they face tough times. My understanding from meeting social workers, CCR and clients is that the government is experienced as a remote power, and the systems put in place have shortcomings that do not inspire confidence in citizens.

Nevertheless, social workers are limited by things that are different from what I am used to. By “taking action” I mean doing what you can, and what you are trained to do, to help the client. It might be to report a case, write a letter, make an appointment with a doctor, or investigate an issue more closely. When this kind of action is absent, I am wondering; what prevents us from acting?

I think there might be several reasons for not acting. One possibility is the fear of consequences that might follow. Fear that trouble might come back at you. The fear of the things you can’t control.

I also think one reason might be the lack of knowledge. If one doesn’t have knowledge about a subject, of course it gets more difficult to act. What is the right thing to do? What is my mandate? What happens if I step into something that is none of my business?

I wonder if these questions might prevent the social workers from taking action.

A third reason for not acting might be the fact that there are limited resources. We have heard several situations in which social workers have to use their own money when they go to the field, or if someone comes and asks for help, they have to give their own money.

That leads me to another reason for not taking action – motivation.

I assume that when people have limited professional knowledge or access to resources, the motivation might lessen. In a world without it, the motivation might be to always do your best to help others. Is it possible having this kind of motivation even if there are several limitations? I can see the fact that these sorts of limitations might damage your motivation to help. Like elsewhere in the world, the laws and policies protecting vulnerable populations (women, children, persons living with disabilities and in this case the elderly) place great responsibility on the shoulders of the social welfare department, and yet the department of social welfare is chronically under-resourced and under-staffed, and social workers undervalued. Every time you try to do the right thing, you are being told that there are no time, no money, or no point. After a while, you no longer have the strength to ask.

I get it that this lack of motivation, lack of resources, lack of knowledge or feeling of fear might prevent a social worker from acting. I think it happens all over the world, not only here in Tanzania. But are we not, despite this fear and despite the limitations, supposed to help? We, the social workers, might be the only voice of an abused child, an old and weak lady, or a mother left alone with four kids.

Is it then better to have the voice of a social worker, even if it is weak, than not having a voice at all? I think that is the greatest power of being a social worker.