On December 7, 2015, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance hosted the 21st webinar in the Social Service Workforce Strengthening Webinar Series funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through PEPFAR and held in collaboration with IntraHealth International and the 4Children Project. This webinar explored a mapping exercise carried out in 13 countries in the West and Central Africa region to inform the development of a regional strategy to strengthen the social service workforce. The study, Social Service Workforce Training in the West and Central Africa Region, documented and mapped university programs and training institutes to better understand how social workers and related professionals are trained and educated—both formally and informally—to engage in social work practice, especially as it relates to child protection. During the webinar, speakers discussed the rationale for the study, the methods and process used, and the results that provide an overview of universities and social work institutes and courses and qualifications available for social workers, paraprofessionals and NGO practitioners. Speakers also provided insight on how this study is informing the development of national and regional strategies to strengthen the social service workforce in West and Central Africa.
Mark Canavera, Associate Director, CPC Learning Network, began the webinar by welcoming participants and providing opening remarks on the “most important aspect of the child protection system – the people who work within it.” With this recognition of the importance of social service workers, he shared the thinking behind the study and its collaborating authors and organizations, specifically that understanding the training modules, courses, and curricula available to workers in West and Central Africa was a key starting point for strengthening professionals and paraprofessionals working with children and families in the region. He then introduced the two presenters and reminded participants to contribute any questions or comments during the Q&A and discussion portions of the webinar.
Andy Brooks, Regional Child Protection Adviser, UNICEF West and Central Africa (WCARO), introduced webinar participants to the study by describing the status of information on social work practice, capacity and training in the region when the study was undertaken in 2013. Although half of the countries had completed or launched exercises to map and assess their child protection systems, more information was needed on what these workers were being taught and how training influenced their work with children and families. In addition to better understanding workers’ training and education, the study also focused on gathering the information needed to establish a “state of practice” in training for the wide range of social service workforce representatives – from social service administrators to community-level workers involved in child protection and other social work functions. Four key areas of inquiry – theory, research, policy, and practice – guided the development and execution of the study, as well as framing the results and recommendations.
With this context in mind, Bree Akesson, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Wilfrid Laurier University, discussed the study methodology, results and recommendations in greater depth. Conducted in two phases, the study included review and analysis of 113 documents and 86 stakeholder contacts, as well as fieldwork in five countries with more than 250 people interviewed via key informant interviews or group discussions. Interviewees included social work professors and others working in social work education and training, social work students and recent graduates, government social workers and administrators, as well as NGO and CBO social work practitioners and frontline workers. Findings from the document review and fieldwork underscored strengths in the region’s training and education for social service workers, such as general momentum for social service workforce training in the region, employment of a core strengths- or assets-based theoretical approach, inclusion of social science research methods and a “practicum” component integrated into training. However, other findings had implications for recent graduates and practitioners who felt little clarity about their role, as opposed to medicine or law, due to unclear job descriptions and legal mandates across countries, as well as lack of training on regional and national law, policy-driven change and advocacy. After presenting these findings, Dr. Akesson elaborated on five of the study’s recommendations: 1) clarify roles; 2) review curricula; 3) organize NGOs and CBOs; 4) develop social work education capacity; and, 5) explore partnerships.
Mr. Brooks continued discussion of the study’s recommendations, focusing on the first recommendation to clarify roles and responsibilities. Action on this recommendation included a workshop hosted in December 2014 to review the study results and build consensus on the roles of social service workers with regional partners, schools and universities. A follow up workshop to further develop key competencies of social service professionals and paraprofessionals and set up a network around social service workforce strengthening in the region is planned for March 2016. Both workshops are intended to serve as a starting point to inform efforts to strengthen existing training programs and reforming curricula, for as stated by Mr. Brooks, “if the understanding of a social service worker’s job is unclear, the rest of the apparatus around that career will also be unfocused.”
To kick off discussion around these study recommendations, and the study overall, Mr. Brooks posed the following questions:
- How can we support national efforts to bring the different workforces together around a common vision of protecting children (professionals, paraprofessionals, community-level actors)?
- What are the implications for training and investment of defining specific accountabilities for different level cadres?
- Given the fragility and emergency-prone nature of the WCA region, how can we more systematically ensure that the investment in humanitarian response for child protection is linked from the beginning in supporting the strengthening of a social service workforce that goes beyond the emergency?
These discussion questions were included as part of the question and answer session moderated by Jim McCaffery, Chairperson of the Alliance Steering Committee. Additional questions from participants included whether the mapping would be expanded to other regions in Africa, how to emphasize the importance of support to workers after training through supervision and coaching, the regulatory role of professional associations in country, and how to ally with government to ensure efforts to strengthen the workforce are directed through established channels and that investments in the system will be able to respond in emergency situations as well as sustain improvements over the long term.
Mr. Canavera closed the webinar by emphasizing the need to focus first on the workforce’s roles and responsibilities in the region to inform improvements in training programs, and then building on existing strengths of these programs and sharing findings of the study so that efforts from government and other actors could be aligned. He recognized the number of questions posed to presenters and the interest in the topic and directed them to further information, including the study itself, available through the Alliance resource database, as well as past and future webinars on topics related to social service workforce strengthening.