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Rising to Tomorrow’s Challenges: The Power of the Social Service Workforce on the Frontlines to Protect Children

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blog by Cornelius WilliamsAssociate Director & Global Chief of Child Protection, Programme Division, UNICEF

A strong social service workforce demonstrates not only the power of individuals to impact peoples’ lives, but their collective power to challenge norms and drive change on the ground. In the 1990s, during the armed conflict in my home country Sierra Leone, I witnessed firsthand how our decrepit, post-colonial era social service workforce came under stress amid the civil war but then transformed itself to rise to the challenges faced by children on the frontlines. Rather than following previous pressures to acculturate families to maintain economic, social, and political stability, the workforce defied colonial norms and instead championed the rights and equality of thousands of children through sustained support and rehabilitation.

Social service worker in Bangladesh supports two children

This transformative power has been witnessed globally where we have seen first responders and frontline workers forced to fast-track lessons learned and adapt to populations’ needs by developing new, or reformed, systems and rules that challenge patriarchal hierarchy and social injustice. Undeniably the most important element of child protection systems, a strong social service workforce is a lynchpin that cuts across actors and across sectors to protect children from harm and social injustice. The multifaceted roles of these workers are vital, ranging from service delivery to policy development at various levels.

Governments and organizations have traditionally invested in some aspects of strengthening the social service workforce, particularly in training its workers. However, the focus of these initiatives has largely been on those already in a specific job or assigned to perform certain job functions. Little attention was paid to strengthening the workforce more comprehensively by: 1) identifying and planning its requirements; 2) institutionalizing the role of its workers through national legislation or programmes; and 3) developing education and training programmes based on real-life contexts, with long-term opportunities for career growth and development. The absence of these measures has contributed to further minimizing the already poor level of recognition of the essential roles social service workers play.  

UNICEF has long engaged in efforts to amplify and support this issue, including our close association with the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance since its launch in 2013. More recently, we identified social service workforce strengthening as an organizational priority for our work on child protection embedded in our Strategic Plan (2018 -2021). Now that we have reached the midway point of implementation, I would like to take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, and how much further we need to go.

At the global level, we prioritized the development of public goods to support our work at the country level. In 2019, UNICEF, in consultation with the Alliance, issued its first-ever global Guidelines to Strengthen the Social Service Workforce for Child Protection, followed by a mapping toolkit for social service workforce, and other resources. Earlier this year, UNICEF launched its online course on social service workforce strengthening – in just three months we saw more than 3,400 participants (and counting) complete the course, demonstrating why the importance of this topic.

On the ground, our work translated into supporting governments with various actions to better plan, develop, and support their respective workforce. In 2019, UNICEF supported 137 countries to strengthen the social service workforce globally. From conducting mappings and assessments; to helping plan the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa region; to advocacy in East Asia and the Pacific (with ASEAN), and in Europe and Central Asia, respectively; to developing policies and legislation in Malaysia; to setting up academic programmes in Bhutan and supervision systems in the Gambia – this work has been both challenging and rewarding.

While we have seen progress globally, we must also recognize some sombre reflections as we implement the latter half UNICEF’s Strategic Plan – including that prioritizing investments to systematically strengthen the social service workforce is not as straightforward as it sounds. In countries that face economic challenges, social sectors are the first to be hit by cutbacks in spending – a harsh reality likely to be further exacerbated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. These challenges are further amplified by the ripple effects of the pandemic which have also increased child protection risks – such as violence, child labour, child marriage –, leading to more children in need of child protection services.

However, new challenges also bring new opportunities. The pandemic has brought social service workers who are often invisible – working “behind the scenes” – to the forefront and helped us highlight the critical role they play in children’s lives. Their inspiring stories have resonated with leaders and policymakers alike, giving us hope that we are on the right path. Using remote case management and virtual case conferencing as the new normal would have been almost unthinkable until recently. As a sector, child protection adapted quickly to the new reality – and a host of tools and guidance were made available in a matter of days. On the ground, however, workers continue to face challenges – both in terms of access to technology, and the lack of face-to-face interaction that has for long been a hallmark of child protection.

At UNICEF, we are committed to advocating for and supporting governments to plan, develop, and support the next generation of the social service workforce. While there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution, we do know key elements of a strong workforce are to be informed by a robust evidence-base, responsive to today’s changing realities, and able to anticipate tomorrow’s challenges. These individuals are on the frontlines every day – whether in a war zone or deprived local neighborhood. They are social justice warriors driving the major transformation we are seeing unfold in the Global South – from South Africa to India –, and now is their time to take centre stage in this decade of action and beyond.

Cornelius Williams is Associate Director and Global Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF Programme Division. He has over 25 years of experience in managing child protection programmes in Western, Eastern and Southern Africa with UNICEF and Save the Children. As a child rights advocate, he has been involved in advocacy that led to improved protection of children from sexual exploitation and abuse in humanitarian settings, reduced recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups, and increased access of children to identity documents/ birth certificate and social assistance and other services. Mr. Williams has played a leading role in coordinating UNICEF’s engagement with governments and other partners in the development of programmes for the prevention and response to violence against children in countries in Eastern and Southern Africa. He is a national of Sierra Leone and holds a Master of Arts in International Child Welfare from the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom.