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Uganda’s growing army of para social workers

July 2013 by Kate Iorpenda, Senior Advisor on Children and HIV at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance


Internationally there is huge momentum around social service workforce strengthening. It is a key area of investment by the U.S. government through the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and they have supported the formation of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. There seem to be weekly webinars on this issue lamenting the dearth of social workers concerned with the care and protection of vulnerable children and I have participated in many but not until I visited Uganda last week had I seen the true value of this work and its incredible potential in addressing the needs of vulnerable children.

SUNRISE-OVC is training para social workers in a selection of the 80 districts they work in to support government probation and community development officers in communities identified with high levels of child abuse and neglect.

Only 41% of the approved staff positions in the Community Based Services Department (CBSD) in Uganda were filled in 2011. This translated into one social worker to every 6000 children. In response SUNRISE-OVC has trained 1,178 para social workers using the government and UNICEF developed curriculum.

In Mbale, five hours east of Kampala, I visited the sub county office of Bungokho Mutoto and met 11 para social workers trained by the SUNRISE-OVC project who now work directly with the government officers from the district probation and welfare service.

I met Reverend Wilson Makabuli, a pastor in the local church and chair of the sub counties group of para social workers. He presented me with a report of all the activities of the para social workers in the last month.  They are dealing with cases of child abuse that I would struggle to describe to you let alone deal with.  They are mediating in cases of domestic violence, child abandonment, visiting homes of children not attending school and reminding people on a daily basis about their duty to care for children. Reverend Wilson has even visited parents charged with abuse in prison to support their rehabilitation and spent three weeks looking after a baby in hospital who had been abused and left for dead in the forest.

Reverend Wilson Makabuli with a picture of a child he has cared for. © International HIV/AIDS Alliance 2013

They are all volunteers, many already part of village health teams or community development committees, now taking on the care and protection of children in their villages.  I struggle with the lack of payment to these volunteers but see the growing recognition of their role and their own commitment to support their own communities.

“After the training we felt a lot had been invested in us being selected and the training. It was not good to go back and sit and let the efforts go to waste. If we went back and sat the sub county would miss other opportunities in the future so we must be seen to be doing something.”

Ruth is the community development officer for Bungokho Mutoto a government staff worker based at the sub county level. She coordinates the work of the para social workers helping them resolve more complex cases, referring to district for care orders or court cases and at the same time the para social workers are her eyes and ears in every village. They know the families who are critically vulnerable, those houses dealing with violence, conflict and food insecurity and they are there able to respond, often before things reach crisis point.

Trained by SUNRISE-OVC in child protection, child rights, documentation and data collection, they are now asking for more support in counselling, especially with children who they meet in these houses.  These are not professional psychologists and I have to admit a certain level of discomfort thinking about people with such little training dealing with complex and sensitive issues.  But spending time with them and listening to the stories of cases they face, day in day out, I have no doubt that children are incredibly fortunate to have these individuals ready to listen and support them. Their commitment to supporting families and keeping them together was impressive and they understood that this abuse and violence is linked to deep issues of poverty and gender inequality and that true child protection is about recognising and responding to the multiple vulnerabilities in play, not just removing children and taking legal action against parents.

And so it seems right that SUNRISE should be better equipping them for this job, certifying their training, linking them to service organisations and through the rest of the project activities, ensuring they are engaged and contributing to the district planning around child welfare and protection. Their exercise books full of names, cases, actions and home visits are testament to how well they know these families. True community action which is in partnership with government systems and service provision!

As I leave I wonder how the other sub counties and parishes manage without this incredible army of people. Only some of the districts have implemented the training of para social workers based on where levels of child protection violations are the highest. This is social welfare workforce strengthening in action. It has such potential to extend the work of SUNRISE-OVC from government to village level and I hope it will continue to become a more standard part of the response for children.



This blog is written by Kate Iorpenda, the Senior Advisor on Children and HIV at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.  She visited Uganda in July 2013 to provide technical support to colleagues who are implementing the USAID funded SUNRISE-OVC project which works with local government and communities to improve services for children. The programme is being implemented by Alliance Uganda and its partners who were awarded $22.9 million through the five-year project.

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Save the Date - SSWS Webinar on Attracting and Retaining Workers - August 8

Social Service Workforce Webinar Series

(This webinar has already been held.  A summary and recording have been posted here.)

 Supporting the Social Service Workforce: 

Tools for attracting and retaining workers in underserved areas

Thursday, August 8, 2013

9:00 am EDT - 10:30 am EDT 


Supporting the social service workforce is, in many ways, the most neglected component of social service workforce strengthening. We all understand the importance of planning and financing the workforce and training and developing the workforce. But once we have recruited and trained workers, how do we keep them on the job, happy, and performing to the best of their ability?  What attracts, retains, and satisfies health workers and teachers is not very different from what attracts, retains and satisfies social service workers.  Many of the tools, resources and initiatives used to increase retention and improve job satisfaction of workers in other fields can be applied to the social service workforce. During this webinar, we will hear from two colleagues engaged in efforts to attract and retain health workers, particularly in rural and disadvantaged communities.


Dr. Carmen Dolea, of the Health Systems Policies and Workforce division of the World Health Organization, will discuss Global Recommendations for increasing access to health workers in remote and rural areas through improved retention.
Wanda Jaskiewicz, CapacityPlus Senior Team Leader, Global Leadership and Health Workforce Effectiveness at IntraHealth International will present on the use of the Rapid Retention Survey Toolkit in Laos to help determine the relative importance health workers place on different job characteristics and predict their decision-making about job postings.


For more resources related to retention of social service workers, please visit our resource database here.


This webinar is supported by PEPFAR/USAID and CapacityPlus


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The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance Celebrates Its Launch

The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance officially launched on June 6. The Alliance is comprised of a collaborative network of stakeholders who will help address key social service workforce issues. 

A well-planned, well-trained and well-supported social service workforce can effectively deliver services to improve the lives of vulnerable populations. However, a number of challenges confront this workforce and limit its ability to create protective environments for children and families who face poverty, discrimination, violence and exploitation in their daily lives. 

In its mission, the Alliance recognizes the key challenges facing this workforce and aims to promote the knowledge and evidence, resources and tools and political will and action needed to address them, especially within low to middle income countries.  

“The social service workforce is critical for creating protective environments for healthy development and well-being and tackling poverty; promoting social justice; ensuring protection from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect; and providing needed services to care for and support those who need it most,” commented Ummuro Adano of Management Sciences for Health, a steering committee member of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. 

This observation, along with many others provided from organizations and individuals committed to strengthening the social service workforce worldwide, set the stage for the launch of the Alliance during two webinars held on June 6 and 7. 

During the launch webinar, Amy Bess, Alliance coordinator, described how to become involved in the work of the Alliance and introduced participants to the new Global Social Service Workforce Alliance website, which will act as a platform for information-sharing and advocacy. Through the website, future Alliance members can register to become a member.  Members can contribute to knowledge on the social service workforce through the Alliance’s Resource Database and monthly e-updates, connect with others through the social service webinar series and interest groups and join others in advocacy efforts. 

For those looking to be a part of the global movement to strengthen this key workforce, the Alliance welcomes you to become a member and work with others to help realize this vision.

View a recording of the launch here.

Many organizations publicized the launch. Read some of their articles and blogs: 

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Webinar to Mark the Launch of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance - June 6 and June 7, 2013

Connecting People, Transforming Lives: Launch of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance  

June 6 and June 7, 2013

The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance is hosting a one-hour webinar to give participants the opportunity to learn more about the Alliance, hear about the importance of this initiative to support those who work with vulnerable children and families, and discover how they can become involved in ways that best fit their current personal, professional, and organizational situations.

In order to optimize opportunity for participation across time zones, the Alliance is holding the same session twice. Participants are invited to join either session.

Session 1: Thursday, June 6 at 9:00 am New York, 4:00 pm Nairobi, 8:00 pm Bangkok. Participate in this session by clicking here. (This link will become active 30 minutes before the start time.)

Session 2: Thursday, June 6 at 6:00 pm Los Angeles, 9:00 pm New York / Friday, June 7 at 8:00 am Bangkok, 9:00 am Beijing, 10:00 am Tokyo, 11:00 am Sydney. Participate in this session by clicking here. (This link will become active 30 minutes before the start time.)

The Alliance’s vision is to work toward a world where a well-planned, well-trained, and well-supported social service workforce effectively delivers services that improve the lives of vulnerable populations. In short, its aim is: improve the workforce, improve lives.

To realize this vision, the Alliance seeks members to join and to engage with leaders and colleagues to help strengthen the workforce through advancing knowledge, exploring shared issues and promising practices, and becoming strong advocates. In practice, this means:

  • Connecting with others facing similar challenges
  • Contributing your best ideas and best practices to address these challenges
  • Learning about creative initiatives being undertaken by others
  • Joining with others to advocate for needed changes and resources at both the global and country levels
  • Being part of a global movement to strengthen this key workforce
  • Increasing your impact, amplifying your voice.