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Social Welfare Workforce Strengthening Conference

Conference Report

The conference report includes the agenda, highlights from the conference, session summaries and other information related to the conference. Please download the report here.


In November 2010, the US Government’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), under the auspices of the Technical Working Group for children orphaned and made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS, organized a global conference in South Africa to highlight the challenges facing the social service workforce and explore strategies for addressing these challenges at a country and global level. The PEPFAR-funded Social Welfare Workforce Strengthening Conference: Investing in Those Who Care for Children is part of a long-term effort by the US government and other donors to draw increased attention and mobilize additional assistance for this workforce. Since 2004, PEPFAR has provided critical support to nearly four million children, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. As explained by Ambassador Eric Goosby, the US Global AIDS Coordinator, “The second phase of PEPFAR emphasizes the sustainability of initiatives to prevent HIV infection and to care for and treat those infected by the disease. Accordingly, [PEPFAR] has increased investments in strategies to strengthen systems – both health systems and social welfare systems – and the workforces supporting them.” Several additional initiatives supported by UNICEF, DFID, and others concerned with the welfare of vulnerable children have contributed to the development of a growing body of knowledge and resources to support efforts to strengthen the social welfare workforce.

The conference brought together teams from 18 countries to review this body of knowledge, share experiences and promising practices, and develop concrete action plans for strengthening the workforce. Each team included representatives from relevant government ministries of welfare (29% of participants identified themselves as belonging to this category), nongovernmental organizations (6%), donor organizations (43%), social work training institutions and professional associations (15%). The diversity within these teams provided an opportunity for multi-disciplinary problem solving and team building.

Conference presenters confirmed that the social welfare workforce faces serious challenges. During his opening remarks, Gary Newton, US Government Special Advisor for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, noted that “What should be the world’s strongest and most important workforce – those who care for and protect children – is too often neglected, under-staffed and under-funded.” Current social welfare workforce staffing plans lack clearly defined strategy and realistic implementation mechanisms due to funding constraints; the absence of accurate human resources data and cost projections; and ineffective, sometimes corrupt, systems for recruiting, hiring, and promoting workers. In addition, education opportunities are inadequate to meet demand for social welfare workers due to out-dated and often culturally inappropriate curricula; lecture-based, primarily theoretical teaching methods; inflexible course schedules; small scale training programs; and few mechanisms for recognizing skills acquired “on the job” or through nonformal training. Finally, the social welfare workforce tends to “burnout” quickly due to unclear, unrealistic job descriptions; low salaries and other incentives; poor workplace conditions; insufficient job tools; and a lack of appreciation for the difficult tasks carried out by social workers.

However, presenters and participants also a shared number of promising practices. Several countries have carried out detailed capacity assessments and South Africa recently completed comprehensive budgeting exercises, resulting in higher funding commitments from the Ministry of Finance. Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa have succeeded in establishing new cadres of auxiliary and assistant social workers and have begun to shift lower-level social work tasks to reduce caseloads.

Several schools of social work in the United States and Africa are collaborating to develop new curricula and pilot more interactive teaching techniques and internships. The Jane Addams College of Social Work in Chicago and the Addis Ababa University School of Social Work in Ethiopia have developed courses to train new cadres of social workers. The University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa has launched an innovative distance learning course for community social workers in ten countries.

Two projects in South Africa have specifically designed courses for social work supervisors. The courses teach better management as well as enable supervisors to more effectively address the psychosocial needs of frontline staff. Tanzania and Malawi are in the process of working with government and training institutions to develop social work career paths and career development opportunities.

The conference also provided an opportunity to consider how children’s needs could be addressed by the social welfare system in a more holistic way. At the same time, it enabled participants to explore the critical role of the social welfare workforce within this system and how efforts to strengthen the workforce can strengthen the social welfare system and ultimately promote the well-being and protection of vulnerable children and families.

Participants celebrated the conference as the launch of a new global movement intended to not only strengthen the social service workforce but also contribute to stronger, more effective social welfare systems. The conference provided an opportunity for country teams to develop realistic, time bound plans to address workforce challenges as well as outline longer-term global goals – such as a new research agenda, ideas for global workforce benchmarks and advocacy and coordination plans.

Mr. Newton heralded the conference as a “historic gathering that helped bring the world’s most important workforce to center stage, where it belongs . . . and give it the strength it needs to move us more rapidly towards a truly child friendly world.”