There is a book that comes to my mind whenever I think about social work and social services. It’s Long way gone. Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier who was involved in the war in Sierra Leone in the ’90s, writes Manolo Cabran.
It is an example I have used often in my work, because it presents, with a disarming simplicity, the daunting tasks of helping people like Ishmael who have gone through horrible experiences and have been able to come out of them. I read the book quite a long time ago and I do not currently have it with me, so bear with me if you are able to spot any inaccuracies.
After being found and brought to a secure place, Ishmael went through the whole process of having his story heard, his case assessed, and his next steps planned. If I am not mistaken, he was referred to some other people to receive more specific help. It was in one of these instances that he met a nurse, Esther, and it was this meeting that proved to be a real page-turner. It was through this friendship that Ishmael, little by little, was able to start dealing with the past and thinking about a future.
To me, this is the essence of social services. I think Ishmael had a ‘case manager,’ but it was his positive relationship with Esther that was the trigger that enabled him to find his way out of desperation. The case manager might have done (and as far as I remember, they actually did) all that s/he had to. Nevertheless, only the human connection that Ishmael established with Esther brought about the much-needed change.
I found the same idea in three of the most brilliant TED talks I have watched. Sir Ken Robinson speaks about the importance of rethinking our understanding of education. He says: “Many of the current policies are based on mechanistic conceptions of education. It’s like education is an industrial process that can be improved just by having better data, and somewhere in the back of the mind of some policy makers is this idea that if we fine-tune it well enough, if we just get it right, it will all hum along perfectly into the future. It won’t, and it never did.”
Borrowing his words again: “We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process; it is an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is to create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.”
If we accept that this is true for education, then I believe it is equally true for social services. And if we are to advocate for a stronger social services workforce, this is the approach we should have in mind.
Manolo Cabran works on the development of child protection strategies and systems, child sensitive social protection and child protection related research.