World Social Work Day: Global professional development

  • Janet Anand

Press/Media: Research


When social work student Lauren Donnelly spent time observing frontline social workers on the streets of Pune in India earlier this year, the experience had a profound effect. "I had volunteered in orphanages and hospitals in India before, but I wanted to meet social workers on the ground and see how they worked," she says. "I learned so much about how their approach differs from ours, especially their emphasis on community development and advocacy, and how that shapes the way social work is done in India. It really inspired me."

Donnelly, 25, now in the final year of her degree, is one of a small but expanding cohort of young undergraduates and staff from the social work faculty at Queens University, Belfast (QUB) to be involved in an exchange programme with India's Karve Institute of Social Service. Pioneered by Belfast academics Janet Carter Anand and Chaitali Das, the programme began in 2011 with just three students from Queens visiting Pune for two weeks. But it has since expanded to include Indian students visiting Northern Ireland to observe social work practices there and a larger group of QUB students visiting Pune in January this year.

The students who went to Pune were exposed to the everyday work of social workers in a number of settings, ranging from homes for older people to districts of the city where "street children" congregate. They also sat in on lectures at the institute, witnessing first-hand how their trainee counterparts in India were being prepared to meet the complex challenges of working in a country culturally and economically different from the UK. Feedback from those involved suggests that these kinds of international exchanges and placements, while short, could benefit young social workers enormously.

"Whether we like it or not the world is more globalised and we have to adapt to that," says Donnelly. "We live and work in increasingly multicultural societies, so learning to understand different cultures is important." Another participant, 25-year-old Claire Doherty, says exchanges such as theirs have distinct benefits because an "internationalist" view of social work is going to be essential in the future - especially, she thinks, when the next generation entering the profession are increasingly likely to be looking for work abroad.

It is not about exporting "western ideas" of social work, Doherty stresses, but about sharing experience. "It was really about mutual learning. Seeing how things are done in a different country can really open your mind."

Something she hadn't anticipated was that it helped her "step outside" Northern Ireland and reflect. "What surprised me was that the experience helped me see how we do things [in Northern Ireland] with a new perspective," says Doherty. "I was very interested in how the social workers in India were very much about social justice. We could do more of that."

The project was made possible through Das's contacts at Karve (she is from India originally) and was financed from funds set aside by QUB to promote more international alliances across the university. Carter Anand and Das believe that while talking about "internationalisation" might sound lofty, the fact is that by taking it into account within the social work curriculum it stands to have many practical advantages for the profession.

Exploring common goals and sharing best practice need not be limited to other cities or boroughs in the same country, they suggest. And with some of the most complex issues social workers face today having an international context, for example human trafficking and migration, their approach certainly seems to be appealing to those entering the profession.

"Within social work, it is particularly important to try and understand other contexts as the social work project is one with a global vision," Das explains. "When we do not engage with others, we become trapped in our own ways of thinking."

Carter Anand says that although only a small number of students have benefited from the exchange so far, there is no reason why such programmes could not be more integral to training. "The great thing is that it is mutual and it is reciprocal. We emphasise the value of critical reflection. What we learned was that once the students were taken out of their own environment they began to examine their assumptions about social work. I think this is essential."

Likewise, Carter Anand says, when Indian students spent two weeks in Northern Ireland they were eager to understand the role of statutory regulation and the "frameworks" social workers are required to work within. Ritu Kharayat, a 24-year-old master's graduate from Karve, found the programme was beneficial on both professional and personal levels. "The interaction with the students and teachers was very enriching," she says. "Projects like this can achieve a lot in terms of giving social work an international platform. It enables us to learn a lot from each other."

All of those involved say the process entailed a steep learning curve - and it wasn't without its challenges. Carter Anand points out that it "came as a surprise" to students that in India social work services are provided through NGOs, rather than tightly regulated statutory bodies as in the UK, and that the scale of the problems they face, for example relating to extreme poverty, can be daunting. For students and practitioners from a strong "child protection background", she adds, it can be tough to accept that interventions can be radically different. What is encouraging, however, is that while there may be different problems (or different degrees of problems in other countries), there is a lot to be learned from studying the various responses to them.

"The reality is that [in social work] you can no longer work in your own little world," Carter Arnand concludes. "I think social workers need to be comfortable with diversity and also be able to deal with uncertainty. You don't have to go as far away as India to learn these lessons either."


Fifty years of social work

The Karve Institute of Social Services is one of India's leading social work colleges and is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Named after Dhondo Keshav Karve, a social reformer in the field of women's welfare who died in 1958 aged 104, the institute offers master's degrees in social work and philosophy of social work as well as doctorates and a postgraduate diploma in NGO management. It is affiliated to the University of Pune in Maharashtra, western India.

The institute looks forward to a society "which ensures peace, harmony, dignity, justice and equal opportunities for development of individuals and communities through planned social work interventions by a committed cadre of professionals".

If you have any questions about this email, please contact the user help desk: [email protected]. Copyright (c) Guardian News and Media Limited. 2013 Registered in England and Wales No. 908396 Registered office: PO Box 68164, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1P 2AP

Period20 Mar 2013

Media coverage


Media coverage

  • TitleWorld Social Work Day: Global professional development
    PersonsJanet Anand


  • international exchange