Jean-Claude works as a social worker for a small community-based orphan care program based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In this capacity, he is responsible for assessing the welfare of children and families, helping them to identify and access essential services and resources, organizing support groups for children and their parents and guardians, investigating allegations of child abuse, mediating family conflicts, and developing and implementing case plans in an effort to keep families strong and together.

Following the earthquake last year, Jean-Claude’s very full job description was further stretched to include negotiating temporary placement and locating caregivers for nearly 150 children who lost contact with their families or whose parents were killed in the earthquake’s aftermath. As a social worker, particularly a social worker in an environment devastated by natural disaster, political turmoil and disease, Jean-Claude has a critically important and almost impossible scope of work. Yet when asked what he considers to be the most difficult aspect of his job, Jean-Claude explains, “Everyone thinks they can do my job, but nobody wants to.”

Around the world, social work is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated professions. While we recognize that social concerns have a tremendous impact on health, education, economic and other development outcomes, we rarely recognize the skills and expertise of those professionals who address these concerns. Like the health sector, the social service sector struggles to attract and retain qualified workers. Vacancy rates for established professional and para-professional positions within Africa range between 50%–60%, and half those employed leave their jobs within five years (as compared to seven years for healthcare workers). These statistics indicate a global crisis within systems of care and support for vulnerable children and a serious threat to global development.

This past November, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, under the auspices of USAID, funded a global conference in South Africa to highlight this crisis and explore strategies for addressing the crisis at a country level and global level. “The Social Welfare Workforce Strengthening Conference: Investing in those who care for children” brought together teams from 18 countries to share experiences, promising practices, and develop concrete action plans.  Each team included representatives from relevant government ministries, non-governmental organizations, donor organizations, social work training institutions, and professional associations, which provided an opportunity for multi-disciplinary problem solving and team building.

The conference confirmed what most of us already suspected, the workforce faces serious challenges. Current staffing plans lack clearly defined strategy and realistic implementation mechanisms due to funding constraints; lack of accurate data, human resources, 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 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 non-formal 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, as Jean-Claude, so eloquently explained, a lack of appreciation for the difficult tasks carried out by social workers.

However, as demonstrated by conference presenters, there are also a 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 Adams College of College of Social Work in Chicago and the Addis Ababa University School of Social Work 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 both 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.

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 service and child protection 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, advocacy and coordination plans.

The conference has already inspired increased pride among social workers. As one conference participant explained “I have never before been so proud to claim my social work credentials. This is a club I want to join.”

The hope is that this community of practice will also serve as a source of support for social workers like Jean-Claude and encourage a new respect for the expertise, skill, and commitment he and his colleagues bring to the task of caring for the world’s most vulnerable children.

Want to learn more? The conference materials and resources are available on