It is not long since the Great East Japan earthquake, the tsunami, and the resulting nuclear crisis had a crippling effect on the people of Japan. Indeed, it was only four months prior to the joint IFSW, ICSSW 21st Asia Pacific Social Work Conference held in Toyko last week.
Anyone would have understood if the Japanese conference coordinating committee had cancelled. Not only were our social work colleagues coming to terms with the loss of more than 24,000 of their own people, the complete devastation of entire towns, villages and communities, and the closing of major industries, but they also had the frustration of everyday practicalities such as reduced electricity to run escalators and air conditioning, as well as the background fear of potential nuclear contamination. What an exhausting nightmare for anyone hosting an international conference.
Despite these catastrophic obstacles, the conference was a great success. Delegates reported that it was one of the best they had attended. The programme ran with apparent effortless ease and good grace. There was always room for audience participation and discussion: furthering our common understandings, and building our identity and readiness to face the future as informed social workers.
710 participants representing 25 Asian Pacific nations came together under the theme of: Crossing Borders – interdependent living and solidarity. Our hosts, four Japanese social work associations (who have a joint IFSW coordinating committee), arranged an excellent simultaneous translation service enabling meaningful dialogue.
The topic of ‘Social Work and Natural Disasters’ was timely and important for the whole region, as earthquakes, flooding, tsunamis and volcanos cause increased devastation in the ‘Ring of Fire’. The international exchange on the definition of social work was also widely discussed, as the region encompasses vastly different contexts for social work. That debate will continue and will be revisited in other regional conferences, and then globally at the world conference in Stockholm next year. Very encouragingly, all who partook in the discussions on the definition agreed that we share solid principles and values no matter where we practice social work.
The Global Action Agenda was another inspiring driver for reshaping our professional focus to meet the challenges of today and the future. This was put in context with presentations from social workers working to prevent human trafficking, and from those building networks to assist the millions of citizenless refugees whose rights are often non existent. Likewise, the agenda theme on ‘sustainable community development’ was widely discussed in workshops. All represented nations are working in the context of reduced resources, either caused by natural disaster or economic recession. The need for social workers to find ways to develop community support and systems of wellbeing that are not fully reliant on reducing government budgets is now shared by all.
The tragedies that have hit Japan, the Global Action Agenda, and sustainable systems of wellbeing, all came together as one. The social work delegates demonstrated solidarity, care, practical support and respect. The bridge between international issues and local practice was built and the theme of social workers crossing borders, focusing on interdependence and solidarity, was demonstrated.
A further highlight was the large delegation from South Korea, who informed us that their government had just passed legislation called the ‘Act on Treatment and Status Enhancement of Social Workers’. This Act protects social workers’ status and role, and sets out to improve their standing in society. You may want to send a copy of this to your government.
Amidst the stimulating working groups, another proud moment occurred for our Japanese hosts when the Japanese women’s football team won the World Cup in Germany. This, and the ability to organise this conference after the biggest earthquake and tsunami of our time, is nothing less than heroic. Congratulations are also in order for the conference delegates who attended from other nations. Each of them must have wondered about the threat of nuclear contamination and each of them made the decision to support their Japanese colleagues. Isn’t it great to be a part of IFSW!
The lessons from this conference, and insights gained from other regional conferences and the Global Agenda consolation process, will help formulate a worldwide programme of action which will be presented to the Secretary General of the UN in 2012 and will be further discussed at the world conference next July in Stockholm. See you there.
Rory G Truell