Globalisation is the process by which all peoples and communities come to experience an increasingly common economic, social and cultural environment. By definition, the process affects everybody throughout the world.
A more integrated world community brings both benefits and problems for all; it affects the balance of economic, political and cultural power between nations, communities and individuals and it can both enhance and limit freedoms and human rights. Social workers, by the nature of their work, tend to meet those who are more likely to have suffered the damaging consequences of some aspects of globalisation.
Social workers approach globalisation from a human rights perspective as set out in the IFSW international Ethical Documents (1) for social work. Social workers recognise the benefits and disadvantages of globalisation for the most vulnerable people in the world. Our professional perspective focuses especially on how the economic and environmental consequences affect social relationships and individual opportunity.
The statement makes practical suggestions about how social workers, in partnership with local people and communities, can work to promote the positives of global interaction and minimise the harm which can be done.
The background paper explains some of the concepts linked with globalisation, sets the historical context and gives some examples of social work with the consequences of globalisation. Appendix 1 offers an agreed definition of social work, Appendix 2 notes that the term has many different definitions and can be used to refer to many different processes; some definitions of globalisation (globalization) are quoted. For one definition of globalisation, a discussion of the history of the use of the term and links to related themes, visit en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalisation.
Appendix 3 presents quotations from a United Nations document summarising the main findings from the series of UN global conferences. Appendix 4 presents quotations from an International Labour Organisation report on a social dimension to globalisation. Social workers should be encouraged that these both endorse the humanitarian values and commitment to inclusive and democratic approaches which are inherent in the IFSW Ethical Document. However our daily work illustrates how far we are removed from these high ideals in practice!
Policy statement on globalisation and the environment
Globalisation is the process by which all people and communities around the world come to experience an increasingly common economic, social and cultural environment
Recognises that globalisation is a continuing process which, whilst advancing global technological development and communications, also has a negative impact on the balance of economic, political and cultural power between individuals and communities. Social workers see and work with the causes and consequences of these processes.
Recognises that the natural and built environments have a direct impact on people’s potential to develop and achieve their potential, that the earth’s resources should be shared in a sustainable way.
Recognises that pain and disruption in social, health and education services associated with structural adjustment policies has resulted in negative consequences for social programmes and the practice of the social work profession in many parts of the world.
Endorses the recommendations on social and economic development and on the environment from recent international conferences, as summarised by the United Nations and stated below, and calls on international organisations and nation states to implement these immediately.
Considers that social development programmes, whether linked to structural adjustment or other emergency economic recovery programmes, must have the following elements:
- Education and lifelong learning programmes
- Supportive work programmes for those whose physical, mental or emotional problems or caring responsibilities prevent them from taking standard jobs
- Social protection to sustain those unable to raise income through work, with annual targets to reduce poverty
- Respect for the UN Conventions on Human Rights and the Rights of the Child and arrangements to promote the education and welfare of children.
- Consultation with local communities and civil society organisations and the active involvement of “excluded” individuals and communities in decisions which affect them.
Supports vigorous enforcement of existing environmental protection laws and standards as well as continuing renewal of necessary measurements as our knowledge base expands.
Calls on social workers and their representative bodies to make themselves aware of the positive and negative consequences of globalisation in their countries, and to support policies which uphold social justice, humanitarian principles and human rights and which increase social capital.
Calls on social workers and their representative bodies to recognise the importance of the natural and built environment to the social environment, to develop environmental responsibility and care for the environment in social work practice and management today and for future generations, to work with other professionals to increase our knowledge and with community groups to develop advocacy skills and strategies to work towards a healthier environment and to ensure that environmental issues gain increased presence in social work education.
Will conduct our own business to ensure that our concept of human rights includes the natural and built environment, with special focus on the needs of ethnic minority and indigenous people.
Globalisation and the Environment Background Paper
Human existence, rights and development in a global environment
People live and develop their potential in social groups. Throughout recent history, the ethnic group and nation state have been defining characteristics of human society. Throughout the late 20th century and into the 21st century, people have increasingly found themselves in a globalised world, with economic, social and cultural influences coming from many different sources. This process has challenged human and social rights and affected individual and social development. The nation state and ideas of ethnicity and social cohesion have been challenged by these influences. This process has become known as globalisation.
People cannot realise their individual potential and human rights in isolation; they need supportive circumstances to give expression to most of their rights and to realise their human potential. At its most direct, these circumstances need to recognise
- the importance of peace and the avoidance of violent conflict,
- the existence of an equitable social order, and
- confidence in a sustainable natural environment which supports life
This is implicit in many international statements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Other international conferences and statements of special relevance to this policy include:
- World Summit for Children – 1990
- Conference on Environment and Development – Rio de Janeiro 1992
- Convention on Climate Change – Rio de Janeiro 1992
- Conference on Human Settlements – Habitat agenda and Agenda 21 – Istanbul 1992
- World Conference on Human Rights – Vienna 1993
- International Conference on Population and Development – Cairo 1994
- Declaration on Social Development – Copenhagen 1995, Geneva 2000
- Protocol on Climate Change – Kyoto 1997
- The World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance – Durban 2001
- World Summit on Sustainable Development – Johannesburg 2002
This is a universal truth witnessed by social workers in cities, towns and rural communities every day and therefore a fundamental element of social work ethical codes. Poverty, social isolation/exclusion, environmental degradation and violent conflict undermine the opportunity to make the most of human rights and are an affront to human dignity. They limit the life chances of those in poverty and inhibit their opportunity for personal fulfilment.
Yet, despite the fine words of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being) and the policy commitments from several World Summits [see above], the gap between rich and poor people continues to grow all around the world. The gap between the richest and poorest countries continues to widen, both economic and social exclusion are increasing, environmental problems worsen and violent conflict continues. ‘One billion, two hundred million of the world’s six billion – a fifth of the world’s population – still cannot fulfil their basic needs for food, water, sanitation, health care, housing or education and must try to subsist on less than US$1 a day and half the world – nearly three billion people – live on less than two dollars a day. In more than 30 of the poorest national economies (most of them in sub-Saharan Africa), real per capita incomes have been declining since the early 1980s. According to the United Nations, one child in seven in Africa dies before their 5th birthday and about 1.1 billion worldwide lack adequate drinking water’ (2) . This was recognised in the report of the ILO World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization (3) [See appendix 4].
Social workers see the effects of this reality in both the global South and the global North, among indigenous and minority populations, women, children, refugees, immigrants, displaced persons, rural workers without land, urban workers, older persons and too many others. This process of globalisation which it was claimed would bring the world together is in practice creating tension and division. These realities have provoked world-wide concern, protest and violence, much of which is directed at international bodies, such as the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund, and also at the G8 group of leading economic nations and at national governments.
Social workers have a duty to bring these realities to the attention of international bodies, governments and the wider world population and to contribute to the global debate about new solutions. IFSW does not claim to offer unique solutions but is committed to working in partnerships which aim to promote human rights and the social and environmental well-being of individuals and communities.
IFSW believes that a stable world order must be built on mutual recognition of human rights, a more equitable economic order, the enforcement of world treaties on a sustainable environment and a more determined search for non-violent solutions to national and international conflicts. IFSW welcomes evidence that these principles are becoming more widely recognised by national and international bodies. The World Bank has initiated discussions about a number of developmental issues significantly increasing development assistance whilst there is at least more open dialogue with the International Monetary Fund.
The last twenty years has demonstrated as never before the inter-dependence of life on the globe. The whole global environment is affected by changes in weather and land use which in turn have direct implications for individuals and communities. Economic developments in one continent can have almost simultaneous consequences in another. Conflicts in one area can provoke actions and reactions on the other side of the world which can be watched simultaneously on television or the internet by the whole world.
The natural environment
People share a common need for and a right to a fair share of the Earth’s resources, including a clean, safe and healthy environment. These basic requirements are under threat from climate change and environmental degradation. These challenges are widely recognised as presenting the greatest priority for global co-operation. The degradation of the global environment has observable social and economic consequences and therefore has an impact on the ability of people and communities to achieve their potential as human beings and to give expression to their human rights.
The IFSW-IASSW Definition of Social Work (Appendix 1) states: “social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments”. There is also a clear link to the Ethics of Social Work, in terms of our obligation to challenge unjust policies and practices and to seek solutions based on solidarity. Yet in recent years, social work has been mainly pre-occupied with people’s social environment and not so much with the natural environment (4). This was not the case in the 19th and early 20th century when the early social workers campaigned with others around the world for improvements in public health and the built environment [housing and public spaces]. Our communities have been rediscovering that a positive social environment is not possible without a sustainable natural environment. It is generally accepted that our natural environment not only influences but also is crucial for our social lives now and in the future.
The world’s resources are limited and threatened by pollution and consumption patterns all over the world. Pollution does not respect national boundaries, but is rapidly spreading its effects from one country or region to another. The critical condition of the physical environment demands a more holistic approach (5). The rapid global changes in the environment are complex and of a magnitude that significantly affect the planet and how its functions. The degradation of the natural environment calls for effective multilateral cooperation and policy measures which humanity needs to work on together.
We are all exposed to environmental degradation, but some more than others. There is evidence that poor neighbourhoods, communities and countries are more affected than others (6) . Lack of political and social power and limited access to economic alternatives increase the exposure of people to the dangers of environmental degradation. Children are more exposed than others because toxins concentrate more rapidly in smaller bodies; child workers are especially exposed. Large groups of the population in more fortunate circumstances are affected by Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) due to exposure to chemicals found in personal care products, building material, processed food, pharmaceuticals and plastics.
The very future existence of some communities and nations is affected by anticipated changes in sea levels, itself a product of increasing industrialisation brought about by globalisation.
The economic environment
From 1945 until the 1970s, conventional economic wisdom saw the improvement of living conditions for all as an economic, social, and moral imperative, built upon the lessons of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and ‘Keynesian’ economic theories. Improvement in living and economic conditions was considered fundamental to the promotion and maintenance of social stability, order, peace and prosperity. The construction of social welfare protection was an important component of building social harmony and integration. Programmes of public works and public investment were considered to be important ways to tackle the problems of unemployment. The idealism exemplified in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was seen as an attainable objective for the world.
For the past 20 years, conventional economic wisdom has been pursuing a very different policy agenda, reflecting a number of influences:
- there has been a real and rapid expansion of world trade, popularly referred to as the globalisation of trade, made possible by advances in transportation, technology and electronic information transfer;
- the collapse of the former communist political systems has resulted in the need to rethink political and economic relationships;
- there has also been a different approach to economic theory, under the influence of ‘neo-liberalism’.
Structural adjustment programmes
The neo-liberal theorists argued that the old social and economic consensus undermined economic energy for a number of reasons. They argued that the involvement of national governments in economic management undermined human rights by restricting individual freedoms, by increasing the potential for state and private corruption, by supporting the minority of producers at the expense of the majority of consumers and by undermining individual initiative and responsibility. They therefore emphasised the need to encourage personal initiative and responsibility and proposed that governments should significantly reduce their involvement in economic activity and regulation of markets. These neo-liberal policies, often called structural adjustment policies, have dominated international economic policy and have had a real impact in on millions of people in the countries where they have been applied.
Whilst this period has seen significant improvements in living conditions and opportunities for many, there have also been seriously damaging consequences which have primarily affected the poorest people. In practical terms, ‘structural adjustment policies have resulted in reduced public expenditure and state intervention in industry, cuts in taxation, which have tended to give most benefit to the richest groups, and cuts in social security protection, and limited the regulatory powers of states to protect individuals and communities. Deregulation, privatisation, and reductions in social welfare programmes have been implemented in most countries and have often been conditions laid down by the World Bank and others for economic assistance and loans to poorer countries in economic crisis.
Such ‘structural adjustments’ have had negative effects in many industrialised countries: an increase in the gap between rich and poor, lower per capita income for most, an increase in the number of women and children in poverty, an increase in the flows of refugees and asylum seekers and outbursts of public discord. There is also evidence of increased support for racist and nationalist political parties and a growth of intolerance. In less developed nations, these economic and social requirements, following after the impact of the economic consequences of the oil crisis in the early 1970s, were accompanied by rapid inflation and an escalation of the debt burden. In terms of social well-being, they have increased the level of unemployment, thrown households into poverty, reduced the fabric of social protection offered by the state, such as education and health services, exacerbated the problems of extreme poverty and driven more people into migration.
The policy usually recommended by international economic organisations seeking to promote economic development and to support nations in economic crisis has been ‘structural adjustment’ [see above]. The characteristics of these neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes include:
- Liberalisation of trade in order to stimulate investment, meaning the abandonment of restrictive tariff structures on imported goods and the opening up of domestic markets to international competition
- Reductions in taxes and public expenditure, usually involving cuts in health, education, and social security programmes
- Devaluation of the currency
- Tight fiscal [public finances] policy, including increased interest rates to dampen demand
- Privatisation of state enterprises, often involving the sale into private ownership of natural resources and essential utilities such as water
The consequences of these measures have been mixed. In some countries, for example Chile and Mozambique, they have brought about sustained economic growth but have resulted in a dramatic widening of inequalities in society. In others, such as Zimbabwe and Kenya, the policies achieved little but a worsening of the plight of the poorest in society, aggravated at times by corrupt, insensitive and occasionally brutal political regimes. The social costs are invariably high in terms of increased unemployment as a result of the combination of reduced tariff barriers and higher interest rates, reduced purchasing power through devaluation and wage restraint, reduced access to health and education programmes and reductions in social security.
In addition to structural adjustment programmes in South America, Africa, and Asia, the process of transition from the command economies in Eastern Europe to market economies has imposed similar high social costs on citizens. In most cases, there has been a rapid rise in unemployment with the disappearance of traditional forms of employment. In Western Europe and North America, in addition to an increase in the poverty rate, globalisation has resulted in a reduction of average wages, reduced access to health and education through privatisation of payment options, major changes in retirement pension arrangements and unemployment.
Neo-liberalism in its pure form rejects any concept of social responsibility and views any restraint on these global forces as a hindrance to economic vigour and a restriction of human rights. Neo-liberal structural changes, in particular the free movement of finance and capital, have enabled major trans-national businesses to move their activities around the world to the place where they see the best economic benefit for themselves. For example, they can move production to parts of the world where labour costs are lower, with no regard for the workers discarded in the pursuit of profit. In practical terms, this has enhanced the interests of shareholders [those who benefit from profits] and reduced the significance of stakeholders [other people who are affected by the activities of the companies, such as workers and local communities].
International business has become aware of the potentially damaging impact of these developments, not least because companies have seen how shareholder value and economic viability can be undermined by bad publicity about unethical or unacceptable business practices. Many firms have published policies on ethical business practice, most major international businesses have ethical officers and many have ethical statements. However this has not prevented some major corruption scandals, such as the collapse of the US oil firm Enron and a successful legal challenge to Arthur Anderson, the international firm of auditors, among other examples. Nor does it stop the ‘hidden hand of the market’.
These global movements and economic policies also affect the natural environment as has been described in the section on the physical environment above.
Structural impoverishment, environmental degradation, pauperisation, and social and economic exclusion are contrary to basic, universal human rights and social work values, are economically unsound, and ignore the interdependence between the various sectors of society nationally and internationally. Social work cannot avoid confronting these realities and searching for solutions.
The war and peace environment
Some have argued that one reaction to the process of globalisation has been an escalation of tension and in particular the development of conflicts between religious and ethnic groups. These tensions have always been present but the speed of communication and travel brings the issues closer to more people and enables conflicts to be escalated around the world. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there have been constant local and regional wars. The attacks and significant loss of life in the United States in September 2001 (7), the response of governments and international bodies to those attacks and the launch of the ‘war against terrorism’, alongside the increase in religious and ethnic tensions world-wide, have highlighted questions of peaceful co-existence and the nature of global conflicts. IFSW addressed these matters in general terms in its Policy Statement on Peace and Social Justice approved in 2000 (8).
Examples of positive social work responses to globalisation
The following six examples of social work practice illustrate how social workers in different situations can support people to challenge the negative consequences of globalisation and realise more of their own potential.
1. In Latin America, a group of street children, one of the most marginalised inner-city groups, have lived together for several months. They survive by stealing from hotel kitchens, begging from passers-by, and stealing from cars. A social worker from the local Refuge befriends them and gradually wins their confidence, first by gifts of paper and crayons and helping them to draw and write and later by inviting them for occasional meals at the Refuge. The children grow in familiarity and stay overnight when it is very cold. With the help of volunteer teachers, an informal education programme is developed covering the basics of literacy and numeracy. Some of the children begin to lift their dreams and expectations beyond a lifetime of street life.
2. In India, a micro-credit programme was developed by social workers for poor, disadvantaged women working as weavers, dressmakers and small retailers. The co-operative lent money without security to its members at an interest rate similar to banks (who would not lend to these groups anyway). The repayments were monthly, and the surplus was then recycled into a larger lending pool. The co-operative approved (or rejected) loan applications from its members, thus taking collective responsibility for decisions and shared interest in business success.
3. In the Balkan conflict, a village was displaced by ‘ethnic cleansing’. All except the very elderly and weak fled to the neighbouring country where their language and religion was accepted. Instead of splitting up the community because of pressure for space in the refugee camp, a resettlement worker takes an audit of skills and talents. Many of the villagers had worked on textiles, weaving fine cloth. With a small grant, and begging and borrowing second-hand equipment, the worker is able to encourage the villagers to rebuild their skills. In addition to regaining confidence and self-respect, the villagers generate some income which they agree to plough back into improving the quality of materials and equipment.
4. In Nigeria, the Back to Land programme encouraged training in agriculture for young people whose families had migrated from the country to urban areas. It linked with a small scale credit programme to encourage the development of new rural enterprises. The emphasis has been on the development of co-operatives with skills in running small business. Social workers have worked closely with these initiatives to help build the skills and earning potential of the cooperatives’ members.
5. In the Philippines, a social worker is hired to develop a rehabilitation programme for ex-prisoners, most of whom had been detained for protesting exploitation of their villages or their people under various globalisation contracts. She set up a direct service programme, broadened linkages with other service-related institutions, and soon began lobbying nationally and internationally on behalf of not only the rights of the ex-prisoners, but on behalf of all of the human rights for which they struggled.
6. In the United Kingdom, in common with some other developed countries, one consequence of more open global travel has been an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. This has created a new area of work for social workers. These young people have a right to local council care whilst their needs are assessed and for as long as they need support. In some areas, the proportion of young people in care who are asylum seekers is now more than 25%. Some social workers have needed to develop new skills in assessing and supporting these young people, helping them to get into school and making contact with communities in the UK from their country or origin. This is in the context of an increasingly diverse ethnic and cultural society in general, which has also required social workers to extend their understanding of different cultures and their skills in assessment and support.
In order for social workers to counter the negative effects of globalisation and also to assist people to benefit from the positive opportunities which may arise, it is necessary to consider initiatives at various levels. The following sections of this paper suggest action which can be taken at international, national, regional, and local levels to implement a human rights and social development approach to dealing with the positive and negative consequences of globalisation.
The 1995 and 2000 World Summits on Social Development identified a number of commitments for all member governments. Particularly relevant for social workers are:
‘ensure that national budgets and policies are oriented as necessary to meeting basic needs, reducing inequalities and targeting poverty as a strategic objective’,
‘ensure that when structural adjustment programmes are agreed to, they include social development goals, in particular eradicating poverty, promoting full and productive employment, and enhancing social integration’.
Translating that rhetoric into reality is a difficult task. Social workers see little evidence of these grand commitments being applied in practice. The rhetoric seems to make little difference to the people affected.
International organisations, including the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies, need to make a continuing commitment to implement the objectives of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the World Summit on Social Development, the Kyoto Protocol and related international statements. This should be based on an understanding that the full implementation of human rights is not possible unless social issues are addressed. The over-riding objective to nurture a sustainable environment, the right to work, the right to housing, food, clothing and medical care, the right to education, civil and political rights, and the right to the protection of the law are all under threat for those in poverty. These social rights need to be affirmed at the international level.
The World Bank and international financial institutions need to have the protection of the environment, the reduction of poverty and the improvement of the living conditions of the poorest as their overriding strategic priority. This is not found in every action. For example, international financial institutions have made heavy investments in companies responsible for environmental destruction and the internal displacement of thousands of people in Nigeria, Columbia, and Indonesia.
International and national bodies need to recognise the overwhelming case for the relief of the debts of the most indebted countries, one consequence of which is that every child born in the most indebted countries is born into debt.
The report of the IFSW Europe project on social exclusion (9) (1997) argued for a treaty on social rights in Europe which should include the right to family life and relationships of choice, the right to be integrated or not according to personal choice, the right to housing, the rights to education, the right to health care, the right of children and young people to be treated as citizens and for their wishes to be heard and taken into account. It argued for an implementation plan to secure these rights and the commitments of the World Summit on Social Development. This approach could usefully be adopted by other international bodies. Words need to be backed up by policy commitments and action plans against which implementation can be measured.