Emeritus Professor Jim Ife
Centre for Human Rights Education
Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia
Inaugural Hokenstad International Social Work Lecture
Council for Social Work Education
San Francisco, October 2007
It is indeed a very great honour and privilege to have been invited to deliver the inaugural Hokenstad Lecture on International Social Work. Terry Hokenstad is a legend in social work education, and especially in international social work, where he has played such a pioneering role. CSWE is to be congratulated for honouring Terry Hokenstad in this way, but it has an even greater significance. With the establishment of this lecture series, international social work might truly be said to have come of age; no longer merely a marginal area of interest to a relatively small number of educators and practitioners, it has moved to centre stage, with a keynote slot in CSWE Program Meetings. In this globalised and interconnected world, social work cannot help but be international, if it is to continue to address the issues of social injustice, inequality, oppression, exclusion, poverty and human rights abuse, and the establishment of this lecture series, alongside the establishment of the Katherine Kendall Institute and other initiatives of CSWE, is a clear acknowledgement that isolationism is no longer an option.
Social work is moving to embrace internationalism at a time when the nature of ‘the global’ and the emphasis of international discourses are changing, and it is important for social work to engage with the new international discourses, while at the same time maintaining its unswerving commitment to the old and now somewhat unfashionable idea of social justice, and this is what I want to explore today. I will do so from the position of a privileged, western, white, English-speaking male, with all the consequent baggage, but also with a strong sense of unease and uncertainty about just how much people like me can still contribute to the world; we have made such a mess of it that we are going to have to learn a lot of humility, and then to change radically, if we are to stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.
Social workers have played important roles in addressing a number of the major global issues that have dominated the internationalist agenda in the twentieth century, such as poverty and inequality, peace, human rights, race, HIV/AIDS and refugees, as well as more specific professional areas such as inter-country adoption. However in most of these, social workers have not been high-profile, and have been seen by others as marginal, when compared with lawyers, economists, development theorists and international relations experts. There is nothing new in that – it is social work’s lot to be always struggling for recognition, and that is only to be expected; after all, social work represents the views of the vulnerable, of the marginalised, of those whose voices are not readily heard, and so social work will always be unfashionable and will threaten the agendas of the powerful. We should be proud that the powerful find us awkward and unsettling, and I hope they always will.
In the 21st century, however, while those older issues remain critical, new agendas have emerged, which now dominate the headlines and the attention of governments. The most significant of these are, of course, terrorism and global warming. At first sight these may not seem to be of particular concern for social work, but I want to suggest that both terrorism and global warming raise critical issues that should be of great concern to social workers, and that demand a strong social work response in the international arena, while at the same time maintaining our primary commitment to social justice. If we ignore them, we will lose our relevance.
Terrorism had existed well before 9/11, of course. There have been many instances of small groups holding large populations in terror, with the threat of unexpected violence and indiscriminate killing, since ancient times. Historically, terrorism, including state terrorism, is not unusual, and living with the threat of terrorism is the norm rather than the exception. It is small wonder that many people in non-western countries, on hearing about what happened in this country on that tragic day in September 2001, simply shrugged their shoulders and said “welcome to our world”. In this sense, the terrorism of 9/11 has perhaps ironically done us a service; it has forced those of us who live in the privileged west to acknowledge to some degree the precarious and insecure life that is the norm for most people in the world, and it has significantly eroded our smug isolationism, and our sense that really nasty things only happen to other people in other places. Hence there is a new imperative to engage with the rest of the world, and there is a potential that this could serve to help drive a new internationalism.
Unfortunately, this potential has not been realised, and the responses to terrorism have, almost without exception, served to exacerbate the issues which led to the problem. Powerful nations of the west have chosen to flex their muscles and reassert their power and dominance, rather than to stop and reflect and examine their own responsibility in shaping a world where there is such inequality and such injustice that some people feel they have no alternative but to resort to the methods of terrorism. We have seen many more deaths as a result of the reaction to 9/11 than there were on that tragic day itself, and the death count keeps climbing. On top of this, the significant erosion of human rights and civil liberties through various forms of ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, in your country, in mine, and in other countries in the west, has left all of us less protected and more vulnerable to arbitrary state action, and even among a group as privileged as those of us in this room, there are, I know, people who have felt this threat at first hand. Furthermore the exacerbation of racial, cultural and religious intolerance, bigotry and discrimination, whipped up by frenzied and hysterical conservative media, and allowed to fester by governments which either actively or passively condone such obscenity, has resulted in suspicious and divided communities, and in many people feeling deeply persecuted, devalued and in some cases directly terrorised by the threat of arbitrary violence, aimed simply at a population group rather than at any individual. That is what we are supposed to be fighting against, according to our political leaders, but we are actually doing quite a good job of encouraging it. The response to terrorism has, tragically, been largely tribal and exclusive rather than multi-cultural and inclusive.
So what does this mean for social work, and for social workers? I believe social work has responses to make, at different levels. One of these, which in the current climate is particularly courageous, is to apply a classical social work systemic analysis to terrorism, refusing simply to pathologise the individual, though of course strongly and unreservedly condemning their violent actions, but seeking to understand those actions in a wider context, just as a social worker would do with any offender. That context is historical, political and cultural, and the actions of terrorists must be understood this way. It is important that we seek to articulate this analysis in a wider arena, even though, in countries like yours and mine, there are powerful conservative forces which seek to stifle such an analysis from the public domain. However, that analysis is certainly being undertaken elsewhere in the world, and we need to understand and validate it if we are to engage internationally. One cannot understand contemporary terrorism without understanding the historical background, and the sad fact is that in most western countries, including yours and mine, there is a profound ignorance of the history that had led to where we find ourselves today. For example it is important to remember the historical legacy of religious tolerance taught and practised by the Muslim religion, often in sharp contrast to the violent and oppressive history of Christianity. It is also important to point out that the Middle East in its present form, with its current borders, is largely a creation of the western powers in the early 20th century, designed for their interests and their enrichment, rather than in the interests of the people who live there. From this perspective, those of us who live comfortable lives in the predominantly Christian west are centrally implicated in the crisis in the Middle East, and in the advent of global terrorism. Terrorism is, in large measure, a response to the world we have created and before thinking about solutions we have to realise we are part of the problem.
Such historical and systemic analysis is a necessary precursor to dialogue and understanding, but dialogue and understanding are sadly lacking in much of the public response to terrorism. Social workers can play their part in facilitating such dialogue, especially those working at community level, but also those working with families, with colleagues in our work places, in professional forums, and, most importantly for this group today, in social work education.
It is also imperative on social workers to take a strong stand on the fundamental importance of human rights, and against the weakening of human rights which is both implicit and explicit in anti-terrorism legislation, and in the actions of security forces. Social work, as a human rights based profession, cannot stand by and accept this erosion of the rights of our fellow citizens, whether Muslim or not. We really have more to fear from the responses to terrorism than we do from terrorism itself. Those responses threaten the social justice and human rights values of social work, and our stance must be to assert that any response to terrorism must accept those social justice and human rights imperatives.
I will return to some of these ideas a little later, but first I want to turn to the other global issue of the moment, namely global warming.
The environmental crisis facing the world has a number of strands. While global warming is the most prominent environmental issue of the moment, we also need to remember peak oil, over-fishing of the oceans to a now dangerous level, desertification, topsoil erosion, the build-up of toxic chemicals in the food chain, crises of water security, the dangers caused by nuclear waste, and so on. Today I only have time to discuss global warming, but we need to remember that this is only one of several ways in which our profligate disregard for the planet we live on is coming back to bite us.
Global warming represents a far more serious and long-lasting threat to the world, and to the lives of all of us, than terrorism, and we can only wish that governments would spend as much time, effort and resources on countering the impacts of global warming as they do on fighting the so-called ‘war on terror’. Global warming has at last arrived on the mainstream global agenda, and the tragedy is that it is about 15 years too late. Gone is the time when we could respond adequately to the threat of global warming without it having a major impact on economies and lifestyles. It is now inevitable that global warming will impact economies and lifestyles, and the critical question becomes whose economies and whose lifestyles. Tragically, though unsurprisingly, national governments are reacting to the threat of global warming by placing national interests first, trying to ensure that it is someone else who has to suffer, and this means that, inevitably, the economies and lifestyles that suffer most will be the economies and lifestyles of the world’s poor and disadvantaged.
The threat to disadvantaged people, communities, populations and nations is twofold. First, there is the threat from the impact of global warming itself, in that most of the world’s poor live in areas that are thought to be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. There are likely to be many millions of climate refugees, forced to seek refuge because their homelands are no longer habitable. This will be as a direct consequence of the ecologically disastrous activities of people in the developed west, and yet it is hardly likely that the consequent moral obligation to provide assistance will be taken seriously by advantaged wealthy nations. We only need to look at the pathetically inadequate response to the present refugee crisis, where millions are homeless as a direct or indirect result of the wars and the global economic and cultural imperialism from which the wealthy minority (namely us) has benefited. Given that shameful record, surely the chances of the wealthy west looking kindly on even larger numbers of future environmental refugees are minimal. In addition, the poor are not going to be able to afford the extra costs of living in a world of rapidly changing ecologies, and the rush of the rich to look after themselves will leave few resources for the disadvantaged. This is likely to happen within nations as well as between nations, and Hurricane Katrina is a sobering example of the poor, in the world’s richest country, not only being vulnerable to the ravages of severe weather, but also the least likely to receive adequate and appropriate help in its aftermath.
The second threat to the disadvantaged is that they will suffer not just from global warming, but from the policies and practices that the rich nations implement, and impose on the rest of the world, in response to global warming. Economic development, the most effective route out of poverty, may well be stalled in the world’s poorest nations (heaven forbid that we should stall growth in rich nations – that would be sacrilege), if the rich impose stringent emission limits on others including those who cannot afford the new technologies of clean energy sources. It is now clear that the planet cannot survive the rest of the world living the lifestyles of the developed west, and there are two possible outcomes: either the west itself may choose to limit its massive over-consumption and lead the way in truly sustainable and simpler living (but this is highly unlikely), or the less developed nations must be prevented from enjoying the fruits of economic development (and this is both highly inequitable and highly dangerous, from the viewpoint of global security).
The enthusiasm for biofuels, in both Europe and North America, is one example of the climate change solutions that apparently suit the developed world while doing great harm to the less advantaged. Massive conversion of rainforest and other natural vegetation, or small landholdings, to palm oil plantations is already being implemented by global agribusiness throughout much of the developing world, denying local people their traditional living, creating many more landless people who go to already overcrowded cities seeking work and finding a life of poverty, and causing a food shortage where oil palms are replacing crops. An apparent ‘solution’ to CO2 emissions that seems so obvious and sensible in the west is beginning to cause great hardship elsewhere.
As another example, in my own country there is a loud and continuous call, by environmentalists and political progressives, for Australia to invest heavily in renewable energy research and development, on the grounds that Australia stands to benefit economically from such investment. Is that really why we should do it, for our own profit? If Australia is to benefit, one needs to ask “at whose expense?”, and the answer is not hard to find.
In both examples, the environmental crisis is being redefined as an economic opportunity, as another way in which the developed advanced economies, and particularly the wealthy elites within them, can make a profit at the expense of the rest of the world. And the same can be said of the green consumer movement, encouraging us all to consume new green products, instead of suggesting that perhaps we should just consume less. The status quo, of the rich profiting at the expense of the poor, and of profligate consumerism, has not changed with the changing temperature.
It is also important to look at the national as well as the international level, when considering how the poor will be further disadvantaged by responses to climate change. It is inevitable that the price of energy, and the price of gasoline, will rise significantly in real terms, in response to market pressure and government policy, and this will have the greatest impact on those least able to afford to pay the increased bills. Whether governments will choose to couple these changes with increases in social security to compensate those most at risk, will depend largely on the political lobbying power of people like us.
Indeed, we can see a depressing familiarity with the way in which governments are now dealing with climate change. They are dealing with it in the way they have become accustomed to dealing with other issues, such as poverty, unemployment, crime, racism, and others with which social workers are all too familiar. Sadly, indeed tragically, they are unlikely to be any more successful. Like these other problems, climate change challenges vested interests and power relations. Politicians know instinctively that they must deal with such difficult issues by crafting policies that look as if they are doing a lot, but that actually do little to challenge or upset existing power interests and political sensitivities. They are so skilled at doing this, that they are responding to climate change in the ways they know best: lots of political spin, repackaging of existing policies to make it look as if they are doing something new, ten year plans (by which time it will be someone else’s problem) deliberate massaging of the statistics wherever possible, and, as a substitute for action, a bewildering array of commissions, task forces, working parties, official inquiries, commissioned studies, panels of experts, and so on, exploiting any differences between them as a further excuse for putting off significant action. There is a clear parallel with, for example, poverty. Just as the solution to global warming – dramatically reducing greenhouse gases – is obvious, similarly the solution to poverty is obvious: significant redistribution of income and wealth to bring about a more equal society, both nationally and globally. But this threatens powerful interests, who happen to own media, and it threatens the perceived comfortable lifestyles of the more privileged. So for centuries we have been trying to ‘do something effective about poverty’ without doing the one thing that would unquestionably solve the problem. We have instituted lots of programmes and policies, and had countless inquiries and task forces, but the poor remain poor. Climate change is similar. The levels of greenhouse gas reductions required to avert a potentially catastrophic rise in temperature are such that we will be unable to achieve them without change to the lifestyles, power and wealth of the privileged. So we already see politicians doing what they do best; pretending to do something while making sure they do as little as possible. We will all suffer as a consequence.
Let me cite just one example, among many. One of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions is the jet aircraft, and there seems to be little that can be done to make jet planes cleaner in this regard. Yet the emissions from international flights are not counted within a nation’s carbon emission targets – they are international, so a system of national accounting conveniently leaves them out. At the same time as major cuts in greenhouse gases are being talked about as imperative, there is a massive projected increase in international air traffic, especially to Asia. Airlines are busy investing in new aircraft for the expanding market, and governments are aiding and abetting all this by building new airports and expanding old ones to handle the extra demand. Australia’s busiest airport, Sydney, is expected to double its passenger numbers by 2024, and this trend is replicated in airports around the world. None of us wants our current freedom to take low-cost flights to anywhere in the world to be taken away from us, and the growing incomes in Asia mean that many millions more will want those low-cost flights, resulting in major opportunities for investment and profit – and global warming. While paying lip service to the need to control emissions, governments are actively pursuing policies that will worsen emissions, and are able to use a loophole to prevent being held to account by Kyoto or any other treaty. A recent attempt to close that loophole in international agreements was strongly opposed, and was unsuccessful. And nowhere do we hear of anyone questioning the ecological obscenity of ownership and use of private and corporate jets. In this light, we are justified in asking if anyone is really serious about climate change. The answer seems to be ‘only if it is someone else who has to change their life, not me’.
There are clear signs that governmental responses to global warming, though they are now starting to happen, are too little too late. Those few places, like California, where something serious is being done, stand in contrast to nearly all the rest of the world where prevarication is the norm. But we need global action, not just California action. There seems little chance that the rise in global temperature can be limited to 2 degrees Celsius, which is the level that scientists suggest is a threshold for major and probably irreversible ecological change. Global warming, at a level that will affect economies and lifestyles, is inevitable. Like poverty, we cannot prevent it, we may be able to alleviate the worst effects of it, but we will have to learn to live with it and its consequences.
This will have significant impacts for social work, and especially for international social work. There is every likelihood that the policy response to climate change will be to ensure that the economies and lifestyles of the well-off are affected as little as possible, that profits will continue to be placed before people, and that the poor will be left to fend for themselves. As social workers, we cannot stand idly by and watch this happen. Climate change will increasingly affect attempts by social workers to work internationally, as it will become another generator of social and economic inequality and injustice, and climate refugees will become a major social work concern. Social workers need to understand how it affects the populations they work with in different parts of the world, and should be engaged in the debate about climate change, arguing forcefully for the importance of social justice and human rights being at the forefront of policies designed to cope with and ameliorate global warming. We need to be looking at global warming not as a scientific problem, but as a social problem. It is directly caused by the social, economic and political system, and it cannot be adequately addressed unless that social, economic and political system is also addressed. In that way it is no different from other social problems, about which we as social workers justifiably claim expertise. Leaving global warming to the scientists is the equivalent of leaving poverty to the economists, mental illness to the psychiatrists, and crime to the police. These are social problems, requiring social solutions, of the kind that we are well-equipped to articulate. And, like other social problems, expecting the god of the market and the captains of industry to solve the problems of global warming is, I would suggest, a folly. Our reliance on the market and the private sector is part of the problem. To make it part of the solution will require a lot more than well-intentioned platitudes. Global warming forces us to ask fundamental questions about our lifestyle, our consumption, our assumptions about what constitutes the good life, our relationships with and responsibilities for each other, the viability of our local communities, and what we can demand as a matter of ‘right’. These are all areas where social workers have expertise, and it is surely our responsibility to contribute that expertise; after all, the stakes could hardly be higher, with the future of the planet very much in the balance.
As I indicated previously, climate change is but one of several environmental imperatives facing the world at this time. These combine to reinforce the lesson that we simply cannot go on living as we have been, and that technological fixes alone will not be sufficient. We will need significant change to the economic, social and political order if human civilization is to survive in some form. The reluctance of both government and corporate leaders to admit this means that we will experience significant global crises before a new order emerges. Social work will have a major role to play in dealing with those crises, not only in helping the victims, but also by applying crisis theory to the global society, recognising that times of crisis are times of opportunity, and seeking creative, socially just alternatives. What the new order will look like we can only guess, but the one thing of which we can be absolutely certain is that it will not be a simple continuation of the present.
A significant danger of these new global agendas, terrorism and global warming, is that they will marginalise the ‘older’ global agendas of human rights and social justice. In the rush to address, or to be seen to address, these new imperatives, global poverty, human rights, HIV/AIDS and other such concerns risk being seen as ‘yesterday’s issues’. One only need look at the G8 conference agendas, to see how quickly the 2006 priority of African poverty, with all its pledges and promises, was replaced by global warming in 2007, with Africa almost forgotten. Social work’s commitment to the values of social justice and human rights require that we do everything we can to ensure that the solutions implemented to address the new global problems do not also exacerbate the old ones. Social workers must insist that terrorism and global warming be addressed in ways that respect and promote, rather than erode and undermine, human rights and social justice.
A third global trend: the loss of legitimacy of the west
To these two trends of terrorism and global warming must now be added a third, one which is not constantly in the headlines, but which is receiving increasing attention from scholars and commentators, namely the loss of western legitimacy. Those of us in the west need to accept the uncomfortable reality that for ever-increasing numbers of people in the world, the west has lost its legitimacy, and the western project of Enlightenment modernity has been exposed as morally bankrupt. Western government aid programs are firstly for the benefit of the donor countries, not the recipients, and this is now openly admitted by governments like yours and mine. Global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF are blatantly pursuing the interests of western governments, and impose structural adjustment on poor nations with devastating consequences. The inability of the current global regime to prevent massive poverty, easily preventable child deaths, and the AIDS pandemic, despite obscene levels of wealth and over-consumption in sections of the developed world, is an indictment on the project of western modernity. While Buddhist monks, armed only with moral authority, bravely challenge the generals in Burma, the mighty west, devoid of moral authority, looks on, impotent; it is a telling symbol of our times. The undermining of democratically elected governments if they dare to challenge western interests has a long and shameful history, and has turned many people against the west. Increasing numbers can see through the sham, and for many the war on terror was the last straw. Francis Fukuyama’s prediction that western liberal democracy was the ideal towards which the whole world would aspire and converge, creating the end of history, has been shot to pieces, as it becomes clear that many people are turning away from the western dream. Globalisation, while it has favoured some, has exploited many others. The west now stands exposed as morally bankrupt and hypocritical, and those of us in the west who articulate an internationalist vision, including social workers, are faced with the challenge that for increasing numbers of people our motives will be automatically suspect, we will be mistrusted, and will be assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. We need to revisit the postcolonial critique, not as simply an interesting intellectual exercise, but as a challenge to how we interact with the rest of the world. Although I know this is familiar material for most people here, I will briefly summarise the post-colonial critique, because of its absolute centrality to international social work today.
In the contemporary world, colonialism is alive and well, and any notion that we live in a postcolonial era is surely mistaken. However the postcolonial critics are not suggesting that, any more than the postmodernists are suggesting that modernity no longer holds sway. Rather, like postmodernism, postcolonialism represents the expression of voices that call into question the dominant discourse. These are the voices of the colonised, voices that have largely been silenced in shaping the modern world. Postcolonial voices argue that the dominant colonial discourse, the discourse of the west, shapes the way the world is constructed, shapes the very ideas that hold sway, shapes the accepted wisdom in all fields, shapes ideas of what count as reasonable, appropriate, responsible, logical, realistic, progressive, innovative, creative, exciting, and, in this era of evidence based everything, it shapes what counts as ‘evidence’. This dominant colonial discourse acts repeatedly and systematically to reinforce the power of the colonial culture and to devalue and marginalise the traditions of other cultures. From this perspective, everything must be understood in terms of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised, and that relationship is acted out all the time through policy, programme and practice, through the conventional wisdom of economics and the market, through media, symbolism and cultural globalisation, as well as, where necessary, through violence and military intervention. Such colonisation, especially in the world of instant mass global communications, does not necessarily involve invasion and occupation. It can be achieved more effectively, efficiently and subtly in other ways, through control of the media, through the export of popular culture, through the education system, and through the economic power of corporate interests.
Colonisation often proceeds with the best of intentions, promoted by good people who genuinely believe that they are acting in the best interests of the colonised. Soldiers with guns usually make the least effective colonisers; rather it is the missionaries, the teachers, the professors, the economists, the health workers, the agriculturalists, the aid workers, the engineers, and, of course, the social workers, who are far more effective at spreading the dominant way of looking at the world and, in the process, marginalising and devaluing other world views, and, by implication, those who hold them. In the process, the world view of the coloniser can become that of the colonised, and the colonised will often become themselves convinced that the colonising power has the superior wisdom, knowledge, technology, religion, language, science, medicine and intellectual tradition. Hence the colonisers are welcomed as the bringers of wisdom, and as the key to economic, political and cultural maturity and success. Those with ambition seek to study in the land of the coloniser, to learn the language of the coloniser, and to adopt the cultural practices of the coloniser. In this way there is a continual process of validation of the colonising culture and devaluing of the local or indigenous culture, perpetrated by a willing collusion between coloniser and colonised, each firmly convinced they are acting for the best.
Of course this process is never complete, and there are always voices of resistanc