What is Social Work promoting sustainable communities and sustainable development ?

What is Social Work promoting sustainable communities and sustainable development?

Aila-Leena Matthies and Kati Närhi, July 2017

Aila-Leena Matthies is Professor of Social Work at the University of Jyväskylä, Kokkola University Consortium. She has been publishing about the ecosocial perspective of social work in Finnish, German and English since the late 1980s.

Kati Närhi is Professor of Social Work in the Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her main research interests are ecosocial approach in social work, ecosocial transition, community social work, structural social work, participation and user involvement.

The social wellbeing of current and future human communities is increasingly threatened by a complex mixture of environmental, economic and social challenges. The climate change, the overexploitation of natural resources, the increasing uncertainty of global and local economics and the growing number of wars and human conflicts have unprecedented social impacts at both the global and local level.

In line with the process of The Global Social Agenda of international organisations of social work, the European Observatory is now focusing on practical examples that demonstrate the contribution of social work to sustainable development and sustainable communities. In doing so, the environmental challenges are especially kept in mind. In order to achieve rich targeted results in this Call, it is important to reflect conceptually and theoretically on what is meant by social and community sustainability in the context of social work: Why and how is social work connected to the environmentally, economically and socially sustainable development of communities and society as a whole? How has this discussion been growing in social work as a practice, as a science and as a civil society movement?  

The concept of sustainability from the perspective of Social Work

The concept of sustainable development, established in 1987 in the Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future’, includes two core components, which make it very relevant for social work and related areas. First, it includes a cross-generational principle of responsibility for the future: the current generation should limit the use of the Earth’s resources in a way that will not risk the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is evident that social work in particular should be interested in protecting the needs of our grandchildren and their children as well. 

Secondly, sustainable development essentially means that environmental, social and economic development should be in balance with each other. This principle contains a fundamental critical message to the current political mainstream, which gives priority to economic interests and economic growth so self-evidently, and regardless of the fatal consequences of this one-sided development for the global and local environment and the social wellbeing of humans. Practitioners of social work face these conflicts in local and national level policies in Europe where serious cuts in welfare state and provision of services have been undertaken for the interest of economic growth. Even more seriously, environmental crises with social consequences are caused by one-sided business interests and exploitation of the natural environment.  On the other hand, there are examples of how nature as such as a valued richness and an inspiring living environment can improve social cohesion and human wellbeing, which may have positive impacts also on the economy.

Nowadays, the concept of resilience has often replaced the concept of sustainability in political and economic discussions. 

Although the concept of sustainable development aims to integrate the environmental, economic and social pillars, we are still far from having balanced development and safeguarding sufficient recourses for future generations. Therefore, the United Nations has initiated a new start of a global program for sustainable development by nominating 17 global sustainable development goals (SDG) to be achieved by 2030. And most of these goals are highly topical for social work as well. Social sustainability and community sustainability have a prominent place in the program, which is to be applied by all UN member states in order to achieve a sustainable and socially inclusive society. Therefore, the SDG program is a historically unique chance for social work to contribute to comprehensive sustainable development also in European societies.

Social sustainability and Community sustainability

Community sustainability as a concept can be understood broadly as part of sustainable development and takes especially social and community related issues into consideration. The concept can also be understood almost as a synonym for social sustainability. Further, it can refer to a global movement developing practical examples of communities, villages, neighbourhoods, cities and regions, which aim intensively to provide conditions for sustainable living across various sectors of policymaking. Plenty of communities claim to follow this agenda, and as such social work can make an important contribution to them.

In a similar way, social sustainability for its part usually refers to wellbeing of local communities and looks critically at the impact of local development on people. Also indicators of social sustainability often include factors such societal goals as human rights, social cohesion, equality, democracy and participation. Besides equality and wellbeing for all, especially the interests of the most vulnerable groups are targeted in the context of social sustainability, and this usually refers to children, youth, women, people with low income, minorities and the diversity of human kind.  In addition, several authors consider also cultural aspects to be an integral part of social sustainability.


Sustainable development in Social Work debate

In contrast to many other parts of the world, in European social work the natural environment has not traditionally been considered an important part of social work practice. However, discussion on the topic has been growing between European social work scholars and practitioners during the last 15 years. It is becoming clearer that especially at the level of local communities the connections between social and environmental problems are inseparable. Moreover, it is possible to find historical evidence of social work that recognizes the environmental and economic factors behind social disasters. Indeed, social workers have been involved in establishing cooperatives for functioning waterworks, healthy food and strengthening the economy of local communities. Both Jane Addams and Mary Richmond, the most referred to pioneers of social work, also included environment in their theory and methods. However, while Mary Richmond mainly limited the concept of environment to the social environment and social networks of clients, Jane Addams included also the physical and natural environment of people as well as social political methods in her understanding of social work.

Current social work research, which has concentrated on the connections between social and environmental issues in social work, has found out that there are different concepts used in different countries and languages. For instance, one can find literature about environmental social work, eco-social approach in social work, ecological social work, green social work, social-ecological social work, deep-ecological social work and eco-spiritual social work. Their main difference is still in the question whether they follow a more psychological systems-theoretical view, which is limited to social environment or a more eco-critical thinking with a holistic and political approach. However, now the various debates seem to approach each other around the efforts towards sustainable development.

Contribution of Social Work to sustainable development

There are plenty of arguments for why social work and related areas should play a strong role in the cross-sectoral development of sustainable development in society and especially in local communities. The thesis is valid also in Europe, that the consequences of environmental and economic challenges are met most heavily by those people and communities to whom social workers are most accountable. These consequences have the most severe impacts on people in poverty and vulnerable situations, although mostly caused by the wealthiest part of the population. Social work represents the core profession in our societies, which has the task to fight against inequality in society. Practitioners daily deal with issues caused by unsustainable development. They also create practical solutions with people and communities for better development. And these solutions are exactly that what this Call is about. For instance, social work may enable eco-socially sustainable communities and support a new sustainable economic base for income and well-being. In contrast to the individually oriented mainstream social work tradition, there are examples where practitioners and researchers are involved in environmental conflicts, nature protection movements and ecological disaster relief as part of their work.

Social work practices that consider environmental and sustainability issues are improving the living environment, infrastructure and facilities as well as ensuring greater participation and influence of people. It can also promote environmental justice, increase awareness of environmental issues and intervene in environmental crises by assessing the impacts of these, negotiating what issues to address and gathering resources with partners in order to address these issues.