In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Work and Social Welfare in East, West, and Central Africa

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Social Work Social Work and Social Welfare in East, West, and Central Africa
Godfred Boahen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0280


This article addresses selected key issues in social work and social welfare in East, West, and Central Africa. Collectively, the countries addressed in these regions are part of sub-Saharan Africa, with a shared history of colonialism, global economic and political marginalization, and, consequently, low-income status and unformed social welfare systems. Two of the regions have supranational organizations, which are increasingly active in social policy. The first is the East African Community (EAC), consisting of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. The EAC has ambitions to create a monetary union and political federation. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) includes fifteen countries bordered in the West and South by the Atlantic Ocean and the North by the Sahara Desert. Central African countries have not formed a regional supranational organization; however, they share a history of armed conflict, some still ongoing, which has led to weak states and lack of basic welfare systems. “Central Africa” is usually taken to include the countries along the Equator sharing the River Congo—for example, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Against a backdrop of difficult fiscal positions, they confront challenges of providing education and health care, controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS, and meeting their socioeconomic goals. Alongside these issues, rapid economic changes have resulted in increased urbanization and migration, thereby altering traditional, informal, and localized systems of family support. These too have implications for the care of older people. Contextualized against this background, this article begins with a General Overview, followed by discussions about Systems of Welfare Provision and the Needs of Older People. The next two sections (Decolonization and Post-conflict Social Work Practice) address the debates about what the normative goals of social work should be, given the contexts of welfare systems. Then under the title “Training and Managing the Workforce”, the article ends with an exploration of how the workforce can be reorganized to meet the challenges identified in the preceding discussions.

General Overview

Politically, the countries have a shared history of imperialism by the Global North. Developed to sustain colonial rule, current welfare institutions retain the organizational structures and practice rationale of that period, and Global North universities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) remain dominant in, respectively, research on social work and provision of services. Critiques argue that this has resulted in a lack of African perspectives in social work publications, and consequently there is now an attempt to redress this balance through “decolonization” or “indigenization” research. This includes increasing the quantity of research by Africans and ensuring that publications reflect the views and perspectives of Africans or their culture. Another debate is about the purpose of social work. As a significant proportion of social welfare is provided by Global North NGOs focused on socioeconomic development, which also aligns with the countries’ own policy priorities, this has led to emphasis on community development social work or developmental social work. There are advocates and critics of this approach. The former view this as harnessing existing human and natural resources, whereas the latter contend that it exemplifies the disproportionate influence of Global North thinking and institutions such as the IMF on local policies. In response, there is emergence of “indigenous social work,” which seeks a reconceptualization of existing knowledge framework for the sub-Saharan context.

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