The sustainable development goals have just clocked one year, and everyone is rallying behind the call to “Leave no one behind.” This year’s theme of the Universal Children’s Day, celebrated on November 20, is “Leave No One Behind.” But what does it really mean to leave no one behind? According to the Overseas Development Institute, it means that no goal will be met unless it is inclusive of everyone. In attaining the goal, organizations are aiming to include vulnerable children. Doing so requires both greater investment and data.
Social service workers are the advocates to ensure this happens, but they must be included to be able to do so. Is the social service workforce being included in high-level forums happening all over the world? They are the ones who are most closely positioned to truly understand and add voice to the situation of vulnerable children and families.
To help make this point, I’d like to introduce you to some social service workers who are striving to improve the lives of vulnerable children. One such individual is Lilly, a social worker I recently met in Madagascar. Lilly runs a day care center for street connected children. The center provides showers, meals and education for 100-300 children daily, from ages 6 months to 17 years old.
Her calm nature made me wonder what is her drive, what makes her wake up in the morning and walk for one hour? And most importantly, what does she need to be more effective or make her work easier? Has she fallen through the cracks as she provides for the most vulnerable? Her caseload is 1:300 and her center is poorly resourced. She is driven to improve the lives of these children who are the future of Madagascar, but more funding allocation for additional resources would help her toward meeting the SDGs.
Another example is John. He has a Master’s degree in Social Work. He works with children in conflict with the law. The first time I talked to John, I didn’t know there were social workers for children in the juvenile system; I assumed like many others that the prison department and police are responsible for children in the system.
John tells me that he is passionate about helping these children. According to John, probation work involving children in conflict with the law remains one of the most challenging roles. Since the first time he encountered a child in a police cell, young and full of potential, it has never been easy to see children in the criminal justice system in Kenya. He argues that social systems failures are partially to blame for children being in conflict with the law and that we need to remedy this. He is working to reform the juvenile justice system and ensure no child goes to prison. But how much understanding and support is there for social workers in the juvenile justice system and what do they need to best meet the needs of these children?
John tells me that he needs more human and financial resources in the probation department. He needs rehab centers with qualified social service workers. He needs a community where he can exchange ideas on reforming the juvenile system, as well as people who can relate to the stresses of his tough work.
Rehema is a community social worker who works with pregnant teenagers. She helps with nutrition and encourages them to go for health screenings. At age 35, Rehema is a “gogo” grandmother to many of these children who otherwise would have been abandoned. She believes that one of the children she rescues will one day become president, and that helps motivate her. Will Rehema’s efforts in development work be properly shared and reported to build the data base?
These three social workers are working to make a difference and ensure that the most vulnerable are not left behind. They are the intervention in these children’s lives. They collect data and come up with solutions to ensure no child is left behind. But who is ensuring that they are not being left behind? Many development agencies and governments don’t capture the needed data about their most important asset – the workforce providing these services. Very little data is available to show the contribution of social workers in sustainable development and more specifically in the lives of children. Evidence shows that an empowered, regulated and rewarded social service workforce has a better outcome on children. The Global Social Service Workforce Alliance has recently untaken a project to build the evidence base for helping support workforce strengthening, and the outcomes paper and webinar on the topic are available online.
To ensure that no one is left behind, there is a need for the right data to be collected. The data has to tell a story and show where investment needs to be made. The story needs to connect all the players in the children’s sector. The data has to tell the stories of Lilly, John and Rehema by recognizing what they do toward ensuring that no one is left behind. They, too, must be counted and their needs must be considered so that they are best able to help children and families to have better outcomes.
To ensure that no social service worker is left behind, there is a need for policies that not only regulate what they do but also ensure that they are retained. The policy has to speak to both the intervention and intervener and the policies have to be evidence based and intervention/solution oriented.
My passion is working with children to make development a reality in Africa, but this will only be possible when we leave no child and no social service worker behind.
Jennifer Kaberi is a Social Worker and an Ambassador of the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance. She coordinates the Children Agenda Forum in Kenya and has more than 10 years of experience working with children. She is driven by knowing children are the enablers and promise holders for Africa’s brighter future.