The Meandering Social Worker

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Archive for the tag “European”

Book Review: Political and Social Construction of Poverty: Central and Eastern European Countries in Transition

Serena Romano’s book is predominantly an academic history of the economies of five of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, Poland and Hungary.

Although each country has its own unique story there are some consistent themes. During the Communist era poverty was less denied than ignored though the use of euphemistic language: the deprived stratum, disadvantaged, limited consumption, etc, with a strong focus on the deserving and undeserving poor through terms such as parasitic behaviour and ‘dysfunctional’. What welfare support existed was only accessible via employment schemes and, with the collapse of the Soviet economic model, the rapid rise in unemployment led to the loss of access to welfare for the already poorest in society. Current welfare systems, devised under EU and World Bank guidance, were developed to enable them to gain EU membership in the early part of this century, just before the international economic crisis that still grips us.

There is no real attempt at an analysis for what this means for the wider EU community today, particularly in attitudes to work and work migration. An annotated map and/or chronology would also be a useful addition. However, published in 2014 the book coincides with the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the 10th anniversary of Central and Eastern Europe countries beginning their membership of the EU, and serves as a timely reminder of just how recent these events have been, and should be of particular interest to leaders, policy makers and those with a need to understand current trends in these countries.

 

Serena Romano, Political and Social Construction of Poverty: Central and Eastern European Countries in Transition (2014), Policy Press, Bristol, http://www.policypress.co.uk, ISBN 978-1-44731-271-0 (Hardback £70)

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Who are the non-indigenous?

Modern society is coming to realise that the wisdom of many of the indigenous populations around the world has some profound insights into the damage done to our planet through the processes of industrialisation and subsequent technological developments.

Campaigns and advertising have highlighted the plight of those same indigenous populations, whose lands have been raped and their cultures all but annihilated.

But who are the non-indigenous who are getting the blame for the woes of the world and indigenous populations?

Travelling the world and meeting people from different cultures and lifestyles to my own has brought home to me just how much I have taken my country’s history for granted.  I may not have been a star in history classes but I can still rattle off references to Bede’s History of England; the Doomsday Book; and the time when the town of my birth was part of an actual island, the Isle of Thanet, separated from mainland England by the River Wantsum, until the monks of medieval times set about land reclamation, reducing the flow of the river water until what is left today is no more than a ditch in most places.

With Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 Europeans became the architects of invasion in the name of progress. From the early 1500’s the Spanish in particular were successful in colonising the Central and South Americas, most famously wiping out the Inca civilisations and leaving behind Catholic colonialism, Catholicism remaining the dominant religion to this day.  In the light of modern thought the methods of the conquistadors, the enforcing of their religion, seem inappropriate and unduly harsh.  Yet, for many, although trade was a part of their goal, what they did was in the sincere belief that the peoples in these countries needed to hear their message, needed the gift of salvation that they brought.  Their descendents can only trace their heritage no more than some five hundred years before they have to go to another culture to follow their ancestry.

The conquest of the North Americas took a little longer but still destroyed many of the native cultures.  The early settlers brought with them their developing knowledge of what would become the industrial revolution, along with guns and gunpowder and a determination to mine the ground for gold, silver and other precious metals.

Modern North Americans have a cultural history that goes back only a few generations in their own homeland.

The pioneers who broadened the early settlement areas to reach the west of the continent faced unknown dangers, crossing barren and hostile territory, carrying few possessions: blankets to sleep under, a few clothes, pots and pans for cooking, and, often, their Bibles.  They demonstrated physical and emotional strengths beyond imagination.  Many died before they reached their destinations, some from the harsh elements of the lands they travelled across, others at the hands of the various tribes of North American Indians (the local indigenous populations) who soon realised that the white man did not have much sympathy for either their lands or their cultures.

2011 02 25 (255) - Death Valley - Queen of Sheba mine

Mechanical relic at the Queen of Sheba Mine in Death Valley

The relics of the “forty-niners” who settled from 1849 to mine in the harsh dry desert of Death Valley still stand as a monument to their achievements: the remains of mine shafts, topped with the rusting hulks of the machines they used to ferry the rocks to the surface and begin the process of extracting the precious metals.

With those who settled on the west coast came new needs: communication with the east coast and Europe: friends and family left behind.  It could take several weeks for a mail coach to cross through the harsh lands of what are now the central states of the USA.  The Pony Express fast mail service, started in 1860, brought down the mail delivery time to just ten days.   But even this was not good enough for the new settlers.  Instead they developed the telegraph and railways, putting the Pony Express out of business in just eighteen months.

In doing so they defended themselves against the local populations who were alarmed at the changes being brought to their homeland, so much so that they all but wiped out the heritage of the indigenous North American Indians.  Their old lands have all but disappeared under the sprawling cities that have sprung up over the years, their old hunting grounds turned over to ‘management’ in the form of national parks.  The stories of their battles became the legends of children playing “Cowboys and Indians” for years to come, the stuff of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns.

Today, the descendents of those pioneers are the non-indigenous population of North America.  They are people who can only trace their history back a few short centuries before they have to look to the history of the cultures of their ancestors.  They are faced with the dilemma of admiring the amazing achievements of their forebears in overcoming tremendous physical difficulties, demonstrating amazing emotional and mental fortitude, against coming to terms with the cultural destruction of the indigenous populations that that involved.

But the North American population of today are not the only non-indigenous in a foreign land.

From the late 1700’s until 1868 those lovely British people decided they were did not have room to look after criminals of all sorts and so shipped them all off to live in another New World: Australia.  Their crimes might have been varied, from petty theft to murder and everything else in between, but these people had nothing to lose.  They may not have made the same choices as the pioneers travelling to North America but they too brought with them the knowledge of the developing industrial revolution and settled in to make the best of what fate had brought them.  Mostly survivors of the poverty wrought by the English industrial revolution they too were fighters and survivors.  Between 1851 and 1871 their numbers were swelled dramatically by the Australian gold rush.  But again, their descents, the non-indigenous of Australia, have only a little over two centuries of history before they too have to look to the cultures of their ancestors in Europe.

Whether by choice or force these were people who found themselves forging new lives in new environments.

But what of the non-indigenous today?  Their identities are rooted in short histories in their lands.  They have to live with the criticisms of their ancestors.  They are denied pride in the strength, determination and suffering endured by their ancestors.  They are left with the shame of the knowledge that their ancestors, despite what they thought were good intentions, caused damage and harm.  Will social workers one day ask questions about the emotional damage caused by current policies to the non-indigenous?!

In asking the question “Who are the non-indigenous?” there is no intention to undermine either the indigenous populations or their beliefs or cultures.  Only to recognise that there is always more than one side to a story, and to recognise the impact on the descendents of the perpetrators of the crimes against the indigenous populations.  It has taken many years but we should now know that everyone loses and suffers when it comes to violence and war, domination and destruction.

Making Assumptions

Some years ago I worked in a social work team where one of the social workers came from Glasgow.  Now this team was in southern England, nearly as far from Scotland as you could get.  When a newly qualified social worker joined us who also happened to be from Glasgow it was assumed that these two would have a natural understanding, and were put together for supervision purposes.  After all they were both from the same country and a long way from home, and the older more experienced social worker would surely be the ideal one to support the new worker?

What, in our southern ignorance, we did not realise was that they came from opposite sides of Glasgow.  Opposite cultures within the same city.  Opposing football teams to support.  Natural enemies even.

Fortunately their professionalism enabled them to overcome the differences in their cultures, and no doubt shake their heads at the southerners’ ignorance.

It’s easy to make assumptions like that.

Even in the setting up of asylum teams in the 1990’s we made the same mistakes.  There was somehow an assumption that because asylum seekers were in the same situation, escaping war torn countries, it was sometimes overlooked that they had escaped from opposing countries in the same war!  With hindsight it was obvious, but what foolish mistakes were made at the time.

While I was travelling in Siberian Russia for a while I happened to stay for a week in a town where I was the first European they had seen in living memory.  The evening before I was leaving a young English backpacker arrived in a bar on the other side of town.  Immediately telephone calls were made and mechanisms put in place to put us in touch with each other.  Let’s call him Jay.  It was naturally assumed, that being from the same country, we would want to meet up and talk.

Actually it was good to meet Jay, less because we were both English than because we were both travellers and could compare travel notes.  Having the same first language was merely an advantage.

The impression was given that if two Russians found themselves alone in a foreign country they would want to meet.  But I wonder if that is true?

Jay and I were several years apart in age, he was a recent graduate taking a gap year while I had studied in later life, he came from a relatively privileged background while I definitely originated from “working class” stock.  I was travelling by car, he was backpacking.  Back in England it was unlikely we would have naturally met up and socialised.

Staying in an Andean village, well stuck actually due to a breakdown, the villagers would come rushing over saying “amigo, amigo?” every time another European passed through.  The same assumptions were being made.

On another occasion I met two young English girls in a backpackers’ hostel in Costa Rica.  Well, I say ‘met’, but that is probably too strong a word for it.  We happened to be staying in the same dorm room in the same hostel.  They were clearly completely confounded to find someone old enough to be their mother, maybe even their grandmother, staying in such a hostel and never managed to look me in the eye such was their complete inability to know how to handle such a situation.

Age, class (yes it still exists), wealth, education, employment, sociability, family, sexual orientation, geographical location, politics, religion, hobbies and interests.  These and more are all potential divisive factors even in our home countries.  Sure, they can all be overcome, but how many times have I seen police and ‘front line’ social and health workers gravitate to share socialising because their jobs bring them into natural contact and there is a sense of safety in that familiarity?  And why is it unusual to see CEOs down the pub with the postman or plumber?

I’m not suggesting its right or wrong, it just is.  The lovely people in that small Siberian town might be surprised at how different the lives are of people from Moscow, and that maybe the mere sharing of the same language is not a foundation for anything more than a brief passing friendship, just as was my contact with Jay.

Scottish, English, African, Latin American, indigenous; wealthy and poor; young and old; educated or not (which has nothing to do with intelligence); capitalist, environmentalist, socialist; and more.  We are all a mixture of different ingredients, unique in our own way.  As we practice that difference in our own lives, let us also remember the differences in those we work with, both as colleagues and clients.

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