In his poem, 'The Ballad of East and West', Rudyard Kipling (1895) famously lamented the fact that, as was commonly believed, 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet' (line 1). Globalization, of course, is nothing new. But today, thanks to new information technologies, we are globally interconnected in ways that were never before imagined. With a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, political causes are advanced, and so are professional ideologies. The communications revolution, in short, has facilitated the diffusion of values, knowledge, and ideas. It has also enhanced the ability of representatives of professional groups and to organize across national borders.
Social work has not been unaffected by these developments. Historically, social work has been an essentially local activity, bound by its own rules, regulations, and belief systems. In the United States, for example, the profession has been strikingly insular with a focus largely on individual therapy as opposed to a focus on structural change. And until recently, European theoretical advances – for example, harm reduction modalities, restorative justice initiatives, anti-oppressive formulations – were largely ignored by US schools of social work education. At the same time, regarding Asian influences, the transfer of professional knowledge has been largely from West to East. This insularity, however, may be a thing of the past.
Several factors account for the expansion of social work knowledge into new territory. First, are the social and economic forces of globalization mentioned above. Second, the mass migration of populations fleeing from war and natural disasters alerts the profession to the need for greater cultural sensitivity. Third, the growth of NGOs attracts media attention to human rights and child welfare issues related to mass trauma. Our shared awareness of the urgency for coordinated global action to ensure the environmental sustainability of the planet is a theme that unites us all.
Social work today, in North America and elsewhere, is truly becoming an international profession. Many social workers who practice in their homelands draw on knowledge that is international in scope – knowledge of advocacy, counselling, and community organization. Many others are practicing across borders, such as in nongovernmental organizations, in nations wrestling with the aftermath of war, refugee crises, and child welfare issues. One promising development is the increasing acceptance by universities and professional associations of academic credentials earned in different parts of the world.
The internationalization of social work is seen as well in the expanding membership of schools of social work and professional associations in the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). Today, 90 social work organizations,
including those in most of the countries covered in this book – Hong Kong and mainland China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Mongolia, and the Philippines – are members or provisional members of IFSW. Asian universities are represented in IASSW as well.
Within this climate of global interconnectedness and shared concerns about social and economic sustainability and human rights, the publication of Social Work in East Asia is a timely and much-needed addition to the social work literature. Social work has looked West since the earliest days of the profession; it is now time to turn toward the East. Big things are happening in this part of the world consistent with burgeoning economies. The editor, Christian Aspalter, brings to the shaping of this book an expertise informed by extensive academic and consultative work in Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Aspalter has selected as chapter authors individuals that are key experts on the country whose social welfare system is being described; they are all highly knowledgeable concerning the unique challenges facing practitioners in their particular country or region. Each chapter, accordingly, is highly informative and should be of major interest to practitioners and policymakers in the East as well as in the West.
Readers of this book will learn of vast differences in the form that social work takes and in the innovations that are developed across the Asian continent. In some of the countries, you will see, social work is an established and honored profession; in others it is a relatively new discipline. Whereas the strong social change thrust of social work has been viewed as threatening to some of the governments under consideration―both communist and capitalis – elsewhere, legislative policy has fully embraced support for this professional field. And yet, there is much common ground. In all the countries represented in this collection, an allegiance to the mission of social work shines forth. At its core, this is a dedication to helping people, especially the most vulnerable of populations―the young and the old and persons with disabilities – to get their needs met. There is a dedication also to social change efforts to improve social welfare offerings and the preservation of personal and natural resources. Aspalter's advice, which is offered in the concluding chapter of this book, is well taken:
For social services we have to get more and more out of the counselling room, into the community and, very important, into the natural environment … One can do so much more out there in the open, among the trees with the birds singing, while one is enjoying the wonderful scenery that nature provides us with. (169)
Katherine van Wormer Professor of Social Work, University of Northern Iowa