here has been considerable progress over time in social legislation and institutional development in this country with respect to a whole range of areas such as child protection, women’s affairs, labour relations, elderly care, occupational health, rehabilitation of offenders, resettlement and disaster mitigation.
Yet, there has been little progress with regard to professionalisation of services in the above areas. This has been partly due to inadequate resources allocated to social sector services and partly due to the neglect of professional development in most of the areas mentioned above. While there are many institutions and a large number of personnel employed in these institutions, the extent and quality of services delivered by them remains much to be desired. The result is poor quality of life for a whole range of vulnerable groups, both young and old. Since many of them suffer in silence, their plight does not come to the surface, unless a tragic incident like a massacre or suicide hits the news headlines. But a responsible government or a public institution does not wait till such an incident is flashed in the evening news or published on the front page of a national daily.
The training and deployment of professionals in the social sectors and providing them with adequate resources such as equipment and transport facilities obviously cost money. But, the benefits of such public expenditure go to a wide spectrum of groups in society. Moreover, solving diverse problems faced by such groups not only improves their life chances but also prevents the spread of many social evils such as crime, violence, suicide, child abuse, etc.
Social service professionals and other public officials who deal with diverse social issues are not less important than other personnel employed by the government. Yet, the former are not as visible, powerful and privileged as lawyers, doctors, accountants, treasury officials, etc. Those who address social issues are mostly employees of state institutions and non-governmental organisations and volunteers. So, unless a concerted effort is made to empower them by providing them with necessary professional training, recognition, resources and incentives, they are more than likely to remain marginalised, demotivated and ineffective.
As is well known, many social issues are intertwined and cannot be dealt with in isolation of each other. This situation demands effective inter-institutional coordination and collaboration enabling social service personnel to exchange information, do cross referencing, take joint action and learn from each other. Because of diverse circumstances all this is easier said than done. For instance, inadequate public funding leads to many shortcomings such as insufficient training, lack of professional development, poor inter-institutional collaboration, almost total absence of proper case load management, lack of knowledge management, inefficient data storage and retrieval, poor monitoring, evaluation and feedback, the lack of incentives for efficient workers, etc. Each of these issue areas need in-depth analysis but space does not permit such an analysis here. So, the remainder of this article is devoted to a brief discussion on a couple of concrete examples to illustrate the points made earlier.
Unlike many other state services like issuing passports or driver’s licences, delivery of social sector services is essentially oriented towards vulnerable individuals in a family or community setting. Often, people who need services do not turn up at the relevant offices and meet the officers concerned. So, it is the responsibility of the institution and the officers to identify persons and families requiring support and this naturally involves frequent and regular field visits to sensitise communities, disseminate information, identify community needs, recognize vulnerable families and individuals, etc.
Yet, most social sector organisations are not resourceful enough to operate in this fashion, though on paper the picture might be different. In other words, most people who require close professional attention remain neglected and suffer in silence. They may include such diverse groups as families of prisoners, mentally ill and people with disabilities, physically and sexually abused, poverty-stricken and neglected elders, homeless people and unemployed youth.
It is common sense that most of the above mentioned groups are unlikely to go around looking for professional support. So, they need to be identified at a community level to enlist them in various intervention programmes. The highly intensive nature of such interventions requires not only larger financial outlays but also highly motivated and well trained professionals with the necessary logistical support from their organisations. Whether such an emphasis on social support for vulnerable segments of society is going to be a reality in the near future depends on both the extent of public articulation of important social issues and the political will to address such issues in a serious manner.
It is a well-known fact that our prisons are over-crowded. Many prisoners who are released following the completion of their term of incarceration come back to prison after committing further crimes and this at least partly indicates ineffective rehabilitation. It is also significant that, when they are released into the community, they often encounter various problems and challenges that persuade them to commit crimes again. These may include poor family environment, community attitudes, lack of alternative livelihoods and the inability to socially integrate.
Another issue connected with imprisonment is the fate of the family left behind, especially when children are involved. The children of prisoners usually face a range of problems and these children cannot overcome such problems without external support. Their often pathetic situation undermines their life chances and can persuade them to become criminals themselves. So, the issues involved here are complex and deserve careful attention of professionally trained social workers and others. Yet, it is doubtful whether these families have access to any external support today. Similar situations can be found with respect to a whole range of other vulnerable and disadvantaged groups in society. A glaring example is the elderly population. Many elderly people do not have their own resources and are even neglected by their own families. They undergo various hardships and suffer in silence. Unlike organised groups such as trade unions, university students and civil society groups, the marginalised and disadvantaged groups like the neglected elders do not have the capacity to raise their voices and exert pressure on the powers that be.
The enactment of progressive legislation, establishment of specialised institutions and the recruitment of thousands of personnel alone do not guarantee a reasonable level of social support to vulnerable groups. This is the experience of Sri Lanka.
Unless the authorities take the next steps necessary to revamp and reinvigorate the social sector services on the lines outlined above, the citizens of this country should get ready to witness not only the continuing suffering of many people in their midst but also cope with increasing social issues such as crime, violence and disorder. The latter can naturally reduce the quality of life of people who are otherwise better off in social and economic terms. So, it is in the interest of everybody to have a balance between economic and social infrastructure in terms of the allocation of public funds.
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