Social Action in Europe: towards inclusive policies and practice

Keynote speech by Morten Kjaerum at 3rd ENSACT European Conference, 17 April Istanbul.

Dear Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to this important conference.

Let me open with the words of European Commission President Mr Barroso from last December: “Across Europe, for the first time in half a century, many of our citizens look to the future not with the expectation of a better life, but with uncertainty and even fear. Over one in five Europeans live under the threat of poverty, including more than 25 million children.” He then went on to argue for more effective social protection.

Today, Europe faces profound social challenges, due to the acute financial and economic crises, and an ageing society. The net result? Spending cuts, but at the same time greater social needs. But cuts not only affect those who need care. They also affect those who provide it: social workers face job cuts, and loss of income. And for those who remain employed, it means even more work. These challenges underscore the importance of why you are here.

Do we truly want cohesion in our societies? Do we truly want an inclusive society? If so, promoting and implementing social action is vital. And we should begin by respecting everyone’s human rights, and we should all be accountable.

What does this actually mean?

The principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to Social Work,’ according to the international definition of social work.

In the fight against poverty and in the battle to enhance people’s human rights protection, social workers are on the front line. You work to promote equal treatment of those who are more vulnerable because of their gender, age, ethnic origin or religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

But in practice, achieving the right balance can be difficult. You face such thorny dilemmas as:

  • How much time can a social worker really invest in engaging meaningfully with people with psychosocial disorders, given the overall workload?
  • To what extent should irregular migrants be assisted when they find themselves in great needs?
  • Is it in the best interest of children to be assigned to foster families if their mother is begging on the streets?

As the economic crisis shows no signs of immediate ending, such issues are more topical than ever. Social work will become of greater importance to more and more members of society.

Therefore, it will not surprise you that the Fundamental Rights Agency sees social workers as one of our closest allies in implementing fundamental rights day by day – together with teachers, nurses and doctors, local authorities, and police forces. Human Rights protection is not only the responsibility of officials in ministries and judges in courts, but just as much, the responsibility of all of you in the frontline in municipalities, where people live their life.

Human rights are not only about laws and international treaties. They are more about human beings, and about always putting the individual first. So is social work.

The Fundamental Rights Agency is an independent EU institution. We provide assistance and expertise to EU institutions and Member States, on how to best implement fundamental rights. We do this by collecting and analysing data, and by checking how policies and legislation impact individuals. We also collect and disseminate examples of promising practices. We increasingly also try to bring people together to learn from each other by exchanging experiences and look for ways forward.

Our work shows that in the EU we still need to make significant efforts to ensure equal treatment for all. Let me very briefly mention a few striking examples. I will focus on two groups of vulnerable people that you probably often engage with as social workers.

1. First, the Roma: In 2011 we carried out the biggest survey of its kind in eleven EU countries with the largest share of Roma. We reached out to 80.000 Roma household members. The results showed that:

  • We clearly see that Roma are much worse off than their direct neighbours. These systematic differences show that beyond poverty, it is the day-to-day racism and discrimination that has to be tackled for improving social inclusi
  • about 90% live below their national poverty line;
  • around 40% said that someone in their household had to go to bed hungry at least once a month, because they could not afford to buy food;
  • on average, fewer than one out of three Roma were in paid employment;
  • around 20% of the Roma could not read and write, while only about 15% of the Roma had completed any education beyond compulsory level.

For the first time, neighbours of Roma were also interviewed. The survey reached out to 15.000 household members. We clearly see that Roma are much worse off than their direct neighbours. These systematic differences show that beyond poverty, it is the day-to-day racism and discrimination that has to be tackled for improving social inclusion.

2. The second group is people with disabilities. According to the European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions, on average in the EU:

  • 36% of people with disabilities are at risk of poverty or social exclusion;
  • only 45% of people with disabilities were in employment.
  • Almost twice as many people with disabilities leave education early compared to those without disabilities.

Surely, not giving equal chances to people with disabilities, Roma, or any other disadvantaged group for that matter is not only a human rights challenge, but it is a waste of talent. It is also a missed opportunity for each individual, as well as for society; particularly in these times of ageing societies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

European countries with the most effective social protection systems and with the most developed social partnerships are known to be among the most successful and competitive economies not just in Europe, but also worldwide.

This is why Europe’s 2020 strategy advocates an ‘inclusive’ growth that can deliver economic, social and territorial cohesion. What does this mean in practice? Let me explain with two examples:

1. First, improving social inclusion of people with disabilities and older people: The aim is to promote more independent living, by facilitating a transition from institutional care to community-based services. This includes the gradual implementation of personal assistance schemes, day centres, personal budgets, education and employment support, as well as self- and peer-advocacy organisations.

Social workers play a crucial role here, in helping to achieve human rights standards for people with disabilities:

  • first, by respecting the dignity of people with disabilities giving them the same chance as others of having their voice heard;
  • second, by supporting the development of self-advocacy organisations to increase the active participation of people with disabilities in the community.
  • And third, by providing them the necessary support to make decisions on what is best for them and not taking decisions on their behalf.

From a human rights perspective, what counts is ‘better care’ – whether this is in larger or in smaller institutions, or at home, is secondary.

You probably know the disability movement’s slogan: “Nothing about us – without us!”

And this slogan is not only valid for the disability movement. It is equally true for everyone. If we all follow this slogan in our daily work – from EU institutions to governments to local authorities to social workers; if we all take the people we work with seriously and listen to them before taking decisions, then we will have made a big leap towards better social inclusion and better human rights protection. This came out clearly from our surveys.

2. This brings me to my second example: Roma inclusion. Social workers and educators have a crucial role to play in promoting equal access to quality education for Roma children. In 2011, the EU agreed on a common Framework for national Roma integration strategies. It sets goals that Member States must reach to improve the situation of Roma. In education, EU governments are now fully committed to eliminating segregation and the misuse of special needs education, and to increasing enrolment in early childhood education and care. Our studies clearly show that an inclusive school system gives the best results.

Again, social workers will be engaged in this work:

  • by supporting Roma parents and children in their efforts to improve their education, in particular to assure that the children attend pre-school;
  • by ensuring that their right to equal treatment and non-discrimination is respected in practice;
  • and by facilitating their active participation in decisions that affect them.

Ladies and gentlemen, in concluding let me reiterate that:

  • Improving people’s well-being and helping to make their human rights a reality are two sides of the same coin: they complement and reinforce each other. Both social work and human rights place the individual centre stage.
  • Direct involvement of the people in the matters that affect them from the beginning pays off. This sounds like more work from the outset, but in the long run, it is more effective and far more successful.
  • To progress we can, and must, learn from each other. We need to exchange information with others, also across countries, on what works, and what doesn’t, like at your important network.
  • And lastly, your work is an important contribution to how human rights are implemented to make a difference for those millions of individuals who depend on you.

Thank you!