Remarks that social work is ‘useless’ raises questions

Thursday February 27 2020

Sharlotte Tusasiirwe

Sharlotte Tusasiirwe 

By Sharlotte Tusasiirwe

As Ugandans, we embrace strong communities governed by values of Obuntu (humanness) and, no doubt, Obuntu has kept our local communities together, with each one looking out for the other. But communities today are also constantly grappling with issues beyond the personal concerns.

The increased struggle by masses to afford the basics of life is simply anti-Obuntu. The growing inequality where the rich are simply getting richer while the poor, poorer should be questioned.

The current problems that Ugandan masses are grappling with are threatening humanity. Social workers, by their very mission and purpose, are particularly committed to fighting for Obuntu, social justice and wellbeing of all, not just a few Ugandans.

Social workers in Uganda and indeed worldwide, are not just seated wishing social problems away. Rather, they are doing whatever they can to help the vulnerable, families and communities to access the services they need to achieve wellbeing. Social workers mobilise communities to engage in self-help and community development.

They also engage in providing counselling and psychosocial support and are at the forefront of helping refugees and people impacted by climate crisis, among other things. Many social workers are in the communities, NGOs, government, innovating alternatives of how to help.

However, despite this work, social problems in Uganda are persisting yet people and the problems impacting them seem not to be a priority in the current system that is prioritising growth even when it comes at a social and environmental cost.


Meaningful investment and prioritisation of pro-people services remains scanty. It is unbelievable that systems have allowed anti-Obuntu practices such as the ongoing export of unemployed Ugandans as labour abroad.

Victims of an unjust, and unequal society and system, pay the price while a few Ugandans pocket the profits, which are, in the growth narrative, a boost to nation’s GDP.

The vulnerable but revered groups like older people continue to live in inhumane conditions. While some policies and programmes have been established to support, for instance, the older people in Uganda, it is not justifiable that such programmes like SAGE are targeted yet universal support and services like healthcare, real universal and quality education for all children, would be fit for the context and thus would need to be prioritised. It is problematic that grants are being used to pay for basic services which the government should be providing.

Currently, courses such as social work are described as ‘useless’ because they are not a science course. I shudder at the science versus art advice because it does not unmask the inequalities and inequities that must be addressed.

When we talk about inequalities, the few privileged rich, who studied in a few well-equipped schools, don’t get it. They cannot fathom that in my rural school, we had no laboratory and we only did ‘practicals’ or saw the pipette for the first time during mock and final exams.

Those science results from deprived schools and areas do not show students’ true abilities yet the students carry Uneb certificates that grade them as failures, masking the unequal opportunities behind those grades.

As social workers, they are doing what they can to help the poor and the vulnerable. However, they should do more by asking the why question and demanding that unfair structures, systems, ways of policy and programme making that do not prioritise the masses and their wellbeing, change.

This should be a call for change of strategy. We must go beyond feeding the poor and start to consciously ask why the poor are poor. Focusing on those systemic and structural factors that continue to worsen situations of the people we are helping.

The ultimate goal is not just to ask why but to seek ways for change too, we are not at all accepting the way our society is organised today and therefore our role is not to help people cope with in the current social order but our role, as critical social workers, is to question, challenge and resist the systems that continues to maintain the social and economic inequalities that keep most of us Ugandans in bondage.

Questions that focus on just the individual persons and their actions or inactions are not going to take us beyond just helping, we need to ask questions that seek to challenge and resist those systems and factors that are beyond the control of the persons and communities we are seeking to help.
By asking the why question and demanding for action for everybody.

we could be seen as useful and not ‘useless’ since we will be standing for and with the masses. This requires that we stand together to challenge the current individualism that is just opposite of Obuntu’s collectivism and interdependence. Every Ugandan should call out and challenge those espousing self-centredness, including calling out individualistic-centred systems.

Social workers must advocate consciously for a fair system and policies that espouse redistribution, for example taxes on those few rich, who unsurprisingly, are often given tax holidays in the name of encouraging investment.

We must advocate universal other than targeted services, which also includes resisting the current privatisation or dual public-private health and education systems that simply disadvantage the already disadvantaged.

As Ugandans and as useful social workers, we have a strong philosophy of Obuntu that we must put in practice-the Obuntu philosophies of working in solidarity. We must engage in consciousness raising of the masses, mobilise the power of numbers to influence the social change needed. For truly, ageterine nigo gata igufa.

Sharlotte Tusasiirwe is an activist and social work lecturer at Makerere University.