The Advent of COVID-19 Strengthens the Case for Building a Social Service Workforce in Ethiopia
OP-ED: COVID-19 Update
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the gaps in social service/welfare provision in countries all around the world. In Ethiopia, it has flagged the need for strengthening and potentially expanding existing social safety nets and welfare services, for having higher qualifications in mental health and psychosocial support services (MHPSS), as well as for addressing the longer-term impact on children and families of sudden economic shocks. Less noticed but no less significant is the case for developing countries like Ethiopia to invest in building a social service workforce for child protection to better protect and support vulnerable children.
A trained and dedicated workforce of this kind is immensely valuable. Around the world, we have seen how the social service workforce plays a central role in supporting children and families in communities by alleviating poverty, identifying and managing risks, and facilitating access to and delivery of social services to enhance child and family well-being. A well-developed social service workforce is also key to promoting social justice, reducing discrimination and root causes of inequality, challenging harmful behaviours and social norms, and preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Social workers are also in the frontline of tackling harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation and addressing family separations especially among refugees and internally displaced persons. A key lesson from the implementation of UNICEF’s 2014-2017 global Strategic Plan is that a qualified social service workforce that is in regular contact with families and communities is a vital part of an effective child protection system.
In Ethiopia, this workforce remains nascent, weak and under-resourced. There are significant inconsistencies in coverage across the country and between population groups such as refugees, migrants, returnees and internally displaced persons. We recognise that a social service workforce will always involve a range of actors with varying levels of expertise. But in Ethiopia, one of the key bottlenecks is the lack of a social service workforce below the woreda level - and even at this level, one is unlikely to find more than four staff dedicated to child protection. This means four people serve 100,000 children or more - which is far from enough. It is essential to have social workers who can act as the eyes and ears of child protection authorities in every kebele. It is also critical that these workers win the respect and esteem of the community in which they work. It is why the Minister of Women, Children and Youth Filsan Abdullahi Ahmed asked during an April 2020 visit to a quarantine centre hosting migrant returnee girls, “Why is it that we think a social worker is less important than a doctor or a nurse?”
COVID-19 has made the need for social workers all the more urgent. For instance, we believe that one of the unintended consequences of Ethiopia’s lockdown measures is an increase in domestic and sexual violence against children. Moreover, the large number of children returned from Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia since March, most of them unaccompanied, has placed an extra burden on existing social workers. Minors make up around 10 per cent of the average caseload of returnees from these countries, and in addition to the need for family tracing and reunification, many are suffering from psychosocial distress and other mental health problems. After enduring emotional and physical abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, for some even rape, they need support from trained professionals.
Before the pandemic, UNICEF was providing salaries and capacity-building to four social workers stationed at the International Organisation for Migration’s transit centre in Addis Ababa to support returnee migrants. With the advent of the coronavirus, UNICEF provided additional support to the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth to recruit six social workers, bringing the total to 10. Recognizing the needs, the Ministry seconded an additional 13 social workers to quarantine and treatment centres in and around Addis Ababa. The 23 social workers are an improvement, but they are not enough to meet the huge needs.
At UNICEF, we are working with the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth to strengthen Ethiopia’s social service workforce. A first-ever National Case Management Framework for child protection (which for now is paper-based and needs to be digitized) has been in operation since 2019. Next up is developing the workforce itself. For a country like Ethiopia, the focus must be on the middle and lower levels of the social service workforce - in other words, on the frontlines where the shortage is most acute and the needs great.
Part of this effort will involve planning. We still do not know the size of the existing social service workforce, or how many workers there are per 1,000 children. To this end, we are engaged in a systemic assessment, which will also help us to understand what the existing workforce is actually doing. We know, for instance, that quite a few workers in Ethiopia are involved in child and social protection in some form or the other, but very few are trained as social workers.
Take for example the Productive Safety Net Programme. This programme employs workers who are responsible for managing cash grants and providing support and even counselling to vulnerable families. But it is not within their roles and responsibilities to conduct family tracing or deal with sensitive cases such as children who have been sexually or physically abused and for which a dedicated social service workforce for child protection is critical.
Our goal is to help Ethiopia develop a social service workforce which takes lessons from its well-established health extension programme. This means establishing a dedicated presence at the kebele level capable of engaging directly with families and children themselves. It also means developing government-recognized occupational standards. Social workers and community workers do not need to have university degrees - they can even be high school graduates. But they need a minimum of six months training and a Level 2 TVET qualification. At the very least, there needs to be someone in every kebele who is trained to identify and refer a child who needs help. This is how Ethiopia’s health extension programme began: small pilots supported by donors, for which over time the government took over the responsibility of managing and financing the programme.
Since late 2019, UNICEF has been supporting Amhara, Tigray, Oromia, the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region and Addis Ababa to roll out child protection training for social workers and to ensure they find employment. The Somali Region will be following suit later this year. So far, we have helped to recruit 582 social workers and community service workers and we are funding the salaries for most of them. But we also need to ensure there is a defined career ladder so that they remain in the profession. It would also help if there were to be an active and well-resourced professional association with the goal of promoting an understanding of social workers as “key workers”.
Between March and late June this year, more than 1,600 children returning to Ethiopia received support from UNICEF. Most of them - through the social workers - were assisted to register, undergo a vulnerability assessment, and supported with family tracing and reunification and basic counselling. In some cases, social workers have accompanied children to their places of origin. In addition to the support to the migrant returnee children, the social service workforce has been supporting COVID-19 affected children in other contexts. For example, social workers linked to the courts are helping to get children out of detention (if convicted only of petty crimes) and back to their families, in order reduce the risks of contracting the virus.
All this demonstrates the importance of a social service workforce, much-needed in times of crises. There is indeed a growing recognition of this need, especially from the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth. Under the leadership of Filsan Abdullahi, there are now ambitious plans to scale-up the social service workforce. But translating political will into action requires a strong commitment from the government as a whole, given that large scale public investments will be needed to translate the vision into reality.