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Social Work of the South: Political, anti-colonial, environmental

09.06.2021    Ronald Lutz, Tanja Kleibl, Franziska Neureither

  1. 1. Introduction  
  2. 2. Social Work of the South
  3. 3. Topics and questions
  4. 4. Backgrounds and origins
  5. 5. Indiginisation, authentization, reconceptualisation
  6. 6. Philosophies of the South
  7. 7. Practices and methods
  8. 8. Radical social work
  9. 9. Green Social Work
  10. 10. Post-colonial feminist social work
  11. 11. Interwoven social work: acting locally, thinking globally
  12. 12. Outlook
  13. References
  14. Authors

The term “Social Work of the South” [1] arose from a debate on the specific theoretical and practical approach to social work in the global South, which faces its own issues and social problems different from those in the Global North. As a result of post-colonial developments, there are questions relating to power, recognition and diversity of knowledge which call for the recognition of differences and which act as an invitation to border thinking. Within this dynamic, new ethical questions are raised, in particular in Europe, concerning colonialism and neo-colonialism and the externalisation of the effects of western, industrialised development models. The Social Work of the South involves a normative implementation of human rights, while at the same time recognising differences and global power hierarchies which do not ensure subjective and objective equality and liberty of all people.  

1. Introduction  

In the discourse on “Social Work of the South”, the following contexts play a key role: Showing the effects of colonialism, as well as subsequent conflicts and contradictions, exploitation and exclusion in post-colonial societies; the genuine political claim that the world can be changed by actors, whether these are movements, organisations, governments or people in their social relationships; the efforts of social work in the South to achieve independence by processes of indiginisation and authentization, in order to escape from the colonial clutches of the North. Of central importance is the debate on indigenous, local and “pluriversal” knowledge system based on both experience and diversity, differing from the principles of pure reason. The “Social Work of the South” has always involved a focussed political intention. Its particular methods are introduced here, and the issues these raise and possible responses are considered.

2. Social Work of the South

The discourse on a “Social Work of the South” attempts, academically and practically, to establish independent social work in the Global South which, on the basis of its historical, political and social backgrounds, addresses it own issues and aims to find its own answers, in contrast to colonial imports. (Rehklau & Lutz 2007; Lutz & Rehklau 2009; Lutz & Stauss 2018) [2].

The South, in this context, refers to those regions which were economically assimilated by the North in the ‘colonial transformation of the world’ (Osterhammel 2009) and which still find themselves in dependency (Lessenich 2016). Hegemonial colonial structures led to independent histories and traditions being negated, changed, or forced underground, where they “survived” over a period when the Global North was imposing its forms of thought and its understanding of science.

After the end of colonialism, histories and traditions were “rediscovered” and their reception influenced the efforts to establish post-colonial social work by means of “indigenisation” or “localisation” (Kleibl & Lutz & Noyoo et al. 2020). This should be viewed as a narrative from another possible world (Lutz & Sachau & Stauss 2017) [3].

In the Social Work of the South it is therefore not possible to determine any uniformity or essentialism (apart from some features that are shared throughout the South). However, in view of the completely different starting positions this would not make sense anyway. It is hardly possible to generalise the backgrounds to social questions and the relevant political developments in the countries of the Global South. A uniformity is not intended, because the Social Work of the South is constituted, thematically and ideologically, on the basis of a critique of the claimed universality of the Northern concept of social work.

The Social Work of the South was initially heavily influenced by colonial imports and aspects of social work in the North are still thought to be relevant. However, many authors argue for independence and freedom from “colonial clutches”, referring to “indiginisation, localisation, authentization or reconceptualisation”. Embedded in these approaches is a post-colonial critique of the hegemonial claims of Social Work of the North, which regards itself as being universal and context-independent (Röh 2020). The growing varieties of Social Work of the South offer a rich potential, and this can also be fruitful for the discourse in the North.

In the following sections we begin by looking at Topics and questions regarding specific problems in the South. We go on to address Backgrounds and causes, in particular the anti-colonial movements. The focus then moves on to the programmes of Indigenisation, authentization and reconceptualisation – and here the challenge of ‘indigenous and local knowledge’ is particularly relevant. We then consider “Philosophies of the south”, which are also significant for the thinking and world view of the global North. After considering Practices and methods, we discuss the importance of the Social Work of the South in the international perspective of Interwoven social work, which is understood as “acting locally and thinking globally”.

3. Topics and questions

“Social Work of the South” must above all address the conflicts arising from the on-going internationalisation of the world. The resultant global inequality should be understood as a historically grown phenomenon of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This highlights the exploitational relationship (and its ancillary, racism) in which and through which the Global North has dominated the Global South and has thus exerted a decisive influence on the genesis of unequal opportunities. This has been variously described as the “colonial transformation of the world” (Osterhammel 2009) or, psychoanalytically, as the internalisation of oppression (Fanon 1963). Lessenich has analysed these relations of exploitation and the inherent hegemony in terms of the externalisation society in its current structures (Lessenich 2016). He notes how the wealth of the North can be traced back to the exploitation of the South. The North extracts resources for its own use, profiting from this and leaving the South to deal with the political, social, cultural and climatic consequences of the extraction. Exploitation and hegemony did not disappear with the processes of decolonialisation. On the contrary, the new conditions saw the formation of a neoliberal and economic globalisation with different exploitational structures and dependencies which continued to provide a basis for forms of global inequality (Beck & Poferl 2010; Lessenich 2016; Weiss 2017, p. 139). The implicit connection between colonialism, racism, development policies, globalisation, and independence movements is of considerable relevance for social work in the South.

The prevention or alleviation of poverty is an acute issue all over the world. However, it is important to distinguish between relative poverty, which by definition is derived from the average level of welfare in a given country, and the absolute poverty found in many regions and countries across the Global South (Beck & Poferl 2010). Debates on relative poverty focus on issues such as participation, access to good education, and minimum levels of social care. The consequences for social work and social policies, especially concerning children, are discussed at great length. In contrast, debates on absolute poverty and questions of survival have a very different focus, ranging from eliminating hunger and providing access to clean water, through minimum levels of hygiene, to questions of adequate medical care. In addition, there are also problems relating to access to basic education, the access to paid employment and markets, as well as the rule of law and human rights. “Social Work of the South” necessarily also involves providing basic care and organising the provision of basic requirements.  

For many years there have been wide-ranging debates (often in a highly moralising tone) on childhood in the Global South, focussing on street children, working children, child soldiers and child prostitution (Liebel & Lutz 2010). For all the understandable outrage, which is most vocally articulated in the Global North, these issues must be viewed in their local context. In the “Social Work of the South” they appear in a different light. Project work with children shows that they are very much aware of what they want, and they are able to be protagonists in their own life. Manfred Liebel has addressed this is in a moving book on post-colonial childhoods (Liebel 2017).

Children in the South can be massively abused as child soldiers or as prostitutes for economic, ethnic or religious interests. They are exposed to economic impacts and the actions of adults much more directly than in Europe. Viewed historically, a “protected and innocent childhood” may in fact be seen to represent only one special form of childhood. Meanwhile a whole range of projects work with street children and child soldiers, including in the context of development cooperation. “Social Work of the South” focuses on the children, but efforts are also made to re-integrate them in their families and communities.

Many authors refer to an urgent need to tackle concealed and open inequalities in gender relations. In the Global South, these issues must be discussed in particular against a background of massively distorted social structures and oppression in post-colonial societies.

“African feminism” raises its own specific questions concerning the ambivalences in gender relations (Nzegwu 2015). Africa is no different from other continents in that a female will have fewer opportunities and less influence. However, African feminist thought is driven by the idea that love and justice are complementary to revolution and change. It focuses on healing and reconciliation, insisting that the language of African womanhood is able to lead to a society with equal sexual,spiritual, psychological, social, and economic opportunities, overcoming the structures of patriarchal gender relations. Traditions and local and indigenous knowledge that have been concealed behind the patriarchal relations generated by colonialism gain a new and special significance.

Modernisation, urbanisation and the changes in rural areas create tensions in the Global South which present themselves in a radical form of segregation. In the “Planet of Slums” (Davis 2006), Mike Davis foresees an ominous future for the cities in the South, with urbanisation without urbanity and the idealisation of the informal economy in these cities. In the long term, growing urban poverty will provide a breeding ground for radicalisation and violence. According to Davis, nobody envisaged that the poor would consist predominantly of young city dwellers with hardly any opportunity to enter into regular relationships within the global economy.

There are clear signs of changes in the importance offamilies and their support structures in the South, leading to dislocation. There are also trends of individualisation processes, with weaker solidarity and support in the family systems. However, there is a lack of social welfare measures and programmes comparable with those offered in the North, and here “Social Work of the South” also has a political mission.

Another line of conflict in the Global South which presents an extreme challenge, and which can be viewed as regionally concealed or inner colonialism, is the marginalisation and oppression of “indigenous peoples” such as the Adivasi in India, the Aborigines in Australia, the San in Botswana, the Maya in Guatemala or the First Nation People in the USA and Canada. The resulting problems are genuinely political in nature, a result of colonialism, oppression, exploitation and discrimination. They show the need for social work with indigenous populations of the South, which so far is only rudimentary (Briskman 2014).

The deeply rooted religiosity in the global South and its importance in the deeds and actions of people has to be viewed in a completely new light (Imhof 2012). Particularly in the Global South, Pentecostal movements, evangelical movements, various forms of Hinduistic and Islamic fundamentalismand also inner-Islamic contradictions lead to unpredictable and previously unfamiliar lines of conflict (Wienold 2014). For “Social Work of the South” they undoubtedly represent a daily challenge, but use must be made of the potential they offer.

In many regions of the South, military conflicts, new wars and civil wars impact on people’s lives. Post-colonial contradictions are reflected in disputes about valuable resources such as water, crude oil or rare minerals. Tribal disputes, power struggles, ethnic violence, and displacement cause great suffering and conflict. Since the majority of displaced people remain within their own or neighbouring countries, or migrate within the Global South, “Social Work of the South” must address displacement, refugee camps and migration. As South African colleagues report, migrants also find themselves confronted with xenophobia, and conflict analysis, so that reconciliation and peace work remain urgently necessary (Rehklau & Lutz 2018). Furthermore, it is important to appreciate the links between the externalisation of border administration to so-called third states (e.g. in the EU-Turkey Deal) and the isolationist European policies and their effects on the human rights situation of refugees at the EU’s external borders, and to document the injuries suffered by refugees in Greek camps such as the Moria camp, which burnt down. These places are not only EU administrative borders, but are meanwhile also epistemological boundaries, where the West exposes its contradictions and underlying racist traits. An international science of social work will have to tackle these contradictions from a post-colonial, southern perspective, which will require new strategies and explanatory possibilities.

Together with other actors, “Social Work of the South” must also address the consequences of climate change (Welzer 2010), in order to find responses. These may possibly come from indigenous and local knowledge, e.g. ways to store water in areas facing drought or crops which offer the most reliable sources of nutrition. Green social work of the South must also consider the spiritual dynamics that may explain why so-called “sacred groves or forests” are better protected by people in many countries of the Global South than designated nature conservation areas.

Currently, the Corona virus pandemic is exacerbating social inequality in particular in the countries of the Global South. But it is also increasing the differences between nations and intensifying long term global inequality (Lutz & Kleibl 2020). The divide between North and South is becoming deeper. Whereas the economic strength of the countries of the North means that they are able to find “solutions”, despite growing social and economic problems, in contrast people in the countries of the South are exposed to the pandemic without any protection. They face catastrophes of unknown proportions.

As a result of the pandemic, economic progress in the countries of the South may at first be stopped, and in the long-term may even be reversed. Available resources are losing value and economic distortions make poor countries even poorer. The educational and public health systems will be overwhelmed. The economies of many countries of the Global South will not be in a position to meet the considerable long-term challenges presented by the pandemic. While the virus affects everybody, the consequences are not the same for everyone. The impact is greatest for the desperate, the wretched of the earth, the most vulnerable.

4. Backgrounds and origins

“Social Work of the South” draws not only on post-colonial theories but also on the history of resistance. These include slave revolts (e.g. in Haiti from 1791), independence movements, decolonisation processes for most Asian, African, and Caribbean countries (Eckert 2006), as well as newly-formed social movements.

Independence movements

In independence movements and struggles against colonial rule, authors and personalities expressed the experiences of colonisation and advocated pathways of resistance (Kerner 2012, pp. 32 f.). These included Mahatma Gandhi, who propagated the civil disobedience movement in India; Mao Zedong, who led an armed revolutionary struggle in China; Aimé Césaire, who created the image of the colonizer who accustoms himself to treating the other like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal; Josina Machel, a feminist icon of the Mozambique liberation movement; Léopold Sédar Senghor, president of independent Senegal, who began in 1960 to lead his country into the post-colonial era; Paulo Freire, who not only organised literacy campaigns against the resistance of ruling oligarchies, but also created a pedagogy of the oppressed; and Frantz Fanon, whose books describe the devastating and disturbing practices of colonialism and who called for resistance.

In their different ways, these figures all addressed issues of colonial exploitation and sought routes to liberation and independence in the light of their own traditions and experience. The importance of the contributions of Frantz Fanon and Paulo Freire for a Social Work of the South is outlined here.

Fanon is regarded as one of the founding fathers of African resistance against colonial alienation and dominance. The scope of his work is too broad to consider in detail, but he provided fundamental impulses that combined critique, political proposals, and practical measures. Fanon’s work still resonates both with academics and activists, and his radical approach to people in dependency relations can be seen as an important source for the “Social Work of the South”. From his psychoanalytical perspective, Fanon discusses the phenomenon of self-alienation of black people through colonialism and combines this with political demands for decolonisation and socialisation. His central topics remain racism and colonialism and ways of overcoming these.  

For Fanon, European opulence was “built on the backs of slaves”, it owes its existence “to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world” (Fanon 1973, p. 76). This position is also taken up by Lessenich in his book on the externalisation society, in which he points out that the global North outsources the costs and risks of their lifestyle to poorer world regions, the global South (Lessenich 2016). According to both authors, the “spirit of coloniality” persists everywhere the post-colonial era. Fanon showed its effects above all in the knowledge system and in the habitus of the new elites. In many analyses of “Social Work of the South” it has been plainly demonstrated that social work was at first also an import from the North that paid little attention to the special features of post-colonial societies.

Fanon formulated a utopian vision of decolonisation as an “absolute substitution”. This has remained unfulfilled but has lost little of its relevance. A key factor for the “Social Work of the South” is Fanon’s analysis that the ‘minds of the colonised’ were influenced by power structures in the context of the knowledge and education systems, so that oppression and racism are still features of the post-colonial period, and they seem to be insuperable. In this way, societal orders are stabilised. According to Fanon, the anger and resistance generated by colonialism is not directed primarily against the perpetrators but finds expression in tribal feuds, xenophobia, or blind, destructive violence. The struggle for liberation is not finished at the end of colonialism.

Fanon not only offers a critical view of the colonial situation and its consequences. He also discusses the necessity for a radical transformation and shows the problems that are necessarily inherited. At an early stage he recognised the danger of African freedom fighters and intellectuals being appropriated by the western capitalist system; he therefore called on them to adopt a critical stance towards the political systems, social orders, and knowledge systems introduced by colonialism, including social work, and to develop new alternatives.

This established important roots for a “Social Work of the South” that can be located in the liberation movements and against colonial hegemony. They indicate the need for a reconstruction of the knowledge systems, which face criticism in two respects:

  • In the critical view of colonial roots and effects which constrain theory and practical work, restricting perception of remaining exploitation, oppression, racism, and hegemony of new local elites and contributing to their continuation;
  • As a scientific approach developed in the public realm that views itself as rooted in and accompanying liberation movements, because it is far from achieving liberation from the yoke of coloniality, neither in the South nor in the North.

In the “Social Work of the South”, theories were developed which radically promote the increase in degrees of freedom, lifestyle choices (capability approach) and the reversal of colonial hegemony. This ties in with another root, namely Latin American liberation pedagogy.

Liberation pedagogy 

The “theology of liberation” proposed by Gustavo Gutierrez in Latin America arose in opposition to hegemonial colonialism (Figueroa 1989; Gutierrez 2004). Priests, philosophers and pedagogues were active in opposition to exploitation and discrimination, the persecution of indigenous peoples, and the mistreatment of those who had been initially abducted from Africa as slaves and who were eventually assigned to places on the periphery of society in Latin America. They wanted to contribute to the liberation from exploitation, deprivation of rights, and oppression (Knauth & Schröder 1998). The interpretation of the words of the Bible gave an impulse for a comprehensive societal criticism, and the declared goal was a different, basis democratic and primarily socialist social order, which was understood as just, salvatory and as a real alternative.

The basic concepts of liberation theology were developed in self-organised grassroots Catholic groups in Brazil (Boff 1983; Boff & Boff 1986; Boff 1990, 2009). The activists did not see themselves as inventors of a new religiosity, but rather as a mouthpiece for the oppressed (Freire 1973). They found ideas in the Bible which offered them support, salvation and stimulation, namely for the liberation from all forms of slavery. The poor and the oppressed were viewed as the primary addressees. However, human salvation was definitely seen as located in social reality. This served as a basis for deriving political consequences and practical measures which still have resonance today.

Liberation pedagogy wanted to develop critical theories of education and saw its roots in Marxism, in Christianity, and in the independence movements of Latin America. The goal was to promote awareness that exclusion, oppression, discrimination and alienation were instruments for the preservation of dominance. These can be changed, overcome and transformed by human actions, but the oppressed must first become aware of their own situations.

In “Pedagogy of the oppressed” and “Pedagogy of hope”, Paulo Freire presented methods and practical measures that were intended to help the oppressed, disenfranchised and exploited to find the courage to resist oppression (Freire 1973; Freire 1974a; Freire 1974b, Freire 1981, Freire 1987; Freire 1992; Lutz 2011). He spoke of conscientization, a processof developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action” [4]. “Cultural action” was fundamental, “because it is the process of changing the reality”.

Learning was viewed as a process which uncovered oppression and conflicts as a step towards formulating needs and solutions. The goal was to follow a development process together with people in order to enable them to determine their own existence and to open up equal opportunities. An ‘understanding praxis’ is always also a ‘liberating praxis’, which has to be oriented towards the people and their societal relationships – socially, culturally, politically, economically, and legally.

With the “understanding pedagogy”, Freire created a universal methodology for practical social work. Alejandro Cussianovic, a former priest, began to work with the children of the streets, who were struggling daily for survival against discrimination, persecution, imprisonment, and hunger (Liebel; Overwien & Recknagel 1999; Liebel 2017). He stood by them as helper, adviser and advocate. He regarded them as independent protagonists of their lives, leading a just struggle for participation and education. He organised education processes on the street that were intended to increase the children’s opportunities of living a better life.

Social movements which gave rise to the World Social Forum continue to draw on the tenets of liberation philosophy and pedagogy (Whitaker 2007). Since 2001, international meetings have been organised which not only involve criticism of the hegemonial nature of the neoliberal Euro-American modern order, but also discuss other economic concepts and ways of living together under the motto “Another world is possible” that offer an escape from the imperative of growth.

The concept of “street schools” has meanwhile spread throughout the world. On the basis of these activities, but also promoted by other actors, children’s movements have formed in the struggle for recognition as subjects, with calls for fair working conditions free from exploitation (Liebel 2017). The children regularly emphasise that under current conditions they have to work in order to support their families and gain access to formal education for themselves.

5. Indiginisation, authentization, reconceptualisation

For decades, there have been calls from the Global South for another type of social work which adopts a completely different approach to local problems. Most of the proposals came from academic circles, but some came directly from liberation and independence movements; for example, the White Paper on Social Welfare in South Africa [5] was based on proposals that had already been developed during the resistance to the Apartheid regime. Escaping from the coloniality of knowledge systems, new proposals and critiques could be merged into a publicly propagated third form.

Indiginisation, localisation and pluriversification  

The terms indiginisation, localisation and pluriversification bring together a variety of initiatives, academic debates and theoretical writings in Latin America, Asia and in Africa, adapting post-colonial social work to the local problems and requirements in order to establish a “Social Work of the South”. Fundamental positions are found most frequently in the literature on social work in Africa (Walton & Abo El Nasr 1988; Osei-Hwedie 1996; Mupedziswa 1993; Mupedziswa 2001; Osei-Hwedie & Jacques 2007; Lutz & Rehklau 2009). Social work on the African continent still has a relatively young and above all colonial history. With some exceptions such as South Africa, it was first imported from the West in the 1950s and 1960s (Mupedziswa 1992) [6] and initially was intended only for the white, colonising society there. After formal independence, various African countries adopted Marxist-Leninist styles of government which did not encompass a welfare state. Potential for social transformation and solidarity was envisaged in socialist-style mass organisations (e.g. peasant movements, women’s movements, youth organisations), with the consequence that many young social work schools were closed. It was only in the 1990s, following the opening up of western-style market economies and multi-party systems, that new courses and colleges were gradually created with a focus on social work and social development.

This resulted in increased efforts to adapt social work to the requirements of the African continent and its variety of cultures and political formations. In particular, the methods of dealing with individual cases was criticised because it lacked empathy and sensibility towards the local conditions and the living conditions of “extended families” or the importance of “communities” (Mupedziswa 1993, p. 159). Osei-Hwedie (1996, p. 217) wanted social work to focus on communities (village, neighbourhood, extended families, etc.) rather than on the individual subject: “In most African societies the individual is being within a societal or group context and finds character and expressions of the self within the group. (...) therefore, the focus of social work must be the community”.

For critical African theoreticians indiginisation, localisation and pluriversification referred above all to an adaptation or a reformulation, a process which modified imported ideas and practices, in order to bring them into harmony with the local cultural context and specific colonial experiences. Necessary reflections came to cast a new and different light on existing local knowledge (Straub 2012). In 2014, the term “indigenous knowledge” was included in the definition of social work by the International Federation of Social Work (ifsw) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (iassw), reflecting the debate in the Global South [7]:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.” (Our emphasis)

Indigenous, local and pluriversal knowledge

This internationally accepted definition of social work includes “indigenous knowledge” as an underpinning for activities (Yellow-Bird 2016; Kniffki 2018). This refers to the inclusion of traditional, indigenous, local, pluriversal and communal knowledge of indigenous peoples and movements, in particular when analysing problems and discussing action strategies in practical social work, but above all when working with indigenous communities in the Global South and also with refugees in the Global North [8].  

Indigenous, local and pluriversal knowledge is meanwhile an essential aspect of the Social Work of the South; affording deep insights into the interwoven nature everything living, without which it would not be possible to work together with people with a different cultural background. Indigenous resources, traditions, experiences, rituals, relationships, support networks, cultural memory and the underlying local ideas, principles, philosophies or values must be understood and articulated. Indigenous people have their own self-image and intensive links to their environment and the nature surrounding them, and they also have a well-formed cultural identity in a community with its own political and cultural traditions.

As an Australian colleague writes, social work with “Aborigines” is always work with “indigenous communities” with a completely different worldview (Briskman 2014). However, this applies not only for Australia, but for everywhere that social work is in contact with indigenous communities:

In indigenous communities such as the Aboriginals in Australia or the First Nation People in Canada, people have been pushed by colonial intrusion and transformation of the world to the periphery of society (reservations), and in the course of this their rights and traditions have been diminished. In recent years, these indigenous peoples have been pursuing identity politics and have established their own self-image as “Indigenous movements” as descendants of the original inhabitants of a certain region and demand their rights as indigenous communities. They draw on a long tradition and “indigenous knowledge” based on broad and deep experience. They demand in particular an “ethical space of engagement” (Ermine 2007) in order to dismantle hierarchies and epistemological injustice. Meanwhile there have also been various attempts to establish an independent “indigenous science”.  

Social work must take all of this into consideration in their work and in interdisciplinary theoretical discussions. This requires not only cultural sensibility, but also an understanding of cultural tradition from within and a willingness to question western-based privileges and to “unlearn” these where it contributes to a deeper understanding (Spivak 1999). Indigenous knowledge and indigenous movements are to be integrated in the theories and practices of social work, as is already happening in the Social Work of the South. Only in this way can appropriate ways be found to explain contexts and propose solutions for the range of problems faced globally and in particular also locally.

Authentization and reconceptualisation

Indiginisation and localisation have by extension been discussed as authentization: “the identification of genuine and authentic roots in the local system, which would be used for guiding its future development in a mature, relevant and original fashion” (Ragab cited in. Walton & Abo El Nasr 1988, p. 149). Authentization is based more explicitly than indiginisation on local resources, indigenous knowledge and the specific needs in each case. Furthermore, the term reconceptualisation is used in critical circles: “Reconceptualisation is seen as focusing on reformulation of concepts so that they are in line with efforts to empower marginalised groups in society” (Osei-Hwedi 1996, p. 216).

The underlying ideas have their roots in Freire’s conscientisation (critical consciousness) and Latin American liberation pedagogy (see above). Reconceptualisation emphasises in particular the political integration of practical measures in development contexts, with a focus on exclusion processes and their changes. This explicitly places the ”Social Work of the South” in a political context, more closely tied into the development-related change of society (Osei-Hwedie 1996, p. 216).

While indiginisation and localisation involve the adaption of western imports to local situations, authentization endeavours to establish local models of “Social Work of the South”. This can also be understood as the attempt to take into account the social, cultural, political and economic characteristics of a given country and a specific culture. Finally, reconceptualisation places social work in the focus of policy making. The common goal is the development of appropriate knowledge which can be implemented in methods and procedures that are compatible with local conditions and requirements. In order to be able to advance these developments, social workers must have a profound knowledge of local conditions which allows them to sound out the cultural life in order to work with local communities. This approach should prevent the (re-)colonisation of worlds, promote cultural variety and offer pluriverse and fair opportunities for realisation within each given context  .

6. Philosophies of the South

The discourses of the South involve concepts, ideas and visions that are of key importance in the search for knowledge and ways of thought that lie outside colonial influences (Mbembe 2016) or that can be rediscovered and updated. Here too the goal is independence, self-determination and overcoming global hegemony. The South will not provide romantic alternatives, but rather other possible views of the world. The people in the South do not want to return to some supposedly idyllic past, as is often alleged (or even hoped for) in the North – they want to develop their world. The philosophies are therefore impulses to further loosen the ‘chains of the North’.

Cyclical thought, which is often found or rediscovered in these philosophies, can be  forward-looking. However, it does not possess a linearity of uninterrupted progress, nor is it based on absolute rationality or ideas of generalisable knowledge, rather it includes dimensions such as feelings, relationships and art, and is open to multiple interpretations alongside one another. The idea of development is self-contained, is without direction, and can be contradictory; it lives above all through the people, who are in harmony with themselves and with others and with the nature around them (Lutz 2020b).

This dialectic can open up horizons and promote acceptance of variety. The ethnologist Descola has analysed the thinking of other cultures to which we feel superior (Descola 2011). He sees in the naturalist thought of the North a belief that humans have been appointed as rulers and owners of Nature. This has separated them from nature and thus from themselves and has also contributed to the climate crisis. A dichotomy, a dualism of nature and culture has resulted which is a pure construction, a rigid narrative that limits life. Originally, nature and culture were not separated but formed together some third entity, that in almost all cultures was seen as unified and interdependent. This must be re-established by continuity instead of rupture, by contact instead of separation, by community instead of individualisation, by cycles instead of acceleration.  

The conclusion is that the separations of internal and external, self and society, nature and culture, which are typical for the thought of the Global North, are hindrances and must be redressed (Lutz & Sachau & Stauss 2017). This involves overcoming dualism in thought with the goal of providing a new basis for the interdependence of all living things. Links to locations, ancestors, suffering, friends, events, memories, objects, animals, forest or all other things that are not “I” are more constitutive than we are willing to accept within established scientific thought. As a consequence, other forms of community, co-existence and cohesion must be formed.

These considerations are apparent in the buen vivir Andean cultures (Cubillo-Guevara et. al. 2018). Buen vivir sees itself as a world view that is community-centric and not capitalist, and it propagates a life that is in harmony with itself and with nature. This relates to an “Andean and indigenous logic” which attaches special importance to relationships, far from the modern logic of the North. Individuals cannot be viewed independently from the community and/or nature. Relationships are always complementary and reciprocal. Identity can therefore be “one” but also something else. Human activity is to be assessed in terms of whether it contributes to the preservation and reproduction of life. The focus is also on concepts that are discussed in the North such as appreciation of variety, tolerance of contradictions, the equality of humans and nature, and a great relevance of non-material values.

This philosophy of buen vivir also represents the struggle of indigenous movements for the recognition of tradition and knowledge (Kalny 2017). The wish is to bid farewell to failed attempts to pursue production-oriented progress and development as a mechanistic one-way street of growth. This still involves organising resistance against colonialism and its consequences, in particular also against the “externalisation” of the consequences of growth to the peripheries of the planet (Lessenich 2016). Finally, the aim of buen vivir is to establish “horizontal” societies based on direct democracy, direct action, self-administration and broad and participatory debates.

These ideas fed into Latin American liberation pedagogy, which has been influencing the discourse in the North for many decades (Lutz 2020a).

In southern Africa, Ubuntu, a traditional life philosophy, established itself once again after the end colonialism, showing further aspects of another possible world (Mathews 2018). In an African context, reference is also made to “home grown” philosophies. These “words” stand for “humanity”, “neighbourly love”, and “community spirit”, as well as “experiences” and the “consciousness” of a subject who is part of the whole. An attitude and a practical approach to relationships is formulated that is based on mutual respect, recognition, respect for human dignity and establishing a harmonious and peaceful society. This comes close to a theory of recognition (Honneth 1992, 2013, 2018), which in the North forms a foundation for work with people (Lutz 2011). Links are also established to belief and religiosity which brings together everything human. This could call into question some arguments advanced in the current debate on religiosity and secularity in the North (Kiesel & Lutz 2016).

Ubuntu has both political and religious-spiritual aspects that emphasise the responsibility and the integration of people in the community. In common with the Andean philosophy of buen vivir, it highlights ideas and forms of community that are also newly arising in the North regarding questions of cohesion in the society of singularities.

In their writings, Sarr and Mbembe call for an “Afrotopia” or a way “Out of the dark night”, not only for Africa, (Mbembe 2016; Sarr 2019). Both criticise the “imperial way of life”, because hegemonial western knowledge has established itself as “general knowledge”, displacing African (indigenous) traditions and knowledge, or devaluing these by theories of race and ethnicity. The criticism has led to a search for ways to re-evaluate repressed knowledge and traditions and to develop a new self-understanding that shows the world what it has lost by imposing purely instrumental reason, and what it could gain by reconsidering this. This brings us close to “border thinking” approaches that consider how various forms of knowledge can exist next to one another but also in dialogue with one another (Lutz & Sachau & Stauss 2017). This also reflects the controversy between “indigenous, local, and pluriverse knowledge” on the one hand and “scientific knowledge” on the other. This can only be resolved if both interpretations of the world can stand side-by-side as equals.

In his writings, Mbembe not only calls for Africa to become aware of heteronomy. He is searching for a new form of democracy, which could become very important in times of climate change. This should not be anthropocentric, but should integrate the entire planet, the people, all fauna and flora, the rivers, the air, and everything which supports life on our planet. Sarr seeks counterweights to colonial and hegemonial alienation in the rediscovery of the cultural wealth and variety of community-oriented thought in African cultures, which still exist despite the desecrations of colonialism. The revival of experience-based knowledge can be important in the current crises, as is being shown in agricultural science.

Approaches in the North can be regarded very differently in the light of these philosophies. There may be alternatives to the dominant hegemonial thought in the North, but these have a shadow existence. They can be drawn on to critically review personal attitudes in the North, and for reflecting on ways the North can learn from the South.

7. Practices and methods

In the regions of the Global South it is (still) possible to identify a very wide variety of different cultures. For the “Social Work of the South” it is essential to have a thorough understanding of people and their world views. Economic, social, religious, cultural, traditional, psychological and political factors must be taken into consideration (Osei-Hwedie 1996, p. 217). Knowledge of natural networks is also important, including the family and kinships, ethnic groups, the education system, and the community. There may also be on-going or long-standing conflicts, and events and secrets from the past   which still influence relationships today.

This interwoven “natural network” can be understood as a cultural basis, and as a starting point it gives rise to important questions. “Social Work has to recognise the uniqueness of culture, the central role of culture in service provision and the right to self-determination” (Osei-Hwedie 1996, p. 220). The analysis of culture is always the first step towards understanding people and their problems. In particular, elements of culture, tradition, religion and rituals can be helpful for promoting development processes. If the integral structures, relationships, values and philosophies of a culture are not taken into consideration it can reduce the acceptance of proposed changes. Social workers must understand other cultures as complex networks, involving relationships, traditions and indigenous knowledge, and at the same time should also critically examine their own culture. In this respect they are also ethnologists, using dialogues to contribute to making processes possible and with this attempting to maintain the balance between liberty and equality in an “ethical space of engagement”.

Dialogue as praxis

A form of dialogue is required as the praxis of a science that draws on Paulo Freire and others (see above). The pedagogic interactions must be characterised by a Student-Teacher-Teacher-Student relationship, a dialogue in which all the participants are involved. People are the experts (protagonists) about their own life. The aim of the dialogue therefore cannot be that social workers explain their own world-view and try to persuade others to accept this. Rather, an approach oriented on the lived worlds reflects the life situations in people’s interpretations. The key methodological principles can be applied in various ways:

  • In the “thematic universe”, day-to-day experiences can be identified that are “generative topics”, problems that people seek to comprehend and that lead them to search for answers. Questions can then be addressed about the importance of these topics for people’s own lives.
  • In these topics, “key situations” are identified, with concepts and images in which the significance of situations is coded. The integrated meanings and backgrounds are uncovered, leading to an understanding and shared comprehension. As underlying structures become apparent, it is possible to consider their effects, opening up new topics and situations.
  • In contrast to the colonial banking concept in education, a problem-solving method enables and empowers people to become independent individuals by asking questions and gaining knowledge to cope with and shape their own lives.

Enablement and empowerment

“Social Work of the South” as an idea and practical approach stands in a structural context of enablement and empowerment as an actor of “social change” and “social development”. Integral to this is the unfolding of freedom and degrees of freedom, which is discussed as “human development”. Freedom is a structural property and offers scope for processes of appropriation and structuring through which a “good life” can become possible. This is based on a concept of development extending beyond colonial alienation.

In stark contrast to hegemonial paradigms in the development cooperation discourse, Amartya Sen, among others, argues that development “consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency” (Sen 1999, p. xii). A human life is seen as involving a sequence of actions and living conditions in which something can be achieved, and these form a collection of functions. “Capabilities” are the alternative combinations of functions from which an individual can choose when deciding what kind of life they wish to lead.  

These are the preconditions for the free expansion of human capabilities. This also implies expanding not only human competences such as self-respect and capacity to act, but also the feeling of belonging to a community, which promotes identity and the respect of others. The increased options that arise and the greater opportunities for realisation must be available for all and not only for an elite. This “capability approach”, which has led among other things to a re-orientation of entire United Nations’ programmes of “human development” and a more critical view of linear economic growth models, has also influenced social work (Birgmeier 2017).

Freeing itself from the influence of the Global North and colonialism, “Social Work of the South” sees itself as an actor of “social development“ (Midgley 2009; Patel 2009). It will and must address the various problems in the Global South using its own approaches in order to find its own, self-supporting solutions. In addition to community work, this involves in particular sustainable livelihoods projects which guarantee nutritional sovereignty and make a materially self-determined life possible and thus above all establish and secure access to local markets (Yunus 1998, but also the criticism in Klas 2011).

As an actor, Social Work of the South challenges policy-makers to deliver the necessary framework conditions, orients itself primarily on prevention and only secondarily on intervention, endeavours to empower the subjects in relationships, focusses on communities, going beyond individual case help, and aims in particular to promote scope for capabilities and opportunities for realisation at the local level. Emphasis is placed on development-related strategies. Against this background, concepts and practical work in “Social Work of the South” can be understood as processes of implementing “human development”; people are the agents of development.

Translation and an ethnological view

In the Social Work of the South, and not only there, understanding forms the basis for dialogue, recognition and empowerment. Following Paulo Freire, the process of understanding and activating is defined as a problem-formulating method (Lutz 2011). Social workers are dialog partners who work together with people to ‘uncover’ (formulate) their everyday entanglements and find ways out of oppressive situations. Translation and an ethnological view are essential.

“Translation” not only involves linguistic skills (Buden et. al. 2009). “Border thinking” is required, an understanding of the other, in which widely-varying cultural and biographical backgrounds are decoded, so that they can be taken into consideration in daily cooperation (Lutz, Sachau & Stauss 2017). This requires both intercultural competences and stances as well as a process of understanding, which means an ethnological perspective.

This ethnological perspective offers an understanding of and participatory access to the contexts, values, backgrounds, secrets and myths of initially unfamiliar life styles. Understanding in this case does not involve immediate normative comparisons, which is what happens with “othering”. Possibly unconsidered backgrounds are to be included in the process of understanding. The ethnological perspective highlights the hegemonial and colonial contexts influencing encounters.

8. Radical social work

Calls have been growing louder, particularly in the global South, for a further radicalisation of social work and its role in society. In 1993, Ankrah wrote: “Radical developmental social work of an interdisciplinary nature, guided by informed, forward-thinking professionals and grounded in African realities, may be the only answer if the profession is to survive in the next century” (Ankrah 1987 cited in Mupedziswa 1993, p.160).

This demand is based on the analysis that the colonial and purely technical and instrumental social work of the North is irrelevant, inappropriate and ineffective for the South. It is necessary to abandon the liberal character of a value-free science and adopt more radical and liberating positions so that social work can break free from institutions and processes which have led to the social problems it is supposed to tackle. Social work must become involved as a political actor.

Radical social work involves refocussing social work well beyond each individual, reflecting social positions and uncovering how disruptions, exploitation, oppression, land-grabbing, and social structures minimise people’s opportunities and capabilities (cf. Lavalette 2011). It challenges the political sphere, creating a political stage for subaltern groups and adopting a different view of politics and institutional social policies oriented towards the social state. Politics is understood as a chain of subjectivisations, calling into question the cultural and political position of the marginalised (and their supposed representatives). The struggle between poor and rich, between the powerful and the subaltern, is therefore not a problem to be solved by civil society institutions, but is politics itself (Rancière 2006).

As the marginalised and the voiceless become more aware of their position and stand up for their rights, social structures are revised. Among other things, this means withdrawing from the superficial consensus and the social contract of institutionalised politics and civil society representation, which is often reduced to influential NGOs and welfare associations (Kleibl & Munck, 2014). Garrett (2018) argues that Ranciére’s work may aid critical reflection by social workers and a re-ordering of the political. This is the most outspoken and radical expression of Social Work in the South which (as in fact also in the North) draws on resistance, movement, liberation and utopia,

In recent decades, the “Social Work of the North” has undergone a massive transformation. Its formerly critical-emancipatory perspective has receded into the background; the focus has moved increasingly to work with individuals, although individuals, families and social groups have increasingly been made dependent on social structures and processes (Lutz 2021; Scherr 2019).

The remit of social work should not be to administer phenomena such as poverty on behalf of the state in a cost-effective manner or to ameliorate the negative impacts on those who are affected (Butterwegge 2015), but rather to reveal the social and political causes and to contribute to changes.

It has been argued that social work should critically reconsider its role as a kind of repair shop for the undesired consequences ofcultural, economic and social transformation (Scheer 2015). A paradigm shift is required to a (re-)politicisation of social work (cf. Lutz 2020c; Thole & Wagner 2019; Scheer 2019; Preis 2015). The main objective for the profession should be to become involved in political concerns and to call into question the supposed interpretative authority of politics, the media, and bureaucracy.

In Germany, the “Arbeitskreis kritische Sozialarbeit” (AKS) [9] offers a platform for networking, (self)critical exchange, and the adoption of alternative perspectives.

Perhaps the social work of the North can learn a new radicality from the Social Work of the South, which is oriented on societal movements. The ethical substance of a society must be measured in terms of the extent to which its members enjoy substantial freedoms.

9. Green Social Work

“The natural world will not care if social workers spend their time solely focused on insuring a degree of social justice for the human species. The earth system will collapse whether social workers are successful at those efforts or not” (Besthorn 2012, p. 248).

Green Social Work takes a critical view of social relations and explicitly places the demand for environmental justice within the concept of social justice, which has always been an integral part of social work (Dominelli 2018).

Lena Dominelli, an important representative of Green Social Work, noted the absence of social worker’s voices during the Tsunami catastrophe of 2004, when some 240 000 people lost their lives and 1.7 million people living in coastal regions lost their homes, and this led her to consider the need for collective social work responses (Dominelli 2018, p. 10 f.).

The consequences of environmental disruption are being felt all over the world, creating addressees for social work as people are torn out of their life-world or find that they are increasingly facing existential threats.

No clear distinction can be made between anthropogenic and natural environmental catastrophes and crises. However, there is now a scientific consensus about anthropogenic global warming and the dire consequences of climate change for the entire planet.

There are signs of growing awareness about the problems – not least due to movements such as ‘Fridays for Future’. However, the debate about climate justice should not be related exclusively to the coming generations and individual consumption. Rather an holistic perspective should be adopted – linking climate justice with social or global justice.

The Global North has been responsible for some two-thirds of historical greenhouse gas emissions, and only in this way was it possible to set up factories and infrastructure and to accumulate capital and wealth (Reif & Dahm 2017, p. 18f.).

The gap between rich and poor is also clearly demonstrated in the CO2-footprints. The poorest 50 % of the global population cause only 10 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the richest 10 % are responsible for nearly half of all CO2 emissions (Oxfam 2015, p. 3f.).

However, the impacts and consequences of global warming affect above all the countries of the Global South. For Africa, global warming of 1.5°C will already have considerable impact on agriculture and projected food availability, and increased water stress and greater risks of disease transmission are also predicted. In Asia, rapidly progressing global warming will threaten people’s existences, with rising sea levels, increased heat-related morbidity and mortality, and drought-related shortages of water and food (IPCC 2018).

Climate change also impacts on the Global North, but to a much lesser extent. In addition, the economic stability of the countries of the Global North and their advanced technologies mean that they are better able to cope with the acute and chronic consequences of climate changes. (IPCC 2018).

This illustrates the close links between industrialisation, colonialization, power, social inequalities, neoliberal policies and climate change.

Johan Röckstrom has identified nine planetary boundaries that define the stability of the ecosystem. Going beyond these could have catastrophic consequences for the entire planet (Röckstrom et al. 2009). Kate Raworth has developed a model that also integrates minimum social, political and cultural boundaries. Between the planetary boundaries and the social boundaries is the safe and just space for humanity in which inclusive and sustainable economic development takes place (Raworth 2012, p. 4).

However, the global community is currently far from this space. The minimum standards are denied to people in the global South in particular. Since the planetary boundaries and the minimum social requirements are interdependent, reaching the “safe and just space for humanity” is very complex (Raworth 2012).

Raworth argues that this space can only be reached by sustainable development aimed at opening up for everybody a life and opportunities based on human rights.

An economic approach is needed which adopts both planetary boundaries and the minimum standards as starting points for assessing economic activities. The aim should no longer be economic growth per se but rather bringing humanity into the “safe and just space”. In order to achieve this, political decision-makers must assume accountability for the effects of economic activities (Raworth 2012, p. 8).

Social work should adopt a clearer stance regarding climate policies. It should work towards the minimum requirements in the sense of human rights, while at the same time not losing sight of the planetary boundaries.

To achieve this, a trans-disciplinary perspective and the inclusion of indigenous and local knowledge could be advantageous or necessary for sustainable development (see 5. Indiginisation, authentization, reconceptualisation; Masoga/Shokane 2019).

“Social Work of the South” adopts an eco-spiritual perspective, which recognises the relationship between spirituality on the one hand (‘the universal quality of human beings and their cultures related to the quest for meaning, purpose, morality, transcendence, well-being, and profound relationships with ourselves, others and ultimate reality’ (Canda & Furman, cited in Gray & Coeates 2013, p. 360)) and the environment on the other (Gray & Coeates 2013).

In particular, transdisciplinary research which takes subaltern and indigenous perspectives into account (Angell 2019) offers a learning opportunity in order to promote a multi-dimensional perspective and to improve the understanding of climate justice and social or global justice. Green Social Work also provides some developments that can be gradually expanded (Taylor 2018, p. 337; Dominelli 2012, 2017, 2018; Raworth 2012).

Increased cooperation between globalisation-critical movements and social work could also provide important discussion impulses for the “Social Work of the North” to reflect on its values and to further develop a political stance (Wagner 2009).

10. Post-colonial feminist social work

The language of decolonisation is meanwhile used by many indigenous, African diaspora groups and social activists as well as critical social researchers. The confrontation with the colonial past is driven by a fundamental criticism of the persistent discrimination and racism which arose out of colonialism. Many of these groups demand comprehensive changes to the post-colonial national, transnational and international relationships of countries and societies, a transformation of the global capitalist economic order and a revaluation of cultural and collective rights and Eurocentric forms of feminism. Postcolonial feminist social work offers a response to these discourses and practices; it is a movement within social work which adopts a critical view of the training of social workers, the research and practical work, with the goal of decolonising social work at the various levels. This social-work movement draws on concepts such as critical whiteness, anti-racist social work, indigenous approaches, “learning to unlearn” Euro-American epistemology, and also intersectional perspectives (Kleibl 2020). Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003), one of the most influential postcolonial feminist theoreticians, studies the characteristics of feminism and the parallel colonial global structures. According to her, the representation of the Third-World Woman is a construction of western feminism and must therefore be situated and deconstructed geopolitically.

Post-colonial feminist social work focuses on gender and brings this into combination with other social categories such as ethnicity and skin colour which are relevant for post-colonial theories and reflections on post-colonial inequality. Postcolonial feminist social work, like intersectionality, originated in the black women’s movement and is concerned with overcoming hegemonial power relationships, with the focus of interest lying at the intersection of cultural and gender differences (Castro Varela & Dhawan 2009). In addition to the lack of references to gender in the dominant post-colonial theory, western hegemonial feminism is often criticised for propagating in women’s empowerment projects a supposedly modern, independent image of women in countries of the Global South, completely ignoring the cultural variety of pre-colonial gender roles and continued existence of flexible gender constructions. Western hypotheses about the “oppressed women in countries of the Global South” are often simply repeated instead of drawing on local cultural resources and intra-gender hierarchies within kinship structures when arguing for more just power relationships between genders (Jaji & Kleibl 2020).

Western empowerment concepts often fail to acknowledge the diversity of sociocultural positioning of women in countries of the Global South. From a postcolonial-feminist perspective it is often criticised that transformation of traditional gender-roles and relationships as a result of colonisation and Christianisation has led to a rigid re-positioning of women and in part to their unshakeable subordination to men. Western education introduced in the colonial era marginalised belief in supernatural powers and spiritual media that are used for making contact with the dead. It is often ignored that these spiritual links give women special power and authority. At the same time, many western education systems have continued to propagate domesticated women’s images, in which women are solely responsible for the family and the care of family members.

The debate on these and other topics also raises new questions for a Social Work of the South formed by postcolonial feminism. How can women be strengthened in settings with subaltern and disempowered men? Which cultural networks should be taken into consideration in each case when promoting women and men in countries of the Global South? When considering empowerment, postcolonial feminists demand, traditional structures in countries of the South should be analysed and used as a basis (Jaji & Kleibl 2020). Without this “analytical category”, empowerment within social work runs the risk of becoming part of the postcolonial mechanism of oppression by failing to acknowledge the specifically different socio-cultural positioning of women in countries of the Global South. Rasool (2020) therefore calls on social workers in an African context to take culture as a reference point and basis for social work activities. The differences between the various African feminist women’s groups must be taken into consideration. This can lead to political demands for the recognition of diversity within the international women’s movement, which is the undisputed foundation of “modern” social work.

11. Interwoven social work: acting locally, thinking globally

Social Work of the South is not only varied, but it also one aspect of the larger body of practical social work activities and academic work. It reflects and is an actor in a global world; it has a local presence but it is part of a global network and is an important discussion partner for the on-going internationalisation of this field.

This networking and exchange has meanwhile given rise to internationally discussed social work (Lutz & Stauss 2016; Wagner et. al. 2018; Kleibl et. al. 2020) which finds itself between various traditions and is subject to continuous transformation processes. The perspective for this internationalisation, through the continuous discussion of commonalities and ambivalences, lies in the crystallisation of an “international social work”. Difference is the central characteristic around which a common discourse and claims are grouped, and which constantly gives rise to new questions.

These reflections, which are the result of involvement with “Social Work of the South”, can be condensed in the term “interwoven social work”, which is associated with networking of the different local praxis, but which also makes possible a necessary global exchange.

This proposed “interwoven social work” finds itself in the context of an ‘interwoven modern’, which is not only polycentric but is also continually being reconstituted from a variety of traditions, development paths, and local reformulations, in an unending transformation (Randeria 1999; Lutz & Stauss 2016). Specific forms of resistance and ways out of the colonial pathways have created heterogeneous alternatives, each with its own regional or national version of modernity. In an ‘interwoven modern’ with ambivalent relationships and continuous transformation processes, uniform theories and practical approaches are hardly achievable because of the different traditions and experiences with colonialism, decolonisation, globalisation and imperial life styles. However, exchange and negotiation processes are possible.

International social work must arise out of the differences that have developed in the North and the South, and this requires exchange. Both differences and shared ideas can be integrated, but they will continually be subject to scrutiny and open critical reflection. Contradictions lead to a continuous process of reformation. Local alternatives may in some cases be incompatible, but a field of debate can be established in which commonalities and ambivalences can be repeatedly recombined. Even though difference is the key characteristic, a core can be recognised around which all the differences cluster and which lead to normative utopias of a good life and which constantly question, critically review and readapt practical approaches.

‘Interwoven social work’ is globally networked but has local roots (Lutz & Stauss 2016; Lutz & Stauss 2018; Lutz & Kleibl 2020). In the global world, the ‘local’ gains a completely different significance. It is the place of life, the place where people involve themselves, find their identity and live their lives in accordance with their ideas. Global and local are necessary ambivalences which find themselves in a relationship of interdependency. The ‘North’ and the ‘South’ here are metaphors that describe locations that at the same time are similar and different, but in a way that is perceived as non-simultaneity. ‘Interwoven social work’ condenses to form a third option beyond the colonial or the post-colonial challenge.

In this interwoven social work, ambivalences and contextuality are of fundamental importance, rather than universality and contextual independence. Experience and knowledge of the North and the South are globally available and can be adapted to local conditions and local (indigenous) knowledge. This results in a completely new perspective, and the ambivalences can lead to reflections on what the North can learn from the experiences of the South, and vice-versa. Gradual liberation from the constraints of imperial colonialization processes (both in the South and the North), and meanwhile also global exchanges, mean that social work can be seen to be ‘interwoven’. It must be globally linked but must necessarily act locally.

12. Outlook

The consideration of the “Social Work of the South” shows that the variety of life necessarily calls for a range of theories and methods. But the narrowness and the contextuality of thought (and of social work) in the Global North also becomes apparent. A global exchange and contacts with locally formed traditions and approaches can lead to the development of interwoven, mutually supporting social work which is constantly responding to new challenges. The currently dominant “instrumental thought” in the North can be relativised and called into question; social work can open itself up more for a critical-reflexive theory of the society, and take as topics itself, its location, its geopolitical context, and its tasks.

Translated from the German by Richard Holmes, Berlin


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Prof. Dr. phil. Ronald Lutz
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
International Social Work
Sociology and Social Politics
Altonaer Str. 25
D-99085 Erfurt
fon: 0049 (0) 361 6700-510/701

Prof. Dr. Tanja Kleibl
University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
Social Work, Migration and Diversity
Tiepolostraße 6
97070 Würzburg
fon: 0049 (0) 931 3511-8225

Franziska Neureither
University of Applied Sciences Würzburg-Schweinfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
Social Work, Migration and Diversity
Tiepolostraße 6
97070 Würzburg
fon: 0049 (0) 931 3511-8369


[1] The book series on “Sozialarbeit des Südens” (Social Work of the South) established by Christine Rehklau and Ronald Lutz has been appearing since 2007.

[2] See also the 8 volumes of Sozialarbeit des Südens.

[3] See also the contributions  in: Kleibl et. al. 2020

[4], Accessed 14.1.2018

[5]See:, Accessed 15.1.2015

[6] See also the many contributions of South African colleagues in Vols. I - VI of Sozialarbeit des Südens.

[7] Accessed 18.1.2018

[8] Understandably, some authors have questioned whether ‘indigenous knowledge’ qualifies as scientific knowledge. However, the question is based on a view of science which was developed in the Global North and does not consider other processes of knowledge generation.

[9] AKS was founded in 2005 and is organised in more than 20 regional groups. It offers scope for a (self)-critical perspective of societal developments, the profession and practice of social work in contrast to mainstream social work and social policies and the hegemonial neoliberal discourse. See www.

Cite this publication
Lutz, Ronald, Tanja Kleibl und Franziska Neureither, 2021. Social Work of the South: Political, anti-colonial, environmental. In: socialnet International [online]. 09.06.2021 [Date of citation: 04.07.2022]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: