Capabilities, Human Rights and Competences as a framework for expressing the role of culture in the Social Work Profession

Dijkstra, Peter M. (2017). 'Capabilities, Human Rights and Competences as a framework for expressing the role of culture in the Social Work Profession' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.

Peter M. Dijkstra, MA, Senior Lecturer ( Institute of Social Work (ISO), University of Rotterdam, The Netherlands

In professional education it is not easy to implement the concept of Capabilities for students or professionals of Social Work [1]. Curriculum building in a language of Competences isn’t easy either. So is the main task of social work; Human Rights for every human being as a goal for all social workers as stated in the Global definition of Social Work. In this small introduction we already have introduced three patterns of thinking and writing that seem to be incompatible, Capabilities, Competences and Human Rights. But, instead of thinking in different patterns and to subsume one for the other, it is also possible to develop a new framework of three perspectives with each it’s own concepts, responsibilities and history.

It is necessary to make a short exercise of explaining the traditional relation between Human Rights and Capabilities, which has been made by two important thinkers of the Capability Approach; Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It will be demonstrated that at the beginning their discussion remain in a dialectical juxtaposition between Capabilities and Human Rights without realising that dialectics is not enough to give the theory of Capabilities more value in realising Human Rights for everybody in daily life. This becomes very clear if the focus is brought to professional interception in ordinary life with the use of Competences. Especially Social Work professionals act in the domain of Human Rights and support developing Capabilities of Human Beings. The own mandate [2] of the social worker will be explained in comparison with the state as stakeholder for legislation of Human Rights and citizens or human beings in making their own lives as good as possible or reason to be valued. In a way this is could be valid for every profession but this article puts the lens to social work as the most obvious professional for this special relation.

The new framework will be explained by the example of cultural freedom, part of the symposium subject at the HDCA2017 conference. From all Human Rights, Cultural Freedom is the most difficult one for Social Work to notice. It is strange that in the definition of Social Work the concept of cultural isn’t noted. To be social sounds to be clear and widespread if we connect it for instance to a well know philosophical discussion of the social contract theories. But, the theories of Rawls or Rousseau don’t mention cultural contracts. So what to do, if in a globalised world where difference of culture is at stake, culture doesn’t be part of Social Work? [3]

Especially the Capabilities Approach can put a new light to the professional discussion about culture in connection with the new framework. The Capability Approach resists in taking the main focus for economic or social inequality by widening it to other aspects like gender, ethno-cultural identity, religion and so on. Cultural freedom can bring in a new perspective for the social profession itself as is demonstrated indirectly in Sen.’s book, Development as Freedom. It is fruitful to use the new developed framework with the three perspectives for surpassing a lot of dialectical juxtapositions between the state and human beings (or citizens). The culture of freedom will give the reasons for social workers to take culture as to be valued but also to make clear the different perspectives and discourses of Human Rights, Capabilities and Competences on the same issue. Especially when we have to educate or evaluate social workers or social work students in education and at grass-roots level.

  1. Robeyns (2003) and Mink (2016, page 77-78).
  2.  Staub-Bernasconi (2006).
  3.  As far as I know, there is not an existing cultural work profession with its own federation that takes guard of many tangible and intangible cultures as Unesco states it.
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