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Social Work and Social DevelopmentTheories and Skills for Developmental Social Work$

James Midgley and Amy Conley

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199732326

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199732326.001.0001

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The Theory and Practice of Developmental Social Work

The Theory and Practice of Developmental Social Work

(p.3) 1 The Theory and Practice of Developmental Social Work
Social Work and Social Development


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an overview of developmental social work tracing its history, theoretical assumptions and strategies. It shows how developmental social work was influenced by the Global South. Key theoretical concepts used in the field are described. These concepts are consonant with social work’s increasing emphasis on the strengths and empowerment approaches. The chapter then discusses major social investment intervention strategies used in development social work including human capital investments, social capital mobilization, employment and self-employment (microenterprise), asset building strategies, and policies for removing barriers to effective economic participation among social work in social welfare clients. It shows that these practice interventions can be used to help the client groups that the profession has traditionally served while transcending social work's remedial and maintenance services and promoting community living and economic participation. The chapter concludes with a brief assessment of strengths and weaknesses of the social development approach in social work.

Keywords:   social work, social developmental, social investment, international social work, empowerment

This chapter discusses the meaning and key characteristics of developmental social work. It traces its history and examines its theoretical concepts and key practice interventions. The chapter shows that developmental social work has not only been influenced by ideas associated with economic and social development but also by historic debates about social work’s features, scope, functions, and mission. Ever since social work emerged as an organized profession in the early years of the 20th century, there have been sharp differences of opinion among practitioners and scholars on this issue. There have also been disagreements about the practice approaches that should be used to achieve its goals. These debates are relevant to an understanding of developmental social work.

Contemporary social work draws on divergent historical roots. One of these is the individualized casework approach, which emerged out of the poor relief activities of the urban charities in the 19th century. Another was the neighborhood organizing approach associated with the settlements. A third was the statist approach, resulting from the expansion of government social services and income maintenance programs. Although disparate, these different activities were forged into a coherent although sometimes fractious professional identity by social work practitioners and academics in Europe and North America in the early decades of the 20th century. The emergence of social work as an organized profession was aided by the creation of university-based schools of social work and the introduction of standardized curricula and educational expectations.

By the mid-decades of the 20th century, there was general agreement that social work is based on a common set of principles and values and that it has an (p.4) evolving body of knowledge. It was also agreed that social work’s goals would be realized through different practice methods, including casework, group work, and community organization. Although other practice modalities such as administration, research, and policy practice have also been identified, the three core methods of casework, group work, and community organization form the core modalities of social work practice. It should be noted that casework is also known as direct practice or more recently as clinical social work and that community organization is also known as community work or community practice. Of these practice modalities, individualized clinical social work is the most widely used form of social work practice.

These practice methods are generally applied in agency settings and in specialized fields such as child welfare, mental health, social assistance, medical social work, gerontological social work, and corrections. These fields of practice emerged in the early 20th century as the original poor relief functions of the charities were gradually superceded by specialized practice in hospitals, correctional facilities, public welfare agencies, mental health clinics, residential facilities, rehabilitation centers, and family and child welfare agencies. Agency-based social work practice is dominated by individualized casework. On the other hand, group work and community work are associated with distinctly different fields of endeavor, such as youth work and the planning of community social services.

Social work’s functions, preferred practice methods, mission, and other issues are perennially debated. Regarding functions, social work’s remedial function has long been given priority. Social work also has a maintenance function by which the profession provides long-term support and assistance to those in need. Social work’s preventive function has also been discussed in the literature, but unfortunately, prevention is not always given high priority. Closely aligned to prevention is the idea of promoting social integration and fostering solidarity at the community and societal levels. Social work also has a social change function by which it promotes improvements in people’s well-being and in wider social conditions. This change function is also referred to as social work’s developmental function.

Many scholars believe that social work’s different functions are discharged through different practice methods. Individualized social casework or clinical social work is usually associated with the remedial function, whereas residential care and the provision of social assistance is associated with the profession’s maintenance function. Group work is often said to promote social work’s integrative function. Community social work practice is believed to be best suited to attaining social work’s change or developmental function. The developmental function is also realized through social work advocacy and lobbying as well as through engaging in policy practice. On the other hand, social work practice in child welfare, medical social work, mental health, and other the fields of practice is usually associated with remedial social work.

The literature on developmental social work frequently differentiates between remedial, or “mainstream,” social work on the one hand and developmental social work on the other. Whereas the former is said to rely primarily on individualized (p.5) casework in specialized fields of practice agencies, the latter is believed to take place through community organization or “macro-practice,” which includes advocacy, lobbying, policy practice, and organizing. Macro-practice is believed to offer a congenial opportunity for social work to transcend its conventional remedial preoccupation and to realize its social change goals. However, as was suggested in the introduction to this book, the bifurcation of “mainstream,” remedial, and developmental social work has not been helpful. Although it is true that community and other forms of macro-social work are conducive to promoting the developmental approach, its tenets can also be applied in the core social work practice fields mentioned earlier. As this book hopes to show, social work practice in these fields is amenable to developmental principles and approaches. This involves the use of investment strategies, as well as the adoption of community-based, participatory, and rights-based interventions.

This argument is articulated in the remainder of this chapter by tracing the evolution of developmental social work during the 20th century and highlighting practice innovations as well as academic efforts that have conceptualized developmental ideas. The chapter then examines some of the theoretical concepts that inform developmental social work. Finally, it discusses some of the key interventions that characterize developmental social work and distinguish it from other social work approaches.

The Evolution of Developmental Social Work

The ideas on which developmental social work are based can be traced back to the profession’s early years, when the founders of the settlements and the advocates of governmental social welfare intervention offered an alternative to the casework model. The settlements provided educational, recreational, and youth activities and sought to mobilize local people to improve their neighborhoods. Statists urged the expansion of public social services based on universalism and social rights as well as the large-scale employment of social workers in government agencies. These alternatives challenged the individualized casework approach but were not successful in undermining its dominant position.

However, as suggested earlier, it is an oversimplification to strictly classify individualized casework as being remedial and community organization as being developmental. As scholars such as Karger (1987) have shown, community organization as practiced by the settlements was not always progressive. Indeed, some settlements were very paternalistic and controlling, particularly toward immigrants whom they sought to assimilate into mainstream American society. To complicate matters, some social work scholars have argued that clinical social work can be developmental. In the 1930s, the diagnostic, medical casework model developed by Mary Richmond and the psychiatric approach of Mary Jarrett were criticized by Jessie Taft and Virginia Robinson of the Functional School, who stressed the importance of growth within the therapeutic relationship. Anticipating later scholars, (p.6) they argued that social workers should pay attention to client strengths rather than deficits and help them to realize their potential for personal growth. Nevertheless, notions of pathology and treatment continued to dominate social casework.

Although community social work remained a minority field, it provided an opportunity for the application of developmental ideas, particularly through the work of Jane Adams and her followers. Their contribution to settlement work and neighborhood building and to advocacy and political lobbying helped shape social work’s social change function. Also relevant was the pioneering role of activists such as Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and Bertha Reynolds, who inspired those committed to bringing about progressive change. As the work of Saul Alinksy was absorbed into community social work practice in the 1950s, the idea that social workers could contribute effectively to social change through social action gained wider support. These events contributed significantly to the emergence of developmental social work.

Social work’s commitment to social change was given a boost during the Great Depression, when social workers in the United States became involved in various New Deal programs. Important members of the Roosevelt cabinet, such as Harry Hopkins and Frances Perkins, were closely associated with the emerging social work profession and actively supported the expansion of social work education and the employment of qualified social workers within governmental bureaucracies. Hopkins appointed Jane Hoey (who was one of the first federal officials to obtain a professional social work credential) to head the government’s expanding social assistance program. Social workers were also firmly in control of the Children’s Bureau and shaped the emerging field of statutory child welfare practice.

The programs of the New Deal were largely developmental in character. They integrated economic and social policy and placed emphasis on securing full employment. Major economic and social reforms were introduced, and the role of the unions was strengthened. Workers’ rights and minimum wages reinforced prevailing notions of economic justice. In addition, the income maintenance and social services introduced with enactment of the 1935 Social Security Act provided a comprehensive safety net and formalized the idea of the right to welfare. The New Deal also emphasized investments in education, health, and housing. The subsequent enactment of the Servicemen’s Adjustment Act (or the GI Bill of Rights) in 1944 confirmed this commitment to social investment and developmental social welfare. There were similar developments in Britain after the adoption of the recommendations of the Beveridge Report by the Post-War Labour Government as well as in other European countries that implemented a variety of “welfare-state” policies.

Social Development and Developmental Social Work in the Global South

As in the West, social work in the developing countries of the Global South has also been largely remedial in character. In many countries, social work was introduced by the colonial authorities after World War II to staff the new social welfare services (p.7) that had been introduced to respond to growing urban social problems, such as juvenile delinquency, child neglect, begging, and vagrancy. Professionally qualified social workers were imported from the metropolitan countries to serve in the new departments of social welfare that were created in many of the colonial territories and local staff were sent abroad to obtain professional social work credentials. Social workers were assigned responsibility for managing the institutions for young offenders and homes for the destitute elderly and people with disabilities that were established in many of these territories at the time. In addition to providing residential services, they also engaged in casework and provided limited social assistance benefits.

As many developing countries secured independence from European imperial rule, high priority was given to economic development. Their nationalist leaders were not content with securing political sovereignty but wanted to modernize their economies and raise the standards of living of their citizens. They and their economic advisors believed that by stimulating industrial development, those laboring in the subsistence, agrarian sector would be drawn into wage employment and that this would create a spiral of growth that would eventually denude the subsistence sector and significantly reduce the incidence of poverty. A major policy recommendation was that governments should reduce consumption expenditure and prioritize economic development.

It was in this context that the emerging social welfare programs of the developing countries came under sustained criticism for consuming scarce resources on allegedly “unproductive” activities that detracted from the overriding goal of achieving rapid economic growth. Although most social welfare officials reacted defensively to this criticism, some were motivated to identify interventions that did indeed contribute to economic development. In India, the developmental potential of community-based activities associated with the work of indigenous leaders such as Gandhi and Tagore laid the foundations for the country’s social development programs. In West Africa, where communal grain storage and cooperative farming were commonplace, welfare administrators realized that local needs could be addressed through community projects. They proposed that the remedial emphasis of the welfare departments be augmented by community-based interventions such as literacy education, building roads, bridges, and local irrigation systems, promoting small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry, developing crafts and village industries, and constructing community health centers and schools.

These programs were enthusiastically endorsed by the Colonial Office in London, which facilitated their replication in the other British colonies. The Colonial Office also convened several meetings of social workers and welfare administrators from the colonies, and it was at these meetings that the terms community development and social development were adopted. Whereas community development referred to local activities, social development involved, as one official document put it, “nothing less than the whole process of change and their advancement of a territory considered in terms of the progressive well-being of society and the individual” (United Kingdom, 1954, p. 14).

(p.8) The global spread of community development and social development owed much to the United Nations and other international organizations. The United Nations provided technical advice and funding to assist governments in implementing social development programs, and it convened numerous international meetings and conferences where social development interventions were discussed. A major event of this kind was the United Nations Conference of Ministers Responsible for Social Welfare, which took place in New York in 1969. The ministers discussed the different functions of social welfare and recognized that remedial services had a major role to play in meeting social needs and addressing social problems. They also recognized that many of those served by social workers would require “maintenance” in the form of long-term benefits and supports. However, they urged that an appropriate balance between remedial, maintenance, and developmental interventions be found and, in particular, that social welfare services should contribute to national development. Although the conference is seldom mentioned in the social development literature, it questioned the prevailing emphasis on remedial social work and contributed to the spread of developmental ideas.

Although community development and social development were initially viewed as a governmental responsibility, the statist emphasis was eventually challenged by those who believed in a grassroots, participatory approach in which ordinary people rather than government officials and their appointees controlled local affairs. Despite its promise of involving local people, government-sponsored community development was based on a “top-down” approach in which civil servants made decisions and directed development projects. It was also noted that community development often involved patronage politics and supported corrupt officials and local leaders.

In response, a more activist form of community development emerged in the 1970s. Advocates of the new radical approach criticized governmental and traditional power structures and sought to increase popular participation in development projects. This development was consonant with the rapid growth of the voluntary sector at the time, and with popular movements that were inspired by the anticolonial writings and struggles of Third World activists. The notion of empowerment and the work of Freire (1970, 1973) on conscientization fueled the new activism. The rise of the Women’s Movement in both the West and the Global South also contributed significantly to the activist approach and infused conventional social development thinking with a new radicalism that some believe offered an alternative to the “welfare developmentalism” that characterized state-sponsored developmental social work. Antiracist and other campaigns for equality, such as the gay rights struggle, have also contributed to the popularization of the activist approach.

Conceptualizing Social Development and Developmental Social Work

These developments laid the foundation for the conceptualization of social development and developmental social work in 1970s and 1980s. Although social (p.9) development had taken root by this time, it was largely a practical affair in which theoretical ideas played a minimal role. Social development’s subsequent theoretical growth owed much to social work scholars who had experience of development in the Global South. Although they focused broadly on social development rather than social work, their writings had relevance for the conceptualization of developmental social work as a distinctive form of social work practice.

In the 1970s and 1980s, theoretical work in social development was facilitated by the establishment of the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development. The Consortium, which has since been renamed the International Consortium for Social Development (or ICSD) was initially comprised largely of social work educators at midwestern universities in the United States. One of their primary goals was to introduce social development to American social workers through convening conferences and publishing a new journal, Social Development Issues. Also relevant was the creation of a social work program committed to teaching and scholarship in social development at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Under the leadership of John (Jack) Jones, the program made a major contribution to the conceptualization of developmental social work. However, it encountered accreditation difficulties and the experiment was eventually terminated. Nevertheless, these events facilitated lively debates and a growing body of academic literature on the subject.

The first book on social development by social workers was an edited collection by Jones and his colleague Rama Pandey in 1981, and this was closely followed in 1982 by another edited book by Dan Sanders of the University of Hawaii. Both books contained an eclectic set of chapters dealing with different aspects of social development. At about this time, Paiva (1977) and published seminal articles on social development in leading social work journals that helped to publicize the social development approach among social workers in the United States and other countries.

However, these publications revealed that no standardized definition of social development had emerged and that the field was infused with rhetorical and hortatory claims that were in themselves inspiring but lacked clear practical prescriptions for practice. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify two strands in this formative literature. The first views social development as a process of personal growth and self-actualization that has wider social effects. For example, drawing on earlier functional casework ideas, Maas (1984, p. 3) defined social development as a process in which “people become increasingly able to interact competently and responsibly resulting in the creation of a caring and sharing society.” Pavia (1977, p. 332) offered a similar interpretation, arguing that social development is “the development of the capacity of people to work continuously for their own and society’s welfare.”

A second approach comes from scholars such as Hollister (1977), who equated social development practice with macro-social work practice and noted that social development combines community organizing, policy analysis, planning, administration, and program and project evaluation. Spergel (1978) adopted a similar (p.10) approach, suggesting that there was little difference between developmental social work and community organizing. Stein (1975) also associated social work’s developmental function with social planning and the implementation of social policies. On the other hand, Sanders (1982) argued that social development is applicable to all forms of social work, but he did not provide specific examples of how developmental ideas could be implemented in mainstream professional practice. This issue was subsequently addressed by social work scholars Billups (1994) and Elliott and Mayadas (1993, 1996) who showed how social development principles could be incorporated into different social work practice modalities.

Despite this flurry of academic activity, commentators such as Lloyd (1982) concluded that the advocates of social development had failed to define developmental social work in tangible terms and that the literature on the subject had only produced a set of “values aspirations and heuristic notions” that were “hortatory rather than prescriptive” (pp. 44–45). Equally pessimistic was Khinduka’s (1987) contention that despite a good deal of academic effort, social development remained “an incorrigibly elusive concept” (p. 22).

In the 1990s, attempts to offer conceptualizations of social development practice were overshadowed by the rise of market liberal ideology. This development challenged the statist interventionism that was implicit in much social development thinking. Derived from European social democratic ideas and Keynesian economics, social development scholars and practitioners generally approved of government intervention in social and economic affairs. The advocates of neoliberalism successfully challenged this assumption. In the United States and Britain, the Reagan and Thatcher administrations attacked economic planning and state welfare, whereas in Chile, General Pinochet’s military régime aggressively sought to eradicate all traces of state intervention. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were also infused with neoliberal ideas and increasingly required the governments of indebted developing countries to reduce social expenditures as a condition for financial aid. Development economics also reflected a growing commitment to market liberalism and, coupled with frequent populist attacks on government development programs by activists in the nongovernmental sector, social development programs in many developing countries were enfeebled.

Despite the near hegemony of market liberalism, social development advocates continued to believe that state intervention was needed to deal with the increasingly serious social problems affecting many developing countries. Despite the gains recorded in the post-World War II decades, economic growth in many parts of the Global South stagnated, the incidence of poverty increased, and problems of malnutrition, ill health, and illiteracy became more evident as government social services were retrenched. Generally, the neoliberal dispensation impeded social progress and in some cases reversed earlier developmental gains. This was particularly evident in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the former Soviet Union, where the destruction of state socialism resulted in a precipitous rise in unemployment and social deprivation. These problems were exacerbated by the emergence of new social challenges such as the AIDS pandemic and genocidal civil wars.

(p.11) Recent International Developments

In the early 1990s, staff at the United Nations Secretariat in New York persuaded the organization’s leadership that a renewed commitment to social development was needed. In 1995, this resulted in a landmark conference in Copenhagen, known as the World Summit on Social Development. The Summit was attended by an unprecedented number of world leaders. It set specific long-term social development targets, which, it was hoped, would be met both through domestic and international effort. The Copenhagen Declaration, which enshrined these targets, again brought social development to the forefront of international attention (United Nations, 1996). Subsequently, these targets were reformulated and adopted as the Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations General Assembly at a special session in September, 2000. Among these goals is a commitment to halve the incidence of global poverty by 2015 and to bring about improvements in social conditions including nutrition, the status of women, and maternal and child health. Emphasis was also placed on the need for greater international cooperation (United Nations, 2005).

Although the World Summit and the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals undoubtedly reinvigorated social development, significant differences about the nature of social development practice and the conceptual ideas underlying different interventions persist. Although the statist approach has been undermined, its role is still recognized. On the other hand, community-based interventions have become very popular. With the rapid expansion of the nongovernmental sector in many parts of the Global South, social development is now widely associated with community-based activities managed by local people or by nongovernmental organizations. Since the 1970s, many new nongovernmental organizations have emerged to promote local community development. Many are managed by women and have a strong commitment to promoting the well-being of women and securing gender inequality. A major development has been the adoption of micro-enterprise and microfinance. Although micro-enterprise had been encouraged for many years, it was largely after the innovations of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh became widely known that peer lending to cooperative groups of women became a popular social development strategy. Also relevant has been the rise of the Environmental Movement, which has vigorously campaigned for sustainability in development policy. The concept of sustainable development has been well-received the social development circles and has informed many social development projects, particularly at the community level.

These events facilitated new efforts to conceptualize social development. One example is Midgley’s (1993, 1995) account, which contends that social development draws on diverse normative theories, including statism, populist communitarianism, and market individualism. Although they inform different approaches to social development, he suggests that they can be synthesized into a holistic model in which the role of the state, community, and market are integrated. However, this pluralistic conception requires management and oversight by the state. Using this (p.12) normative framework, Midgley stresses the need to integrate economic and social policies within a broad, progressive development process. He contends that economic development should produce tangible improvements in people’s welfare and, conversely, that social policies should contribute to economic development.

The ideas of Sen (1985, 1999) have provided an important conceptual basis for social development. Sen believes that development involves the freedom of people to choose different “functionings.” These functionings refer to the different states of “being and doing” that people may value. To maximize their choice to achieve different functions, their capabilities need to be enhanced. The concept of capability has since been popularized in social development circles. It has also had a wider impact in both development and mainstream economics, where it is compatible with prevailing neoclassical and rational choice ideas.

The concept of capabilities is similar in many respects to that of assets—particularly to the way it is used in community development by Kretzman and McKnight (1993), who believe that communities have many unrecognized assets and that it is the task of community practitioners to map these assets and educate local people about using them effectively. This notion has been adapted to the international development context by Moser and Dani (2008) who explicitly link the notions of assets and capabilities, and by Mathie and Cunningham (2008), who believe that poor communities can be educated to recognize and utilize their assets with very limited external intervention. This usage differs from that of Sherraden (1991), who has focused on financial assets by advocating the use of matched savings accounts, or Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).

Although these ideas have relevance for developmental social work, few attempts to formulate a coherent conceptual definition of developmental social work practice have been made. One significant contribution comes from Elliott and Mayadas (1996, 2001) who contend that concepts of growth, strengths and empowerment can inform all forms of social work practice including clinical practice. They argue for the abolition of the division between clinical and macro-practice showing that social investment, economic participation, empowerment and human investment are relevant to all systems and forms of social work intervention. Another comes from South African social work scholars, who were inspired by the promotion of developmental social work and social welfare in South Africa. In the late 1990s, the Mandela government published a White Paper that proposed a comprehensive reorganization of the country’s social welfare system. With the adoption of the White paper, social workers in South Africa were urged to engage in developmental, rather than conventional, remedial social work practice, which had characterized social work in the country for many years. Although the government launched several community-based projects designed to show how developmental ideas could be applied in social work practice, confusion about the differences between “mainstream” and developmental social work have not been resolved. Nevertheless, leading South African social work scholars such as Patel (2005) and Lombard (2008) have made a major contribution to the conceptualization of developmental social work.

(p.13) Gray (1998), a former South African now living in Australia, has also contributed to debates about developmental social work in South Africa. Patel’s experience as a senior government administrator and as author of the White Paper has informed her work and contributed to her seminal formulation of the development practice.

Theoretical Dimensions of Developmental Social Work

Although social work scholars and practitioners have grappled with the notion of developmental social work over the years, no standard definition of developmental social work has been adopted. Of course, given the diversity of interests that comprise professional social work, this is not surprising, and it is unlikely that a universally accepted definition will emerge. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify common themes that provide a basis for a systematic conceptual perspective on developmental social work. These include agreements about the importance of facilitating change, the use of strengths, empowerment and capacity enhancement, the notion of self-determination and client participation, and a commitment to equality and social justice. Also relevant are concepts that are not always recognized in the literature, such as social investment and social rights. The following examines these ideas and attempts to integrate them into a tentative exposition of developmental social work.

The notion of change is central to developmental social work. As shown in the previous section, change has been a recurring theme in debates about social work’s goals and functions. In developmental social work, the notion of change is progressive and linear in that it posits a process of ongoing improvement. In direct social work practice, this involves personal growth. In macro-social work practice, change has less to do with individual development; rather, collective improvements are stressed. In addition to focusing on process, the goals of change have also been debated. Many caseworkers and group workers who emphasize the need for change have invoked Maslow’s (1943) notion of self-actualization to characterize both the change process and its desired end-state. Similar ideational notions are to be found in macro-social work practice, where the goal of change is often defined as achieving social integration, effective community functioning, greater equality, or social justice. On the other hand, some scholars place more emphasis on material welfare goals, contending that the process of change should produce tangible improvements in standards of living, health and education, and a concomitant reduction in poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy. It is this emphasis on material welfare that is given particular emphasis in the social development literature, and it has special significance for the conceptualization of developmental social work.

Theoretical debates about the nature and purpose of change in developmental social work are permeated by a cluster of related concepts that concern the factors and interventions that bring about change. These include the concepts of strengths, empowerment, conscientization, capabilities, assets, and capacity enhancement (p.14) among others. Although they evoke similar images, they have different emphases and are used in different contextual settings. They have direct relevance to social work practitioners seeking to facilitate change and development.

Strengths-based social work practice has become popular in social work. As Saleebey (1992) notes, it offers a radical alternative to the profession’s conventional, problem-focused preoccupations. Social workers adopting the strengths approach help clients to recognize and utilize their inner resources, skills, and capacity for growth. Although their clients may face serious challenges, social workers using the strengths perspective believe that clients are innately resilient and that their ability to identify and negotiate solutions should be supported. Accordingly, adversities should be regarded as opportunities for social workers to collaborate with clients and to facilitate the expression of strengths. This process allows for learning new skills in negotiating the challenges of everyday life and for building effective coping mechanisms.

The concept of empowerment is equally popular and perhaps even more frequently used in social work today. Although similar to the notion of strengths, it has a stronger contextual connotation, suggestive of the relationship between individuals and the negating, disempowering, and oppressive environments in which they find themselves. Not surprisingly, the concept has frequently been invoked with reference to ethnic and gender oppression, where it offers a solution to the helplessness that oppressed people often feel when faced with institutionalized racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination (Solomon, 1976; Guiterrez & Lewis, 1999). However, it is also used in a more general way to respond to situations where despair, fatalism and apathy are widespread. Often, this situation characterizes the lives of poor and vulnerable families, who comprise the majority of the profession’s clients. It is in this context that advocates of empowerment practice such as Lee (1994) invoke Freire’s work and his concept of conscientization to urge social workers to engage in a dialogical relationship with clients, helping them to understand the power structures that impede their functioning and assisting them to a learn various techniques that will help them to challenge these structures.

The notion of community building in macro-social work practice also reflects these ideas, implying that strengths and empowerment are integral elements in bringing about change at the community level. The contention that community social workers should recognize the assets—rather than deficits—of poor communities offers an alternative to the negative way that low-income communities have been portrayed in the media and are often perceived by middle class people (Kretzman & McKnight, 1993). Community interventions that address these problems avoid the “pathology” approach and seek instead to build on local assets and resources by enhancing community capacity. This involves a process by which community workers mobilize leadership, local organizations, and resources for positive social change (Chaskin et al., 2001).

Although these concepts are primarily used in social work, they are similar to Sen’s notion of capabilities, which, as noted earlier, has been widely invoked in social development circles. However, it is often used to exhort rather than to (p.15) provide specific, programmatic, or policy prescriptions for bringing about change. Whereas it is assumed that by virtue of their activities development workers will enhance the capabilities of impoverished households and communities, the literature fails to show, in tangible terms, how this can be achieved. In particular, little reference is made to the role of state institutions and resources in capability enhancement.

It is in this context that a critical attitude is needed to question the assumption that significant material gains in social welfare can be achieved simply by exhorting poor families and communities to meet their needs by drawing on their strengths and capabilities. Nor is it sufficient to help these clients recognize their position in oppressive and exploitative systems or power and to resist them. Although it is indeed highly desirable that strengths and capabilities be emphasized and that oppression be resisted, concrete investments in the form of resources and services are also needed. For some social development writers (Midgley, 1999: Midgley & Sherraden, 2009; Midgley & Tang, 2001), social investments are vital to social development. These investments involve a cluster of interventions that, for example, mobilize human and social capital, facilitate employment and self-employment, promote asset accumulation, and in other ways bring about significant improvements in the material welfare of individuals, families, and communities. These investments, which are a key component of the developmental approach to social work, are discussed in more detail later in this chapter.

The concepts of social integration and normalization are also central to the theory of developmental social work. These concepts allude to the goal of facilitating the integration of social work’s clients into the community and promoting normal community living. Although social work’s dominant pathology perspective assigns clients to roles in which their “deficits” require perennial treatment and supports, and even segregation in specialized residential facilities, developmental social work is committed to restoring them to independent community living.

The restorative approach not only informs direct practice interventions that provide brief and intensive services to those with serious personal and familial challenges but also applies to those facing long-term adversities. These challenges may require ongoing supports, but developmental social workers believe that these supports and services should be provided in the community rather than in residential institutions. Although it is true that social workers today do not favor the use of residential care, it is still widely used in child welfare, disability, and especially gerontology, where the numbers of elderly people in nursing homes has increased steadily in recent decades. Also, although deinstitutionalization has resulted in a significant decline in the numbers of mental health consumers in residential facilities, the lack of adequate community services impedes the realization of normal community living. The notion of community integration therefore requires significant investments that facilitate normal community living such as access to housing services, transportation, education, medical care, and recreational and cultural facilities. It is also closely associated with the idea that those living in the community should be afforded opportunities to participate in the productive economy.

(p.16) Developmental social work also invokes the concepts of self-determination and participation. Self-determination has been accorded canonical status in social work since the profession’s early years. Despite its importance, social work has in fact relied extensively on a professional “expert” model in which social workers, together with other professionals, prescribe solutions. Because social workers acquire professional credentials (often at prestigious institutions of higher education) and base their practice interventions on an established body of knowledge, it is not surprising that they should utilize an expert perspective. The expert model is not only employed in clinical practice but is also found in other forms of social work. As Simon (1994) notes, it is often manifested in subtle ways, such as when community practitioners act as “liberators” who use their superior status and expertise to “rescue” the poor and vulnerable from oppression. Similarly, the tendency toward paternalism finds expression in the way social workers function as “benefactors” who exude compassion and relieve suffering. These tendencies should be resisted, and social workers should facilitate authentic client decision making. This involves fostering a dialogical relationship with clients so that their voices are heard and their decisions respected. Client participation also requires that professionals accept these decisions even though they may counter their own views and recommendations.

Developmental social work relies extensively on sharing international innovations. In fact, as its history reveals, the field has been largely shaped by international exchanges. However, these exchanges are today increasingly reciprocal and mutually beneficial, and challenge the previous practice of uncritically replicating Western theories and practice interventions (Gray, 2005; Midgley, 1981, 2008a). Provided social workers in different parts of the world inform themselves about developments elsewhere and judiciously evaluate the relevance of international experiences, they have much to learn from each other.

In developmental social work, the notion of social rights reflects the belief that those served by social workers not only have a right to make decisions but to benefit from services and supports. It also recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people. However, it is only relatively recently that this idea found expression in international human rights instruments. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and subsequent conventions addressing social and economic conditions enshrined this principle. These instruments urge the world’s governments to adopt policies that raise the standards of living of their people, create opportunities for employment, ensure decent working conditions, and provide social security, education, health care, and other social services. Similar international instruments have sought to abolish discrimination against women, end slavery and human trafficking, and challenge racism and other forms of oppression.

The rights-based approach to social development has attracted more attention in recent years. It has infused social development discourse with the language of human rights, helped to define the goals of social development, and facilitated the implementation of social development policies and programs (Midgley, 2007). Human rights ideas have also been adopted in social welfare policy, particularly (p.17) through the writings of Marshall (1950), who argued that the struggle for civil and political rights over the centuries reached fulfillment in the 20th century with the achievement of social rights as a condition of citizenship. Today, the notion of rights promotes social development through both political and judicial processes. As Lombard (2008) notes, the South African courts have issued several rulings that have benefited the recipients of social welfare provisions. Indigenous groups and community activists in other parts of the world have also made increasing use of the rights-based approach (Grugel & Piper, 2009; Molyneaux & Lazar, 2003). Although human rights have not been emphasized in social work, the publication of several books on the subject by social work scholars (Ife, 2001; Reichert, 2003) has exposed the profession to the relevance of human rights to social work practice.

Finally, theoretical debates in developmental social work have often addressed social and political concerns that transcend a narrow preoccupation with social work practice. These include peace, democratic participation, toleration, equality, and social justice. Of course, these ideals are perennially referred to in social work’s literature, and although there is a danger that they achieve little more than rhetorical status, they express the profession’s commitment to promote these ideals. In the past, some members of the profession have effectively engaged in advocacy and have formed coalitions with political leaders, trades unions, and other progressive organizations. These efforts are actively supported by developmental social workers who believe that political action is needed to challenge discrimination, racism, sexism, and other impediments to progress. They have recognized that improvements in material welfare are not only the result of economic progress, education, and similar interventions but of wider social and political changes that produce peaceful, democratic, egalitarian, and just societies.

Developmental Social Work Practice

The introduction to this book noted that developmental social work differs significantly from other social work approaches, such as psychotherapeutic clinical social work, residential care, community organization, legislative advocacy, or policy practice. Nevertheless, it has much in common with these forms of social work. Many theoretical concepts used in developmental social work are also used in other types of social work, and in some cases, there is a significant overlap. This is perhaps most obvious with regard to community practice. However, as shown in Chapter 9, not all forms of community social work make purposeful use of the notion of social investment or adequately emphasize the need for economic development. These are essential features of developmental social work.

Differences between developmental social work and other forms of social work are particularly marked when developmental social work and psychotherapeutic counseling are compared. Although developmental concepts such as growth, strengths, and empowerment are also used in psychotherapy, clinical social work is permeated with notions of pathology and medicalized treatment. The common use (p.18) of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in social work education in the United States attests to the popularity of this approach. Although developmental social workers may serve people facing psychiatric challenges and use counseling techniques, they are not psychotherapists.

Developmental social workers also avoid the use of residential services, except on a temporary basis or when it is not possible to place people with special needs in the community. Although it is true that developmental correctional practice (as discussed in Chapter 7) occurs in a custodial setting, the emphasis on successful re-entry and the use of interventions that promote re-entry reflect a commitment to community-based practice. This is also fostered by the close links maintained between correctional social workers within custodial settings and those based in the community.

Developmental social workers facilitate the inclusion of clients in all aspects of community living. Accordingly, they are actively involved in the community and work closely with community groups to secure resources, access networks, and establish local projects. They avoid office-based practice and instead are out and about working with clients and community groups. Community-based practice is facilitated by locating practitioners in neighborhood centers that are in close geographic proximity to their clients. This may be a generalist social services center, where various social work programs are located, or specialized programs such as youth outreach or AIDS prevention agencies. This approach derives from the settlement houses and community centers that were a focal point for community social work practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, many local community centers are either situated in the old settlement houses or otherwise utilize their community-based approach (Yan, Laurer, & Sin, 2009).

Community-based interventions are closely linked to the notion of integrating clients into the productive economy. This is revealed in the way developmental social work practice typically gives priority to local economic and social development projects. Case studies of developmental social work usually highlight the activities of community-based women’s groups, micro-enterprises, health and nutritional projects, infrastructural development programs, daycare centers, adult literacy, and similar projects. These projects make extensive use of productivist social investments that enhance client participation in the economy and improve material well-being. These investments are described below, but first, reference to the skills used in developmental practice is discussed.

Practice Skills for Developmental Social Work

Social work is based on relationships established by practitioners with their clients. Although other professions also make use of interpersonal relationships, these are not always accorded primary importance. For example, in architecture, engineering, and medicine, the application of knowledge and the skillful use of technologies is given more emphasis than relationships. Of course, social workers also draw on the profession’s established body of knowledge and are committed to its values and (p.19) ethical principles. Skills, knowledge, and values applied through interpersonal relationships characterize all forms of social work, including direct clinical practice, group work, and community social work practice.

Interpersonal relationships also serve as a conduit through which particular agency routines and procedures are implemented. In statutory agencies, policies, procedures, and regulations based on legislative directives are particularly important, but similar routines shape social work practice in nongovernmental agencies. Standardized procedures are also integral to settings where service delivery rather than counseling is given priority. This is especially true of established fields of practice such as child welfare, corrections, medical social work, and mental health. Despite the emphasis placed on the individual worker’s practice skills in much of the profession’s academic literature, skills are often subordinated to the procedural rules that dominate service delivery in these practice fields.

In addition to operating within agency policies and procedures, developmental social work practice is linked to wider systems of resources. The effective utilization of these systems has long been valued in social work. The ability to help local groups and communities access resources and networks is also given high priority in developmental social work and is an important skill. This requires that practitioners be familiar with local services and wider social policies and programs. In addition to utilizing networks and resources effectively, Patel (2005) points out that generalist skills applicable to many forms of social work practice are also used in developmental settings. The following offers a brief discussion of the application of these skills in developmental social work. These range from skills usually associated with direct practice to those that are viewed as being more appropriate to community practice.

Counseling and other skills associated with direct practice are important if effective relationships are to be established with clients. Developmental social workers must be able to communicate effectively with individuals, families, and community groups and be able to use interpersonal relationships for this purpose. These skills also involve building trust and helping clients to develop self-confidence and make decisions that affect their lives and the well-being of their communities. Counseling skills are also needed when developmental practitioners encounter clients who face emotional and mental health challenges or who have been abused or traumatized. For example, developmental social workers helping local communities to operate a childcare center providing preschool education and nutritional services may discover that a child attending the center has been physically abused. On closer investigation, the child’s mother may reveal that she too has been beaten by the child’s father. Although counseling will be needed in situations like these, referral to more specialized agencies may be appropriate.

Because developmental social work relies on mobilizing local groups of community members, skills in working with these groups are given high priority. Again, building relationships and trust with group members is of the utmost importance, but this is accompanied by the use of facilitating and enabling skills that help group members to work together, define group goals, and engage in effective problem (p.20) solving. Social work skills that mobilize local people to engage in developmental projects are also needed if local needs are to be addressed. This involves identifying local leaders who can assist in mobilizing local support. The development of leadership is another vital skill in developmental social work. Another relevant skill is brokering, by which practitioners help groups to access wider resources. For example, a womens’ group seeking to establish a small enterprise will need credit and expertise that community practitioners are able to access.

Skills that facilitate decision-making in group meetings and educating group members to engage effectively in decision-making tasks are used in developmental social work. Groups establishing community projects will invariably encounter challenges that need to be addressed. The social worker’s enabling skills are used to help clients solve these problems collaboratively. Although developmental social workers do not prescribe solutions, they are a resource to the group, providing knowledge and information that will help them achieve their goals. Also relevant are mediation skills, which are used when group members come into conflict and are unable to resolve difficulties.Many of the skills used by developmental social workers with groups also apply to community practice, which largely depends on mobilizing, facilitating, organizing, and planning the activities of local groups and community organizations. On the other hand, community practice also takes place at the neighborhood level, where groups may not have formed or developed sufficiently to engage purposefully in local activities. Developmental social workers are cognizant of the differences between these different levels of community practice and use their skills appropriately.

In neighborhood capacity building, skills in forming local community groups and identifying local leaders able to initiate action are widely used. Recognizing that universal participation is unlikely, practitioners nevertheless seek to enhance people’s involvement and to ensure that neighborhood groups are representative of local families. Skills that enable collaborative action and empower local people are given high priority. At the wider community level, developmental social workers seek to facilitate cooperative action among a variety of neighborhood, women’s, youth, and other groups and to link them to more established, community-based developmental agencies. Coordination and networking skills are obviously important to achieve this goal. Irrespective of whether developmental social workers are employed by local governmental or nonprofit bodies, or by particular projects or agencies, high priority is given to networking and ensuring that community effort is cooperative and coordinated. Mediating skills may also be needed to insure cooperation between different projects and agencies.

Advocacy skills and the ability to mobilize local people and groups for social action are also relevant. When advocacy involves facilitating a link between local groups and those who have resources, it is similar to brokering. But it also involves wider advocacy for social justice such as when community members face entrenched inequalities in resources and power or when they are exploited or discriminated against. An important aspect of social justice advocacy is educating and empowering local people to develop their own voice and act in their own interests. Freire’s notion (p.21) of conscientization, which was mentioned earlier, is a major inspiration for social justice advocacy. Social workers seeking to mobilize local people for social justice need to ensure that they do not themselves assume leadership roles and speak for local people. As the experience of indigenous activism has shown, people are able to draw on their strengths and mobilize on their own behalf (Mathie & Cunningham, 2008). However, this does not mean that practitioners have no role to play. For example, they can help by accessing the legal resources local people need to claim their rights. The realization of a right-based approach to developmental social work often requires expertise of this kind.

Investment Strategies in Professional Practice

Because of its historic association with development in the Global South, developmental social work is primarily concerned with improving the material well-being of individuals, families, and communities living in conditions of poverty and deprivation. Although it is seldom recognized that most of the profession’s clients in the Western countries are also poor and face material challenges, many of their personal and familial problems are closely associated with poverty (Lowe & Reid, 1999). This is one reason that developmental social work is relevant to both the developing and Western nations.

When addressing these problems, developmental social workers make extensive use of interventions that specifically enhance standards of living. These interventions are productivist in that they foster economic participation and raise incomes and assets. In using these interventions, developmental social workers believe that economic participation is a major source of empowerment. However, these strategies are not employed in isolation from broader, community-based interventions but require national policies that promote a holistic development process designed to raise the standards of living of the population as a whole. This requires that economic development policies be people-centered in that they improve the material well-being of all. As Midgley and Tang (2001) note, it also requires that social development policies contribute positively to economic growth. In addition, development policies should be sustainable in that they protect the environment and ensure that natural resources are not depleted but remain available to future generations. As will be recognized, these principles are compatible with the ideal of creating egalitarian and just societies.

Numerous developmental interventions that contribute to improvements in material well-being have been identified by social development scholars. These investments have been extensively discussed in the literature on social development (Midgley, 1999; Midgley & Sherraden, 2009; Midgley & Tang, 2001) and are only summarized briefly here.

A distinguishing feature of these interventions is that they are community-based, utilize capabilities, and foster empowerment. They also facilitate the integration of clients into community living by providing access to housing, medical services, education, and recreational facilities. Also relevant are human capital investments, (p.22) employment, microcredit and micro-enterprises, asset programs, and social capital interventions. These investments require resources, including funds, expertise, and a political commitment from governments. It is not always recognized that social development requires significant budgetary allocations.

Various social investments are needed if the people served by developmental social workers are to be integrated into the community and live fulfilling and productive lives. It has been a major failure of deinstitutionalization that mental health consumers are not provided with adequate supports that enable them to live normally in the community. Although the mental health experience dramatizes the problem, similar investments are needed in other fields of social work as well. The transformation of the conventional child protective services system to a community-based system will require extensive investments. Similar investments are needed to facilitate the integration of other social work clients (including seniors, people with disabilities, and former prisoners) into the community. The costs of providing housing, access to medical care, transportation, and other services that promote community integration are considerable and pose a huge challenge to those who advocate integration. On the other hand, the costs of maintaining people in custodial and residential facilities and of neglecting those who struggle to cope with the demand of community living are even higher.

Although human capital investment programs are primarily concerned with inculcating the knowledge and skills that people need to participate effectively in the productive economy, they also include investments in health and nutrition. By fostering economic participation, these programs contribute to poverty eradication. Human capital is generated through the wider educational and health-care systems; however, it is also promoted by developmental social workers. As noted earlier, adult literacy, job training, preschool childcare centers, women’s educational programs, and similar projects are all associated with social development interventions in low-income communities. Of particular interest to developmental social workers is the role of preschool centers for poor children. As shown in Chapter 2, these centers play a key role in reconfiguring conventional child welfare services by creating an alternative community-based approach.

Employment and self-employment programs are also given high priority in developmental social work. Although it is widely accepted that wage employment generates income and raises standards of living, employment activation has not been emphasized in conventional social work even though many of social work’s clients, including those with disabilities, street children, and unemployed youth, are eager to secure employment. Beginning with sheltered employment for people with disabilities, employment activation and placement programs have expanded over the years and now facilitate the employment of clients with special needs in the open labor market. This has been supported by antidiscriminatory legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in the United States, which requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation for those with disabilities. Employment activation has also been more widely used for clients receiving long-term social assistance benefits. As shown in Chapter 6, these “welfare-to-work programs” (as (p.23) they are also known) provide job referral and placement, training, and supports to encourage economic participation. However, there are wide variations in the way these programs are conceived and implemented in different countries. Fortunately, the coercive caseload reduction model introduced in United States in the mid-1990s has not been widely emulated.

Employment placement programs have been augmented by the more frequent use of micro-enterprise and microcredit programs (Jurik, 2005; Midgley, 2008b; Remenyi & Quinones, 2000). Many nonprofit organizations and governments around the world now support programs of this kind by providing technical assistance, subsidies, and preferential access to credit. The government of the Philippines has been a major promoter of micro-enterprise (Quieta et al., 2003), and the activities of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh (Yunus, 1999) have done much to popularize this approach. Several international organizations also support micro-enterprise, and commercial banks have also become involved. Typically, loans are made to poor individuals and families who have no collateral and little access to conventional sources of credit. Originally, the Grameen Bank used a peer lending system by which cooperatives of poor women assumed collective responsibility for loans and the success of projects. However, this approach has since been replaced by an individual lending model (Dowla & Barua, 2006). As shown in several of the chapters of this book, micro-enterprises are widely employed in developmental social work to foster economic participation among poor people and those with special needs.

Investments that subsidize wages or mandate the payment of minimum or living wages also facilitate participation in the productive economy. Employment is hardly an effective mechanism for poverty eradication if wages are too low to maintain a decent standard of living or if employers unscrupulously exploit workers. Although minimum wage laws require employers to meet a prescribed minimum income level, this level has been eroded by inflation in many countries. In the United States, minimum wages are increasingly augmented by living wages. These are mandated by progressive local governments contracting for goods and services with commercial providers. In cities such as San Francisco, for example, the wages paid by contracting firms are significantly higher than the federal government’s minimum wage. Also relevant are wage subsidies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit in the United States and the Working Families Tax Credit in Britain. Both subsidize the incomes of poor families in regular employment and have contributed significantly to poverty alleviation.

Although social welfare policies and programs have been primarily concerned with maintaining incomes, the importance of asset accumulation has also been recognized, particularly through the work of Sherraden (1991), who criticized the conventional consumption approach in social welfare and argued for policies that help low-income families to accumulate financial assets. He originally proposed that children be provided with a savings account at birth, but this was subsequently modified by the introduction of matched savings accounts for all low-income savers known as IDAs. In the United States, IDAs have been established by numerous (p.24) nonprofit organizations and foundations and are also supported by the state and federal governments. Although IDAs usually provide opportunities for short-term savings, they have helped poor families to accumulate assets, improve their credit-worthiness, meet educational expenses, and inculcate a stronger orientation toward the future among savers (Schreiner & Sherraden, 2007). Although Sherraden’s work has been primarily concerned with savings accounts, assets are also an important element in community development (Green & Haines, 2008; Kretzman & McKnight, 1993; Moser & Dani, 2008).

The notion of social capital has been popularized in social science and policy circles over the last decade and is now widely used as a synonym for community building. However, in its original conceptualization by Putnam and colleagues (1993, 2000), social capital had an “economistic” connotation, suggesting that civic engagement is positively associated with economic development. Since then, developmental social workers have recognized the link between community organization and community building on the one hand and local economic development on the other. Today, greater efforts are being made to link community organization with economic development projects, including access to credit, job creation, micro-enterprise development, and asset building. Although social work has historically been concerned with organizing, planning, and building networks, there is now a greater interest in combining these conventional activities with economic development projects (Midgley & Livermore, 1998; Sherraden & Ninacs,1998).

The removal of barriers that inhibit economic participation and create equal opportunities are also emphasized in developmental social work. Reflecting the field’s commitment to social justice and the use of advocacy, developmental social work challenges institutionalized obstacles to economic participation, including discrimination based on race and ethnicity, gender, nationality, disability, age, and other factors that impede the realization of the aspirations of social work’s clients. Social investment programs will be ineffective if these obstacles are not removed. Unfortunately, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and other forms of hatred continue to impede the efforts of many who seek to achieve their life goals. In addition, income and wealth inequalities that prevent people from realizing their goals need to be addressed. Although equal access to education and particularly higher education has been recognized for many years, in countries such as the United States, these opportunities have diminished as the costs of higher education have increased steadily (Sacks, 2007).

Finally, developmental social work requires the use of cost-effective interventions and evidence-based methodologies that promote effective practice. Social work has not in the past stressed the need for rigorous evaluation to determine whether its interventions are effective. It has often been assumed that professional judgment and expertise is a guarantor of effectiveness. This has opened the profession to the criticism that social welfare programs are wasteful, introduced for political reasons, and have negative unintended consequences. In recent times, the need for systematic evaluations of social work and social welfare interventions has been recognized, and the use of evidence-based interventions has also been more (p.25) vigorously advocated (Gambrill, 1999; Gibbs, 2003). Although not welcomed by all social workers, there is a greater recognition today that claims about social work’s effectiveness need to be substantiated. This is equally true of developmental social work, where the challenge of rigorously evaluating developmental interventions provides new and interesting opportunities for social work research. Because developmental social workers are committed to using intervention that produces positive rates of returns to clients, communities, and society as a whole, there is an urgent need to demonstrate that social investments in professional practice do, in fact, achieve this goal.


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