Advancing Social Work and Public Health in the Global South: An Expert Perspective
Social development projects in Africa require long-term engagement with communities on the ground, says Dr. Fred Ssewamala.
On April 5, Dr. Fred Ssewamala delivered the sixth annual Tony Tripodi Lecture on International Social Work, contrasting the values, assumptions, and methodologies of social work researchers and practitioners in the Global South (for the purposes of this talk, Sub-Saharan Africa) with those in the Global North (generally, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe).
Ssewamala’s personal background, anchored in both Africa and the United States, equips him to take a nuanced and comprehensive view of this topic. Born in Uganda and raised by his extended family, he earned his undergraduate degree from Uganda’s Makerere University and then came over to the United States for graduate work, earning first an MSW, with a concentration in social and economic development, and then a PhD in social and economic development policy, from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
Since then, Ssewamala has enjoyed a brilliant academic career, which at one point included a tenure-track professorship at the Columbia School of Social Work, where he still has many friends and followers of his work. He is now back at the Brown School serving as its William E. Gordon Distinguished Professor.
In addition to academe, Ssewamala has more than 15 years of on-the-ground research in his native Uganda and elsewhere in Africa, running research projects that are focused on family strengthening and economic empowerment. At the lecture, he reflected on the lessons he has learned from two of his most innovative projects, both of which have received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health:
- International Center for Child Health and Development (ICHAD), which seeks to reduce poverty and improve health outcomes for youth and families in low-resource communities in Sub-Saharan Africa; and
- SMART Africa Center, which aims to reduce gaps in child and adolescent mental health services and research in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda.
Professor Neeraj Kaushal, who moderated the Q&A session following Sswemala’s talk, delivered this compliment to her former colleague: “Your work is truly remarkable, from research to training students to having an impact on the ground.”
Closing the event, Dean Melissa Begg commended Ssewamala’s “comprehensive, wide-ranging, and inspirational” presentation, which emphasized the role of economic development programs in addressing the poverty that makes communities more vulnerable to HIV, COVID-19, and mental health issues.
“You’ve reminded us why social workers absolutely must study the relationship between poverty and health,” she said, “and that what we can learn in one region of the world, despite the differences, can be applied in another.”
Words from Fred Ssewamala
On social work education:
“I’m very skeptical about short-term courses which are limited by spring break, where you have students going to Uganda or Kenya for two weeks and they come back and write books like they’re experts. You need a real engagement with communities for you to be able to move the needle in places we need to impact as social workers.”
On capacity building:
“This is not about Fred at the forefront. You really have to believe in what you do and think about surrounding yourself with the right people… I want to develop a pipeline of people who can do this work with me but also without me.”
On cultural differences between researchers in South and North:
“The way we look at challenges [in the North] is a bit simplistic… We failed to recognize poverty as a driver. The first publication connecting poverty with HIV was in 2007.”
“Someone like me, who grew up poor, I know that [the solution] is beyond simply one intervention. That’s why I think about combination interventions.”
On the importance of economic development programs:
“Young people and their families want to engage with financial institutions rather than just receive a handout.”
“Give people a chance to decide how to spend their money, and for us as researchers, let’s see how this money is being spent.”
The annual Tony Tripodi Lecture on International Social Work is made possible through the generous support of CSSW alumnus Tony Tripodi, DSW’63, an esteemed social work educator.