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International team explores social work collaboration

During a busy week in September, research colleagues from Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda learned about social work in the Kristiansand region and how UiA involves users and organizations in research and teaching.

Research partners in their meeting
UiA's partners in the RESILIENT project visited Kristiansand in September. From left: Zena Mnasi Mabeyo (Institute of Social Work, Tanzania), Eric Awich Ochen (Makerere University, Uganda), Jorunn Justnes Andersen (A-larm), Hanne Nøding (A-larm). Behind: Cecilie Revheim (UiA) and Mette Fløystad Kvammen (UiA), (right side of the table) Charles Kalinganire (University of Rwanda).

The project RESILIENT aims to build capacity in social work in higher education graduate programs. Through collaboration between UiA and three universities in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, the idea is to learn from each other and develop knowledge together. This time, Charles Kalinganire (University of Rwanda), Zena Mnasi Mabeyo (Institute of Social Work, Tanzania) and Eric Awich Ochen (Makerere University, Uganda) came to UiA as visiting scholars to learn more about potential topics for research collaboration and students’ master projects.

Include users in practice and research

When meeting the research group “Social Welfare and Welfare Services”, the guests got to know the organization A-larm, a collaborating partner of the department.  The organization is part of the research network Praxis-Bruker, which focuses on involving service users and service users’ organizations in research. Mette Fløystad Kvammen is leading the network, and she explained how the network works to highlight and develop user knowledge in the welfare services in Agder.

– The biggest outcome of involving users in this forum, is that we get to look at the welfare services from different perspectives. The users are part of the education program and serve as mentors for students during their studies , thereby incorporating users’ firsthand experiences. They have also served as co-researchers in different projects over the years, where we include users in research processes and the development of services that directly affect them, said Kvammen.

A-larm is a recovery organization within the field of substance abuse, and their services are based on self-help ideology. Administrative Counsellor at A-Larm Jorunn Justnes Andersen explained that they offer group based and peer support services, and that their employees are a mix of professionals and former users. The organization stresses the importance of the community, and that the support from the people in your group can create a sense of fellowship and lead to inclusion into society.

Conversation in a group meeting

The research group "Social Welfare and Welfare Services" had invited the recovery organization A-larm, which involves users in their staff and services.

The role of the family and the community

The presented ideas about a support network functioning as “the extended family”, made Charles Kalinganire ask how the relatives are engaged. This started a reflection about cultural factors that may be different between the countries; Norwegians being used to relying on the welfare systems and professionals, but also the systems and structures that sometimes get in the way of relatives wanting to help. In East Africa, relatives play a key role in providing help and support for people in need.

Sharing experiences from different countries often lead to interesting reflections on differences and similarities, in Cecilie Revheim’s experience. Revheim is coordinating the RESILIENT project on the Norwegian side.

– At the heart of RESILIENT is the development of social work through homegrown solutions, and community engagement, all of which are rooted in self-help groups and local involvement to address significant social challenges. They lack the safety net of a welfare state, and social workers must largely engage in community work and initiate their own projects. This is where our longstanding collaboration with user organizations can be of valuable assistance. We thought it would be inspiring for our partners in East Africa to connect with A-larm collaborators to gain insights into their methods and approaches, she says.

Researchers in a group photo

The collaboration partners visit each other at regular intervals throughout the six-year RESILIENT research project. From left project manager Ann Christin Nilsen, Zena Mnasi Mabeyo, Charles Kalinganire, Cecilie Revheim and Eric Awich Ochen.

Social innovation through empowerment

Project leader Ann Christin Nilsen says that although there are differences, there are some key understandings shared by the countries involved in the project:

– Most social workers engage directly with people. They must understand their needs, troubles, and desires to be able to help in constructive ways, and for that reason social work cannot be standardized across different contexts. Working with local communities in East Africa and with user organisations in Norway serves the same purpose: to learn from people’s experience. In the RESILIENT project, we employ a methodology called community social labs. There are many similarities between this methodology and the network Praxis-User, presented by Mette Kvammen, says Nilsen.

In Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, master students try to find solutions to social problems by working in and with local communities in various parts of the countries. It is an ambition in the Resilient project that the knowledge developed through these master projects will make social work more sensitive to local needs.

– Some of the Ugandan master students will visit UiA next year, and we hope that will provide a good learning opportunity also for the Norwegian master students, says Nilsen.

Ideas for further collaboration

The meetings and discussions between the partners led to several proposals for collaboration, exchange and internships between various user organizations in the respective countries. The participants agree that comparing services and methods can be a fruitful approach for master’s theses.

– This is exactly what I was hoping for. When talking about certain societal challenges, we see that challenges may look different from one country to another. Exchanging perspectives and experiences can give us a new take on our own practice and lead to new research questions, says Revheim.


More information about the project to be found on RESILIENT's webpage.