The Impact of Western Social Workers in Romania - a Fine Line between Empowerment and Disempowerment


  • Bianca Dümling


Ideally the social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance their well-being (IFSW 2004). The social work practice, however, often proves to be different. Social workers are always in the danger to make decisions for their clients or define problems according to their own interpretation and world view. In quite a number of cases, the consequence of such a social work practice is that the clients feel disempowered rather than empowered. This dilemma is multiplying when western social workers get involved in developing countries. The potential that intervention, with the intention to empower and liberate the people, turns into disempowerment is tremendously higher because of the differences in tradition, culture and society, on the one side and the power imbalance between the ‘West’ and the ‘Rest’ on the other side. Especially in developing countries, where the vast majority of people live in poverty, many Western social workers come with a lot of sympathy and the idea to help the poor and to change the world. An example is Romania. After the collapse of communism in 1989, Romania was an economically, politically and socially devastated country. The pictures of the orphanages shocked the western world. As a result many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), churches and individuals were bringing humanitarian goods to Romania in order to alleviate the misery of the Romanian people and especially the children. Since then, important changes in all areas of life have occurred, mostly with foreign financial aid and support. At the political level, democratic institutions were established, a liberal market economy was launched and laws were adapted to western standards regarding the accession into the European Union and the NATO. The western world has left its marks also at the grassroots level in form of NGOs or social service agencies established through western grants and individuals. Above and beyond, the presence of western goods and investment in Romania is omnipresent. This reflects a newly-gained freedom and prosperity - Romania profits certainly from these changes. But this is only one side of the medal, as the effect of westernisation contradicts with the Romanian reality and overruns many deep-rooted traditions, thus the majority of people. Moreover, only a small percentage of the population has access to this western world. Western concepts, procedures or interpretations are often highly differing from the Romanian tradition, history and culture. Nevertheless, western ideas seem to dominate the transition in many areas of daily life in Romania. A closer look reveals that many changes take place due to pressure of western governments and are conditioned to financial support. The dialectic relationship between the need for foreign aid and the implementation becomes very obvious in Romania and often leads, despite the substantial benefits, to unpredictable and rather negative side-effects, at a political, social, cultural, ecological and/or economic level. This reality is a huge dilemma for all those involved, as there is a fine line between empowering and disempowering action. It is beyond the scope of this journal to discuss the dilemma posed by Western involvement at all levels; therefore this article focuses on the impact of Western social workers in Romania. The first part consists of a short introduction to social work in Romania, followed by the discussion about the dilemma posed by the structure of project of international social work and the organisation of private social service agencies. Thirdly the experiences of Romanian staff with Western social workers are presented and then discussed with regard to turning disempowering tendencies of Western social workers into empowerment.