The problems of social work in small cities—some reflections from Binzhou, Shandong Province

  • Home
  • >
  • Analysis
  • >
  • The problems of social work in small cities—some reflections from Binzhou, Shandong Province

It is generally known that social work, as a field based on helping others, originated in Western countries. Within China the birthplace of social work is in the Pearl River Delta. Following the development principle of “starting off with one region, and gradually expanding”, the modern social work system was first built up in this region. At present social organizations have spread all over China, with the increasing support of the government for the field’s development and the issuing of policies to strengthen social forces. In particular, due to the lower standards for the registration of social organizations, many NGOs have emerged in third and four-tier cities. But are all the service organizations whose registration with the Civil Affair Bureau includes the term “social work” real social work organizations? Reality shows that operating a real social organization is not as simple as hanging up a plaque with its registered name. During the development of social work in medium and small cities, a series of issues have come to light.

Registering just to jump on the bandwagon

Binzhou, where the author currently lives, is a third tier city with a population of less than 4 million. Within a period of over a year going from 2015 to 2016, at least twenty NGOs registered with the Civil Affairs Bureau in Binzhou, six or seven of them using the term “social work”. This number does not include those in nearby counties. It clearly has to be said that the policies aimed at encouraging the development of social organizations have worked. However, what is the purpose of them registering as social organizations? Do they really understand the aim and nature of social work? It is reported that around 80% of the individuals who register social organizations do not know what social work is before registering. There are a couple of major reasons behind them registering.

The first reason is the government’s encouragement. As a legal representative of a social organization told the author, “in recent years, many policies have been implemented to encourage the development of social organizations. Meanwhile the standards for registration are getting lower. Now it costs only 30,000 RMB to register a social organization. Following the policies is always the best way.” This informant also added that he knows someone in a government agency who told him that the development of social work is the current trend, and encouraging him to establish a social organization himself.

The second reason is the influence of the people around them. Some people registered NGOs just because they saw that many people in the same field were registering and they did not want to fall behind. The author personally knows about one person who individually owns four NGOs.

Registering to start an NGO with no background in social work

According to the investigation, more than 90% of the creators of social organization in Binzhou had not previously studied social work systematically. Some of them used to provide services for households, while some used to be in real estate. Even some labor contractors followed this trend and registered as NGOs. These people do not understand what social work is at all and are just blindly following the trend.

One of the creators of a social organization told the author, “I do not know anything about social work! I saw that many people were doing this so I just followed suit. Besides, I used to work in the housework services sector, providing services to people. Doesn’t social work also serve the people? Moreover, being a social organization might be in the interest of my housework services company, because it seems like we could benefit from tax reductions due to our social work.” As can be seen from the conversation, his aim is to make his company more profitable. This might be the real purpose of most businessmen who establish social organizations. We all know that NGOs are non-profit organizations. If NGOs are established in a profit-oriented way, then the nature of NGOs has been changed and they will not exist in the charity sector for long.

When NGOs are established in communities, this limits their freedom

In Binzhou, the offices of most NGOs are located within communities1, and this results in limitations on the use of time and space because of the need to adjust to the community’s staff. Some social workers have revealed that their work hours have to be consistent with those of the community workers. If they get to work early no one will open the door for them, and if they leave late they will remain locked inside their office. Since their working hours are far from enough to complete their daily tasks, they are forced to work overtime from home. In addition, NGO staff also need to take the attitude of the community workers into account when they organize activities, and especially activities for teenagers and children, which can only be conducted on weekends because they tend to be noisy. The author used to work as an intern in a social work service center in Guangzhou, which was operated as an integrated family service center. We cannot say this has no disadvantages at all, but at least the workers have their own workspace and they are in control of their work both temporally and spatially. It also leads to more effectiveness for task completion and the organization of activities.

We cannot expect the NGOs in the medium and small-sized cities to develop at the same level of those in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, since they are still startups. Working within the communities is a phase that has to be gone through. In the long run however, a free working space for social workers will be an inevitable requirement for the development of social organizations.

Without a well-established social workers’ organization, the supply of “new blood” is limited

In most big cities, there is usually a social worker’s organization, for example the Social Work Association (社会工作协会). Such civic organizations play an important role in promoting social service development. In small cities, however, the absence of such organizations retards the growth of social workers. In May 2016, a social organization innovation center was established in Binzhou city, a landmark event for the local social organizations. 50 organizations have become members since its inception. At present, the function of the organization is still confined to convening members to make project-bidding announcements. If the center can expand its activities to include trainings and social work workshops to keep local social workers updated on recent developments in their field, thus infusing the sector with “new blood”, it will help to nurture the healthy growth of local social workers. Currently, the organizational structure of the center is underdeveloped. In addition, a bureaucratic mindset is still present in its operations as the center is headed by officials from the neighborhood bureaucratic offices (街道办事处).

Governments’ preference for the fast achievement of performance indicators puts social service organizations in a compromising position

Most social service organizations nowadays operate on the basis of government-procured projects. Such a model creates opportunity and infuses vitality into the development of social services. The project-based operations model has become well developed in metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It is however still in its infancy stage in small to medium cities, where governments simply view social workers as intermediaries that help them fix problems expeditiously and achieve government performance indicators. Operating with such a mentality, government entities focus chiefly on tangible and quantitative items in their project-tender decisions. As we all know, social workers are here to solve social problems. Society is composed of people, and change in people does not occur overnight. A single training or participatory game cannot bring about change; instead it requires a combination of social policy, advocacy and participation on the macro-level, adjustment of mindsets at the micro-level and group work at the level in between.

The government officials however do not share such a realization; they want to see results at the material level, or in other words tangible stuff that can be quantified in numbers. I had a conversation with someone who is in charge of a social service organization in Binzhou, and they told me what follows: “in government procured projects, the actual work conducted often differs dramatically from what is spelled out in the tender contract, because in the end governments are only interested in quantitative outcomes. As a result, we have to wrap up the community and group activities as fast as we can, which means we are done with a project by just taking a few photos. There is no need to do any case management work as governments think that little can be achieved with intervening on the mindsets within a short window of time. Sometimes it gets to the point that we don’t even need to conduct community and group activities. Governments will arrange participants for trainings, and all we need to do is contact the trainer. The role of a social worker has been reduced to the one of a coordinator who links resources. As such, our professional training and abilities are under-utilized.”

From his comments, we can clearly see the dilemma faced by social workers in the small and medium cities: on the one hand they desperately need project funds from the government, but on the other they have to oblige the governments’ requirements to achieve quantitative goals for the projects, such as the number of trainings completed. While social workers can have many roles, in coordinating the trainings their role is being minimized to that of resource coordinators. The mission and ideal of a social service organization can only be achieved by conducting activities that can utilize social workers’ professionalism and capabilities. Otherwise, the slogan one finds in many organizations’ self-introduction, “helping people to help themselves”, is meaningless. A government official once asked a social worker: “what can you social workers do on your own?” This is a question that warrants careful consideration for each social worker in this profession.

The above are some reflections that this author has had since embarking on a career in social service. Overall, the development of social service organizations is still in its infancy: there is still ample room for improvements in areas such as institutional operation and project implementation. We still need to adopt good practices gleaned from the big cities for social workers’ professional development, and increase the supply of “new blood”. Against the backdrop of the rapid development of social services in China, we are convinced that the social service organizations in small to medium cities will experience a healthy growth as well.

1In this context the word Community refers to the 社区, a loose form of neighbourhood units found in China


The author of this article, Ma Qingping, has a postgraduate degree in social work from Fuzhou University. She is currently a social worker in the Zhongzhi Social Work Service Center. 

In Brief

A young social worker from the city of Binzhou provides us with some interesting reflections on the problems her sector faces in small and medium-sized cities across China
Table of Contents