Social Work in Zimbabwe: From Social Control to Social Change

Archives > Volume 19 (2022) > Issue 2 > Item 13

DOI: 10.55521/10-019-213

Noel G Muridzo, PhD
Director of the School of Social Work,
Midlands State University
President, IFSW Africa

Rudo Memory Mukurazhizha, MSW
School of Social Work
Midlands State University

Samuel Lisenga Simbine, PhD
School of Social Work
Midlands State University

Muridzo, N., Mukurazhizha, R. & Simbine, S. (2022). Social Work in Zimbabwe: From Social Control to Social Change. International Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 19(2), 227-243.

This text may be freely shared among individuals, but it may not be republished in any medium without express written consent from the authors and advance notification of IFSW.


While human rights and social justice are critical in any social worker’s thinking and actions, the history of social work in Zimbabwe shows how the profession has perpetuated human rights violations and social injustice. This article chronicles the historical development of social work in Zimbabwe, highlighting instances where social work not only contributed to and/or perpetuated colonialism but also human rights violations and social injustice. Using examples of past and current social work interventions, the article argues that professionals may knowingly or unknowingly keep the status quo. In Zimbabwe, social work comes into being an agent of social control, dealing with school truancy, children in conflict with the law, and offering means-tested public assistance among other services segregated on racial lines. Social work has also been used by the independent majority government as an instrument of social change to expand opportunities and address social inequalities. This article observes that social work in Zimbabwe was thus used both as an agent of social control advancing the colonial agenda and as an agent of social change tackling social injustices such as poverty and inequality. We conclude that social work has a role in challenging oppression, and it must always distance itself from being used as a tool in the hands of oppressors.

Keywords: Social work, social control, social change, oppression, Zimbabwe


Social work in Zimbabwe and Africa in general has colonial roots. It was introduced by the colonial powers to serve them and when extended to their colonial subjects it was designed to perpetuate and entrench the status quo of Black subjugation. The post-colonial government has a double-faced approach to social work where it uses social work both as an agent of social control and as an agent of social change. Social work as an agent of social control takes the form of forensic social work among other remedial approaches. On the other hand, social work for social change is anti-oppressive and is charactarised by emphasis on human rights, redistribution of wealth, poverty eradication, and empowerment, among many interventions associated with developmental social work. Through literature scoping, the article utilises a reflective methodology to explore social work in Zimbabwe. Thus, the article explores the history of social work and makes inferences to its future. The article will provide a background and context, the methodology used, and a description of the history of social work in Zimbabwe, and then explores social work as an agent of social control and social change. Discussion of decolonization of social work, implications for social work education and practice, and conclusions will be provided.


Social work in Africa has colonial roots, having been imported from the colonial masters such as the United Kingdom (Hollingsworth & Phillips, 2017). Thus, social work in Africa was originally designed according to European systems to serve the interests of the colonial governments, with little acknowledgement of African cultural heritage (Mafokane & Shirindi, 2018). Colonisation led to destruction of African ways of knowing, leading to what others have termed ‘epistemicide’ of African knowledge (Tondi, 2021). For decades, social work in Zimbabwe and Africa in general has remained trapped in the European colonial legacy with Eurocentric textbooks, theories, and models being the mainstay of social work education, research, and practice and social workers in Africa seem to prefer these western concepts (Rankopo & Osei-Hwedie, 2011). To curb this scenario, there are growing calls from Africa for decolonization of the social work profession (Mabvurira & Makhubele, 2018; Sithole, 2021; Tusasiirwe, 2022). It remains to be seen in the decades ahead if social work in Africa will be fully decolonized, indigenized, and Africanized.

Social work in Zimbabwe is still viewed as a young profession even though the first social work training institution opened its doors in 1964 (Dziro, 2013). The history of social work in Zimbabwe is better understood by dividing it into three phases: pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial. It developed as both an urban-based and urban-biased profession, dealing with urban problems such as prostitution, school attendance, and destitution (Dziro, 2013). Thus, it developed as an instrument of social control while at the same time concerned with human welfare (Masuka, 2015). In this article we discuss social work as both an agent of social control and social change. Our aim is to demonstrate how social work has aided colonialism in the hands of colonial government. At independence, while the majority rule government continued to use social work as an agent of social control, it also moved a notch higher to use social work services to promote social justice, address inequalities, combat poverty, and promote access to social services such as education, housing, and health.


The article relies on literature scoping as its primary methodology. This is complemented by the adoption of a reflexive research methodology where we critically reflect on our experiences as Zimbabwean social workers to add our voice to the issue under discussion. Reflexive research affords the researchers the opportunity to theorize on what is taking place in their context (Roy, 2020). Thus, we relied on both the literature and our experiences to explore social work in Zimbabwe. While this methodology was limited in terms of the number of sources consulted and the use of our subjective experiences, focus was on the qualitative nature of explanations of social work and its contribution to social control and social change as exposed in the literature used and the authors’ experiences (Queirós et al., 2017). Reflexive research methodology offered the opportunity for us to assert the voice of our lived experiences to the discussion of social work in Zimbabwe, something that was going to be difficult under other more rigid methodologies.

History of Social Work in Zimbabwe

The development of social work is best understood by appreciating a country’s pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial experiences (Nhapi, 2021). The pre-colonial phase was characterised by communal life with well-developed indigenous responses to social problems and social life. The principles of membership, solidarity, and shared responsibility guided society (Mupedziswa & Mushunje, 2021). Mugumbate and Bhowasi (2021) argue that pre-colonial Zimbabwe had well established systems that responded to social issues and that these were uprooted by colonization. Some of these indigenous systems included the use of kinship care, King’s Granary (Zunde ra Mambo/Isiphala seNkosi), and work parties (nhimbe). The King’s Granary was a system whereby a King would allocate some of his fields to serve the less privileged such as orphans, widows, and disabled persons. The community members would provide labour to these fields and in return the King would ensure that the proceeds from these fields were used to serve the less privileged whenever need arose. In addition, the work parties (nhimbe) were a form of labour provision whereby members of the community would come together and rotate working each other’s fields to pull their efforts as a group to address the individual members’ labour needs. While these systems still exist, their efficacy has been diminished by industrialization, urbanization, and the general process of acculturation (Mupedziswa & Mushunje, 2021). Thus, as way to restore social justice and focusing social work on an anti-oppressive trajectory these indigenous systems should be strengthened and safeguarded from extinction.

The colonial phase was characterised by the violent uprooting of the indigenous way of life and the introduction of a particular type of capitalist social and economic society that created pervasive economic and social dualism (Dhemba & Nhapi, 2020). This new order created its challenges and professional social work in Zimbabwe developed as a response to these challenges and perceived threats to order: crime, prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and destitution (Kaseke, 1991). Masuka (2015) is of the view that social work in the colonial period acted both as a mechanism of promoting human well-being and social control. Four key events mark the colonial phase. The first was the recruitment of social workers. It was a statutory requirement for White children between the ages of 5 and 16 years to be in school. To enforce the policy and to respond to truancy among this privileged population, the colonial government recruited a school attendance programme officer in 1936, Mr. Kelly from the United Kingdom, heralding the birth of social work practice in Zimbabwe. It is important to note that the service was exclusively for White children reflecting a dual system (Mupedziswa, 1996). In 1949, the colonial regime recruited a Black social worker, Mr. Mwale who had been trained in Zambia. His brief was to attend to juvenile delinquency among urbanized Black children.

Second was the establishment of the Department of Social Welfare in 1948, a statuary body providing public assistance to White citizenry. Third was the opening of the School of Social Services, now School of Social Work, by the Jesuit Fathers of the Roman Catholic Church in 1964 to train both White and Black social workers (Chogugudza, 2009). The opening of the school increased the number of local Black social workers in the country. These were absorbed by the Department of Social Welfare, municipalities, church owned hospitals and charities, mines, and the general private sector. However, there were race-based working conditions for Black and White social workers with Whites being treated favourably. Social work training in Zimbabwe had come of age and today social work training is offered at Midlands State University, University of Zimbabwe, Bindura University of Science Education, Eziekiel Guti University, Women’s’ University in Africa and Africa University (Dhemba & Nhapi 2020).

The fourth phase in the development of social work in Zimbabwe is the post-colonial phase. Important markers in this phase include the decentralization of services, legislation of social work practice (passing of the Social Workers Act in 2001) and the proliferation of social work education and practice. In addition, there is a quest for relevance of social work practice and education with some calling for a decolonized, indigenized, and Africanized social work in Africa (Tusasiirwe, 2022). The decolonization of social work remains the current core debate in social work circles in Zimbabwe. This is viewed as the way to position social work as a vehicle for human rights and social justice.

Social Work as an Agent of Social Control and Social Change

The development of social work education and practice is closely tied to the country’s colonial past through missionaries who promoted human well-being while at the same time being a mechanism of social control (Kaseke, 2014). Social work in Zimbabwe is a product of colonization; an embodiment of colonial legacy (Hampson & Kaseke, 1989). African countries have been struggling to shake off the colonial past in the practice and education of social work, which is difficult given that most of the literature utilized by the social work educators is from Europe (Masuka, 2015; Gray et al., 2014; Osei-Hwedie, 1992). As such, social work in Zimbabwe still exhibits these social control features, a sign of the relic of colonialism continuing more than four decades into democracy.

While there were some Black people in urban areas, in 1936, the first move to provide childcare, probation services, and organized welfare provision was for the Whites in urban Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Services for Blacks were bus and rail warrants to enable those Blacks in need to be repatriated to their rural homes. The expectation was that their social welfare needs were best met by their extended families who were in the rural areas. Urban areas for Blacks were seen as work stations and not areas of permanent residency. Laborers (Blacks) were not allowed to bring their families to the urban areas. In 1948, a department of social welfare came into existence and more laws for assisting White people were promulgated (Hampson & Kaseke, 1987). According to Kaseke (2000), a Probation and School Attendance Compliance Officer program was introduced in favor of White children with Black children expected to be settled in rural areas with their parents. In 1949, the first probation officer who specifically handled cases of juvenile delinquency among the White settler community within Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo, and Gweru probation centers was introduced (Kaseke, 1993).

The development of the probation centers was tied to the concept of workhouses which were established during the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 to address issues of destitution and vagrants in England (Midgley, 1984). Such programs in Zimbabwe were designed to ensure that those deemed social deviants were dealt with through social work services, revealing how social work was used as an agent of social control. The probation officers would offer means testing for people to access the workhouses. In Zimbabwe, the year 1964 marked the slow introduction of a public assistance program with thorough means-testing as a way of controlling order in the society (Kaseke, 1993). In 1978, the Private Voluntary Organizations Act (Chapter 17:05) was introduced to regulate welfare organizations and the law is still in force in independent Zimbabwe. The link between the country’s colonial past and its social work development shows how there was a wholesale transfer of social work from Britain to Zimbabwe with little regard to context. This compromised the fusion of values and cultural heritage in social work practice.

Post-independence, the department of social welfare decentralized from urban areas to rural communities to ensure accessibility to social welfare services provision for the rural population (Kaseke & Gumbo 1993). Means-tested assistance was provided to categories of people that included persons with disabilities, children and youth, the destitute, the sick and the unemployed. Assistance was given in the form of accommodation fees, food money, school fees and medical fees. However, the offices of the department of social welfare remained unknown to the majority, and inaccessible. So, the question was, in what way did the services change? It was business as usual in the colonial era, hence the quest by Rodreck Mupedziswa (1992), Deputy Principal of the School of Social Work in Harare at the time, to shift social work toward a social change and developmental agenda.

The continued use of the colonial curriculum in social work education and in practice, as evidenced by the continued use of casework as the major method of social work intervention within the department of social welfare, shows how social work remains trapped in its colonial past (Kaseke, 1991; Masuka, 2015). The year 1964 witnessed the official opening of the school of social work led by the Jesuit fathers and Fr Rodgers utilized the curriculum borrowed from the colonial master with books and an ideology that did not challenge the colonial master’s injustices, oppression, and violation of human rights (Hampson & Kaseke, 1987).

In the colonial era, social work services were provided with the utility of the residual welfare approach where the government could only intervene as the last resort and its assistance rendered on charity basis rather than a rights-based approach. Thus, the service rendered is given as a ‘gift’ from the state with citizens having no rights to demand. Such assistance as the bus and rail warrants offered by the department of social welfare as of 1948 were designed to send those Blacks who would have dared to come to the urban areas considered as belonging to White people back to the villages. In 1949, the department of social services extended probation services to Blacks as a form of social control. In 1964, the department of social welfare introduced public assistance programs for the urbanized Blacks who had lost their rural ties. Assistance was in the form of rations or the cash equivalent or rental allowance. Such services perpetuated inequality and injustice opposed to the ethos of social work of challenging oppression and fostering social justice. In 1980, social services were finally extended to all races.

Social work in Zimbabwe emerged in response to urbanization and industrialization. The Town Management Act of 1953 restricted Blacks to rural areas with only formally employed Blacks allowed to reside in urban areas, although authorised kin visits were permitted. Black families could visit the urban areas when they were done with their seasonal subsistence farming activities to offer their labour which meant that some forms of services were supposed to be extended to these urbanized Blacks with a primary focus on children in conflict with the law (Kaseke, 1993). Urbanized Blacks who were from outside Zimbabwe, coming from countries such as Zambia and Malawi, could not depend on their kinsmen for help, hence the colonial government also extended services to them (Mupedziswa, 1992).

Probation hostels were built as part of the justice system to deal with criminal elements of children in conflict with the law, to punish them and set an example to others. Eligibility criteria for services from case findings which utilize means-testing to separate the deserving and non-deserving can be seen as an agent of social control. The procedural model on the provision of social services to determine the needy, starting with the forms which social workers use, can be seen as an agent of control. Social workers can also be agents of social control through legislation that gives them power, for example the Children’s Act (Chapter 5:06) which empowers the social worker to remove any child from their parents if deemed as dangerous to the child and transfer authority over the child to the state in the form of the local authority.

The methods utilized by social workers in Zimbabwe, including the case management system and the pretrial diversion program which are used to respond to issues of justice, neglect, abuse, and maltreatment, are curative (Ruparanganda & Ruparanganda,2016). They do not address the root causes of the problem but deal with the presenting symptoms of the problems. The clinical aspect of social work offers immediate help, pathologizing the helping process. Clients go to see an expert, such as a social worker, as noted by Perlman (1957) and the person is a client, hence they will not be working at the same level. The client’s strengths and how they view their problem is often diagnosed limiting their client’s self-determination. Looking at the medical field of social work, patients who are in depression, and chronic illness are often referred to the medical social worker who utilize their diagnostic statistical manual (DSM V) to offer therapy to the client. Due to caseloads, social workers have their considered ideas such that an individual client has a routine giving the client less opportunity to utilize their self-determination. In the helping process itself, the client worker relationship gives much more control to the profession than the client thus the social work then poses as some form of social control.

When conducting individual cases, the issue of power arises as the professional needs to exercise their nonjudgmental attitude sensitively and make definitive decisions through client self-determination. The best interests of people with mental challenges, minors, and people with learning disabilities can be a potential conflict of client self-determination for clients to make their own decisions and take charge of their own lives (Dominelli, 2012). A balance between meeting clients’ needs and what is believed to be common good is embedded in the process of control and power. Social work interventions are likely to have a profound effect on people’s lives from the care plans, restriction of activities, and determination of living arrangements in institutions of care, foster home allocation, and denial of resources through the means testing. Institutionalization is utilized as the last resort in Zimbabwe after exhausting all the channels of help from the immediate family, extended family and community. Decision making in institutions of care has minimal involvement of the clients themselves due to old age, minors, and mental illnesses among other factors which can be a form of social control. There is a lack of social networks which could liberate people in institutions of care.

African social work education in Africa (ASWEA), 1971, talked of decolonization of the social work education curriculum of. Similarly, other scholars such as (Masuka, 2015) talk of the quest for the relevance of social work in the developing countries and the need to consider transforming social work from social control to social change. International Federation of Social Workers (2014) took note of the ubuntu approach which Zimbabwe cherish in their National Orphan Care Policy of 1999 as it recognizes the role of the community and the extended family in orphan care. With the utility of casework, group work and community work, social work in Zimbabwe also ushers personal and community change. For example, social work is conscientizing communities through ideological changes in perceptions of women and the various roles they can contribute to development. Social work in independent Zimbabwe is playing a critical role in raising awareness of the deleterious effects of other practices like child marriage, the shrinking democratic space, violation of human rights, and oppression of other vulnerable populations by the state. However, Mtetwa and Muchacha (2013) accuse social workers of not doing much around advocacy on human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. This means social work in Zimbabwe still has a long way to go in its quest to shift from social control to social change.


Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversities are central to the social work profession (International Federation of Social Workers, 2022). It is clear from the forgoing that social work in Zimbabwe was negating these core principles. By implication, social work is accused of contributing to and collaborating with the colonial regime’s violation of the same. The government of the day through the department of social services was and is the largest employer of social workers. Social workers were responsible for implementing and reinforcing racial segregation policies and laws. In addition, African welfare was sidelined by colonialism and was subordinate to that of the colonialists (Lombard, 2014).

The legacy of irrelevance of context led to loud cries for a quest for relevance of the profession and a concern on how social workers are trained in Africa. Social workers on the continent have sustained the calls to get rid of western oriented social work education and practices in favor of concepts such as decolonization, Africanization, radicalization, and indigenization of social work seen as relevant to the African context (Twikirize & Spitzer 2019). However, debates rage on, with others arguing that decolonization should happen first before indigenization and Africanization of social work (Tusasiirwe, 2022).

Recalibration of social work education and practice does not only make it relevant to the problems affecting the continent but makes social work responsive to the problems affecting the continent which include poverty, social change, climate change, and development. In addition, adoption of this ‘new’ social work outlook will foster principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversities. Many (Midgely, 1983; Ankra, 1987; Mupedziswa, 2000; Sewpaul, 2014) suggest that social work should move away from an over-emphasis on the provision of remedial social work services which are reactive in nature and move towards addressing the root causes of social problems. Others, including Mahuntse (2021) have called for the adoption of indigenous knowledge systems and practices such as ubuntu in social work practice. Muridzo et al. (2021) advocate for a break in silence, calling for sharing of African social work practice and education stories. Mtetwa and Muchacha (2013) recommend safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable by taking an interest in the political situation of the communities in which they work. Muridzo and Chikadzi (2020) argue that social work should involve itself with global, regional, and local policy issues as this will help address casual factors. Mupedziswa (2000) argues that this starts in the classroom and literature used in training social workers in the continent. Thus, social work in Africa should transform itself into an anti-oppression force that fosters human rights and social justice.

While Social work is informed by principles of human rights and social justice, this article has implicated social work as a collaborator in the oppression of the people by denying their rights and social justice. The argument is for social work to promote these fundamental principles through challenging unjust laws and championing human rights, though social workers in Zimbabwe are still lagging (Muchacha & Mutetwa, 2013). For this to be achieved, there is a need for curriculum review. Social work education should empower students to challenge injustice rather than perpetuate the status quo. This should be informed by decolonization, Africanization, and indigenization of the social work profession to achieve an anti-oppressive social work agenda.


In this article, we have provided background, the methodology employed, and a brief history of social work in Zimbabwe. We have explored social work as an agent of social control and argued that social work in colonial Zimbabwe was used as one of the apparatuses of oppression. It was designed to further the interests of the colonial state serving primarily the White community. We have further explored social work as an agent of social change, and this became manifest in independent Zimbabwe. The article has portrayed social work as an agent of social change associated with empowerment, social justice, human rights, and anti-oppression in general. The article concludes that social work in Africa should shake off its colonial legacy through embarking on the processes of decolonisation, Africanisation, and indigenisation.


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