Mahatma Gandhi was a true social worker fighting against the evils of society. He always said, if you want to do social work, you start it yourself. He was very worried about poverty of India, and his political movements were also a type of social work.
Poverty was the main focus of early social work, and it is intricately linked with the idea of charity work. However, it must now be understood in much broader terms. For instance it is not uncommon for modern social workers to find themselves dealing with the consequences arising from many other ‘social problems’ such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination based on age or on physical or mental ability.
Modern social workers can be found helping to deal with the consequences of these and many other social maladies in all areas of the human services and in many other fields besides. Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Your fear about my being engrossed in the political strife and intrigues may be entirely set aside. I have no stomach for them, least at the present moment, had none even in South Africa. I was in the political life because there through lay my own liberation. Montagu said, “I am surprised to find you taking part in the political life of the country!” Without a moment’s thought I replied, “I am in it because without it I cannot do my religious and social work,” and I think the reply will stand good to the end of my life.”1
Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “It has been suggested that this programme turns the Congress into a purely social reform organization. I beg to differ from that view. Everything that is absolutely essential for swaraj is more than merely social work and must be taken up by the Congress.
It is not suggested that the Congress should confine its activity for all time to this work only. But it is suggested that the Congress should for the coming year concentrate the whole of its energy on the work of construction, or as I have otherwise described it, the work of internal growth.”2
Whereas social work started on a more scientific footing aimed at controlling and reforming individuals (at one stage supporting the notion that poverty was a disease), it has in more recent times adopted a more critical and holistic approach to understanding and intervening in social problems. This has led, for example, to the reconceptualisation of poverty as more a problem of the haves versus the have-nots rather than its former status as a disease, illness, or moral defect in need of treatment.
This also points to another historical development in the evolution of social work: once a profession engaged more in social control, it has become one more directed at social empowerment. That is not to say that modern social workers do not engage in social control and many if not most social workers would likely agree that this is an ongoing tension and debate.
Mahatma Gandhi Wrote, “The hospital started under such auspices with fairly ample funds at its disposal should grow day by day and supply the need of the middle class women of Bengal. This hospital reminds us of the fact that social work was as dear to the Deshbandhu as political. When it was open to him to give away his properties for political work he deliberately chose to give them for social service in which women’s service had a prominent part.”3
Mahatma Gandhi Wrote, “We realize, they say, that our real work lies in villages, and that while doing this work we can also do other social work among the villagers. By popularizing the use of the spinning-wheel we can convince people what a terrible disease their idleness is. Wherever the volunteers work in a spirit of service, they succeed in creating a sense of brotherhood among the people. And the difficulty of selling khadi, they point out, is avoided by following the method of getting people to stock their own cotton and produce khadi for their needs.”4