Client’s Self-determination in Community Development
The right of making decision about a person’s own life is the cornerstone philosophy of social work profession. Client’s self-determination is defined as the capacity of an individual to make decision on their lives, actively play a vital role in the helping process and/or the right to lead a life according to their personal choices (Weick & Pope, 1988, as cited in Wong, 2000). This conviction has ascribed value to the social work profession through the official forms of code of ethics promoted by professional bodies (Furlong, 2003). In the community development sector, client self-determination is a collective right. It is the power and responsibility taken by the community for their own lives and development. It covers the perception of freedom in the socio-economic, political, cultural and the context of existence in which people live, socialize, raise families, participate in the community activities, vote, work, and relate to each other. The concept of community self-determination is the empowerment of the community to organize for social rights and justice for themselves and their peers.
Furlong (2003) explains that even though client self-determination is the fundamental principle of the profession; well canvassed limitations are there to exercise it. When I was working as an outreach anti-poverty program coordinator for people living in poverty in a south Asian pluralistic community, I faced numerous challenges in the context of client self-determination. I had to implement various anti-poverty programs in a community which was totally different belief and value system from me in terms of religious and political ideology. For instance, government introduced a provincial employment program as part of economic development of disadvantaged communities. The provincial government identified fifty high-risk neighbourhoods and planned to open meat processing and packing units in each community. The program was designed to support the unemployed members of the community. As I was involved in different stages of planning, I was convinced about the potential of the program to enhance the economic development of the local community within the ‘poverty pockets’ areas. I anticipated that the project would be helpful for my clients to earn good income. I was so proud to announce the project to the community with an assumption that I know their problems better and the project would be a solution for their problems. But majority in the community were reluctant to welcome the project because they believed that the meat processing and packing unit is not an appropriate place to work according to their religious belief. I became confused that the pilot projects were a success in other communities. After few weeks of indecision I realized that I should respect my client’s decision as they owned the right to decide what kind of work they want to do and how to lead their own life. I reported the decision of the community to the government.
As a critical self reflection, I was trying to impose the mainstream social and political ideology in the form of employment program without considering the client’s capacity to determine their choice of life. I appreciate that the community possess their unique interpretations for their decision. However as Wong (2000) argued in his article it is a “moral constraint” up on workers. Even though the community’s decision was contrary to my belief and genuine interest to support them; I should understand and respect the cultural and religious value system possessed by the community. I need to accept their decision just because it was their choice of employment (Wong, 2000).
Moreover, my professional knowledge and the mainstream discourses about the needs of the community is not greater than the community’s unique experiences of their life situations (Wong, 2000). As a helping professional I should constantly confront the oppressive factors which restricts the self-determination/collective right of my clients in the context of micro and macro level of practices, indeed, it will add more value in to community development interventions.