The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

SSA's Global Urban Impact

Globalization has made our world smaller, faster paced, and more connected. Consider such basic concerns in the social work profession as poverty and inequality, immigration, health disparities, or urban violence.

The speed and scale of rapid urbanization sound a wake-up call about these social challenges. These are concerns that affect the human condition and have no borders. They all have global influences and repercussions. 

Through international adaptations, collaborations, and field research, SSA is rescaling research and education programs to address problems on the global stage. An expanded faculty is taking up new policy and practice developments across Asia, Central/Latin America, the former Soviet Union, and Africa. 

SSA’s Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP), directed by SSA Interim Dean and Emily Klein Gidwitz Professor Deborah Gorman-Smith, works to stem the underlying causes of urban youth violence, demonstrating how a successful local model can be adapted for global impact. One of the Center’s programs, SAFE Children, a family and urban-focused preventive intervention, encourages parental involvement in education, and focuses on improving parenting practices and family relationships. SAFE Children has been tested in Chicago to effectively address major risk factors for violence involvement. Gorman-Smith now is adapting and implementing this program in Johannesburg, South Africa, collaborating with the University of Johannesburg. In addition, Assistant Professor Leyla Ismayilova is adapting and refining SAFE Children in Baku, Azerbaijan, working with the Azerbaijan Social Work Public Union. 

In Latin America, SSA is building evidence on the effectiveness of health care decentralization in leveling health inequities in this region and in other developing countries. Research by Assistant Professor Alan Zarychta examines the political and organizational challenges in implementing a decentralized approach in Honduras. 

Assistant Professor Yanilda Maria Gonzalez’s research in Latin America explores policing and the politics of reform in a constantly changing landscape beset by staggering violent crime and rampant state violence against citizens. Effective reform strategies, she notes, require an awareness and balance of electoral pressures, civilian demands for protection, and competing and contentious reform efforts. Her research reflects on those co-existing factors and the challenges in developing effective police reform in Latin America and other countries, including the U.S. 

In China, SSA is pursuing one of the School’s most ambitious global collaborations—the China Social Work Research and Education Collaborative—with Peking University (PKU) and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). Led by Robert Chaskin, Professor and Deputy Dean of Strategic Initiatives, who now holds a UNESCO Chair on Inclusive Urbanism, SSA has laid the groundwork for an intervention project focusing on the challenges of urban migration facing rural and urban communities. And in Mumbai, Chaskin is researching urban redevelopment challenges outside of the U.S., examining how a rapidly growing global city can balance urban expansion and commercial investment with community needs.

An Intervention Goes Global

Building on her family-based intervention research, Leyla Ismayilova is adapting a project in her home country, Azerbaijan, based on Deborah Gorman-Smith’s SAFE Children. This program has the potential to enhance other areas of child development by strengthening family functioning and improving the family’s protective role. 

Called “Families Together” (Bütöv Ailə), Ismayilova’s research project—the first of its kind—is a collaboration with the Azerbaijan Social Work Public Union and SOS Children’s Village International in Azerbaijan. The aim: to adapt an evidence based intervention to prevent mental health problems among children leaving institutions and reuniting with their families.

Countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have the highest number of children in institutional care worldwide—as high as 1.3 million, or 42 percent of institutionalized children in the world. These countries, including Azerbaijan, host a large number of so-called “social orphans” in state-run institutions. Most children have at least one living parent and have been institutionalized primarily for socio-economic reasons (poverty, labor migration, illness, or divorce). While children in orphanages receive free education, food, and clothing, they are exposed to social deprivation, harsh discipline, occasional abuse, and neglect, putting them at high risk for poor mental health outcomes. Institutionalization also has been criticized for isolating children, depriving children of family-based protection, and high costs. In response, the government of Azerbaijan is implementing a policy that promotes reunification of children with their biological parents or extended family.

Ismayilova chose to adapt SAFE Children for several reasons: its family strengthening emphasis translated well to Azerbaijan, which has strong family ties and values. Its focus on low-income, at-risk families using a multi-family group approach that builds social supports was especially appropriate for families of institutionalized children, who are often left alone to deal with their problems. The adaptation also responds to mothers of institutionalized children, who have felt isolated, lacked social and institutional support, and sought stronger connections with other women facing similar problems.

Ismayilova now is culturally adapting and refining the Families Together components and measurement instruments. If the Families Together intervention enhances children’s coping skills, strengthens child-parent relationships, reduces parental stress, and rebuilds a family support system, Ismayilova hypothesizes that these children will more readily reintegrate and will demonstrate fewer mental health problems (lower symptoms of depression and trauma, fewer aggressive or delinquent behaviors). And if pilot study results are promising, Ismayilova hopes to design a trial with a larger sample that will test immediate and longer-term outcomes in Azerbaijan.

A sign in the lobby of the SOS Children’s Village in Baku

A sign in the lobby of the SOS Children’s Village in Baku, Azerbaijan says “Children’s Futures Depend on Their Families.”

Security and the City in Global Perspective

Yanilda Maria Gonzalez investigates the relationship between policing and politics to better understand the challenges facing police reform efforts, such as how to reduce incidents of violence committed by police officers against civilians. Her research focuses on these issues in Latin America, the region with the highest rates of violent crime in the world, as well as astonishingly high rates of police violence. Her findings shed light on the complexities of police reform in the U.S. and other nations. 

In research for an upcoming book, González spent two years in three major Latin American cities: Buenos Aires, Argentina; São Paulo, Brazil; and Bogotá, Colombia. She participated in scores of community security meetings, observed many hours of activities inside police stations, and talked with hundreds of police officers, community leaders, and residents. González came to understand how police practices respond to shifting political incentives and conflicting demands from different constituencies in the urban environment. Her work shows that police reform cannot be understood as a set of interventions into a static operational bureaucracy. Instead, reform advocates must be aware of, and develop strategic responses to, police involvement with the dynamic conditions of urban life.

Electorally minded politicians, for instance, need the police to control crime for key voting constituencies. González observed how these electoral pressures led to some demands for police protection being prioritized. In São Paulo, for example, police cars were strategically distributed around one low-income community, not to protect residents of that community from crime, but rather to ensure residents did not commit crime against residents of an adjacent wealthy municipality. Such politically informed use of the police occurs regularly, and must be understood as part of any effort to reform police practices.

González also observed how police killings and repression of marginalized populations were sometimes a response to citizen demands. Local residents fearful of rising crime called on the police to act more aggressively and, at times, unlawfully. At community security meetings in Buenos Aires and São Paulo, González listened as community members often applauded when police officers became judge and jury, such as when officers announced they had killed a suspect. Community members also frequently pleaded with police to forcibly remove populations experiencing homelessness and drug addiction or to arrest trans women engaging in sex work. These examples demonstrate how efforts to reform police practices collide with citizens’ demands for protection from crime, which often reproduce patterns of urban violence and inequality. 

Improving Health Service Delivery

Many developing countries face persistent challenges providing health services to poor communities. International development organizations have prescribed numerous public sector governance reforms, and decentralization is one of the most common unifying trends. Decentralization aims to bring services “closer to the people” by shifting authorities, responsibilities, and resources away from central governments and toward local actors like city councils or nongovernmental organizations. The idea that increased local control produces more effective services echoes across many nations, and is also a staple of U.S. health and social service policy.

Alan Zarychta is studying health sector decentralization in Honduras. He began working in Honduras in 2009 for the health and development organization Shoulder to Shoulder in the country’s western highlands. For the last five years he has collaborated with the Honduran Ministry of Health to examine the effects of decentralization on the performance of local health systems. The ministry contracts with intermediary organizations to administer groups of local health clinics, in hopes of better capturing local needs, thus improving the scope and quality of local health services.

Implementing decentralization within existing local political contexts can prove challenging. Zarychta’s research shows that in Honduras, intermediary organizations may find their decision-making restricted by regional health authorities or contested by local politicians, leaving them unable to fully establish decentralized health service delivery. When intermediaries are able to navigate these competing top-down and bottom-up pressures, however, local health clinics do produce larger numbers of services for their communities, especially prenatal, postpartum, and family planning services.

These initial findings show that decentralization can indeed improve health care in developing nations. Decentralization creates incentives at multiple levels that shape whether central government administrators, intermediary organizations, and local officials will work together to co-produce quality health services, or instead will stifle efforts to improve weak local health systems. These issues will gain importance as developing nations continue making progress on basic global health goals—such as vaccine coverage, malnutrition, and infant mortality—and increasingly face the chronic health conditions common in the developed world, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Community health workers on their way to visit remote households in Intibucá, Honduras.

Community health workers on their way to visit remote households in Intibucá, Honduras.

Responding to Rapid Urbanization

Today, more than half of the world—3.9 billion people—lives in cities. By 2050, this number is expected to reach 6.3 billion, with rapid urbanization occuring in developing countries. If misguided or unchecked, city growth can destabilize regions, worsen prevailing challenges, and hasten urban decline.

But the right mix of strategies and leadership can spark innovation, economic investment, improved services, and higher quality of life—prompting positive change. At SSA, faculty members are investigating urbanization challenges in multiple global sites. Two recent projects, both led by Robert Chaskin—one in China, the other in India—address specific dilemmas caused by urban growth. 

As part of the China Social Work Research and Education Collaborative, launched with lead funding by Anna Pao Sohmen, EX '68, Sue Peng, and Xiaotian Zhang, SSA is partnering with PKU and PolyU to develop a field research project examining the impact of urbanization caused by worker migration from rural to urban communities. The project focuses on two communities—a rural “sending” community from which migrant workers have left, and an urban “receiving” community where migrants have relocated. In each community, Chaskin seeks to understand the factors driving migration, the challenges faced by vulnerable populations affected—including children who remain behind (“left behind” children), the elderly, and migrant workers—the ways formal and informal support systems react, and how social policy or on-the-ground interventions can effectively respond.

In the first phase of the project in rural Anhui Province in eastern China, Chaskin and colleagues from PKU and PolyU met with government officials, elder care providers, teachers, caretakers, and other community leaders to determine priorities and needs. In response, the team is developing, with local partners, an intervention based on the establishment of a social support center. The second phase of the project, to occur in the near future, will examine the challenges urban communities face from the growing influx of rural migrant workers. 

In prior research, Chaskin probed the competing challenges in redeveloping Chicago’s large-scale housing projects. He takes that investigative lens to Mumbai, where urbanization is pushing efforts to eliminate slum areas. This  movement has led to the demolition of informal settlements and the relocation of residents to new, mid- and high-rise housing to clear space for commercial and residential development. Chaskin’s research, in collaboration with colleagues at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, examines the impact of resettlement on individuals, families, and communities, and the dynamics of both urban restructuring policies and local community life that enhance well-being. Comparing four different resettlement sites, the project aims to build knowledge about the ramifications of slum redevelopment to inform urban restructuring and housing policy in India, as well as in other evolving urban global cities.