Social Welfare in East Asia and the Pacific


Author(s):   Sharlene B.C.L. FurutoSocial Welfare in East Asia...klein

ISBN:          978-0-231-15714-8

Publisher:  Columbia University Press

Year:           2013

Price:            $30


Reviewed by Thomas Boutonnet, Assistant Professor, Department of Chinese Studies, University of Strasbourg, France.

In a work published in 2004, sociologist Loïc Wacquant opposed social welfare, or social security, to what he termed “social insecurity”, a form of social precariousness used by nation-states as a concerted and strategic policy to both deal with social issues and to guarantee the steady development of its economy (Wacquant, 2004). Ten years later, the neoliberalization and globalization of most national economies have led to PROFIT and wealth for a minority of the population, increasing socioeconomic disparities and growing claims for social equity: in many states, redistribution of wealth and social welfare (i.e. “people’s well-being, including health, education, housing, employment, safety, and security” (p.67)) have more than ever become crucial preoccupations for both the government and the civil society. Indeed, the former may have legitimate concerns for social stability and the cohesion of social fabric, which can both be jeopardized by profit-oriented economies that leave little room for social justice; the later, on the other hand, may have expectations for a less individualistic, fairer and more humane collective body that we call society.

In this context, it is essential to better understand how other countries organize social welfare and deal with social issues, not only in order to learn from their models, but also, from a more global perspective, to better perceive how citizens of all states share, despite cultural differences, similar social experiences brought by similar socioeconomic mechanisms. This is one of the purposes of Social Welfare in East Asia and the Pacific, for the editor, Sharlene B.C.L. Furuto, Professor of Social Work at Brigham Young University-Hawaii (retired since 2012), claims its aim not only to “broadly describe social welfare in selected Asian and pacific Island states” (p.8), thus emphasizing “unique, indigenous social solutions” (p.9), but also “to highlight some places in the world usually not found in the social work literature” and “to look beyond Europe and the United States to some distant lands for social work knowledge and solutions” (p.9). Lecturing on international social welfare in Asia and the Pacific, Furuto faced the difficulty to find a comprehensive handbook that could provide detailed and exhaustive information regarding the basic specifications of social welfare in Asian and Pacific states. There was no such handbook, until now. This book is then a very ambitious, and successful, attempt to “fill a void in the social work literature” (p.ix).

Social Welfare in East Asia and the Pacific includes twelve chapters, two of which are written by the editor (Chapters 1 and 12). While Chapter 1 (an overview presentation of East Asian and Pacific states, along with an introduction to the chapters to come) and Chapter 12 (“Social Welfare Contrasted in East Asia and the Pacific”) serve respectively as an introduction and a conclusion to the book, Chapters 2 to 11 constitute the main corpus of the book, each chapter studying one specific state located in East-Asia and in the Pacific – namely China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Micronesia, the Samoa Islands (Samoa and American Samoa) and Cambodia. The authors are respected academics in the field of social work.

The choice of the selected states can be questioned, but Furuto explained that she deliberately excluded Australia and New Zealand because they were the “two more developed countries (…) notably different from other Pacific political entities in terms of population, landmass and social welfare services” (p.1). She also argues that the current selection is fully relevant for it provides a wide diversity of situations: the countries differ in terms of the form of the ruling government, the nature of social issues, and the social support available from the state and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for instance.

Furuto gave great attention about the practicality and cohesion of the book, since she asked for each of the ten chapters to start “with the history of social welfare, values and culture, current social issues, government and not-for-profit social welfare programs, the social work profession, and education and to end with a look at future challenges” (p.x). Each of the ten chapters thus provides a historical background and a comprehensive explanation of the social welfare policy currently implemented by the national government, that is, the “governmental social safety nets that seek to alleviate poverty and distress (…) and provide benefits and services to people who require assistance in meeting their basic needs.” (p.67). As the book was initially compiled as a textbook for social work students, each chapter also includes a thorough introduction to the social work education system (its development, the limits it currently faces, its future perspectives) and to social working as a profession (its perception by society, its budget (or lack thereof), its relation with the government).

One of the great interests of the book is that it provides readers with a very informative comparative approach. If we focus, for instance, on some of the selected countries where the Confucian tradition is still strong (or was strong at some point in their history) – namely China, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan – the impact of Confucianism on social welfare development appears very clearly, and is quite consistent in this macro-region. As Confucianism emphasizes self-help, self-sufficiency, family reliance and collective responsibility, there has been an “‘interface between neoliberal globalization and Confucianism’ in East Asian countries and regions, including Hong Kong” that “has resulted in deep-rooted stigmatization of welfare dependency”, which is often considered as shameful and as a loss of face (p.78). In these four countries, local welfare services (coming from family, religious communities or work units) were traditionally more effective and efficient than the state welfare system; however, new social patterns (individualism, consumerism) brought by economic development now tend to challenge the traditional importance of family.

A comparative approach also reveals that, in these four countries, the social welfare system is quite a recent political device. While it reached its full development only in the 1970s-1980s, social welfare in this macro-region still needs to be improved and strengthened (although the system seems quite efficient in Taiwan) as it tends now to be more and more “externalized” by states; welfare service often tends not to be directly assumed by the State but delivered by NGOs contracted by the government, religious communities or private foundations. This is especially true for Hong Kong where the current welfare system is substantially NGO-based; NGOs are subordinate to government control, and their financial support is “based strictly on their performance (…) holding NGOs accountable for service quality and delivery” (p.75).

It also appears that the academic field of Social Work, which originates from the Western world, is still a young discipline that faces similar difficulties in the four countries: prevalence of western theoretical frameworks (which are sometimes irrelevant or ill-adapted to the local context), research-oriented professors that lack of social work field experience (or that are sometimes trained in a different fields, like sociology or public health), and lack of harmonization of education (course content may vary from one university to another). The profession itself also faces convergent difficulties: this new profession still lacks acknowledgment from the State and sometimes from citizens (cultural opposition); it needs institutionalization, financial support and a broader scope of action. Most of the authors also point out the need for the profession to create its own indigenous social work education and profession, its own modus operandi adapted to the local context. They also point out the need for more collaboration between social workers themselves, but moreover between the profession and NGOs, social services agencies and the government. They advocate for the profession to mature and participate in government decisions instead of struggling “with a social welfare system that uses temporary, short-term crisis intervention” (p.108).

In conclusion, Social Welfare in East Asia and the Pacific is both an insightful book and a very useful tool. One could of course argue for the inclusion of other countries (it would have been interesting to include Japan in the list) or expect a deeper analysis in some papers (it is surprising to find no reference to the Hukou system in the paper on China for instance). One can also regret that it is, in many papers, very difficult to appreciate the actual impact of state or NGO welfare service in people’s daily lives: the papers often offer dates and figures regarding the budget allocated to social welfare, but without practical indication about the actual support this social welfare brings to people’s daily lives (is it sufficient enough to help them to live a decent life and to escape poverty, or is it too insignificant?). However, East Asia and the Pacific are rarely studied together, and the book successfully encourages a fruitful comparative approach of the two regions. Overall, the book fulfills its purposes: it has the great merit of focusing on areas that are not really covered by the current scientific literature, thus highlighting indigenous social solutions, and clearly participates to the “decentration” of knowledge. As Furuto argues, local lack of social welfare can indeed have a global impact, and therefore an international social welfare collaboration to address social issues seems to be an urgent matter. Overall, it is a remarkably well-edited textbook, a must-have for all students and researchers in social work, and a very useful reference book for all those engaged in studies on East Asia and the Pacific.


Loïc Wacquant, Punir les pauvres : le nouveau gouvernement de l’insécurité sociale [Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity], Marseille, Agone, 2004 [Durham, Duke University Press, 2009].

Suggested citation: 

Thomas Boutonnet (2014), Review of  “Social We;fare in East Asia and the Pacific” by Sharlene B.C.L.Futuro, East Asian Integration Studies. Vol 7, no. 40.