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Introduction to International Social Work

April 19, 2024
Man organizing donations in boxes at a humanitarian aid center

Social work can be life-changing on micro and macro scales. You can employ social work in a family unit, in a local town, or in global communities. As the internet and global commerce have created a connected world, global social work has become more important. If you're interested in applying social work principles in a global context, international social work gives you the chance to help empower people around the world in a myriad of ways.

Global social work involves helping members of disadvantaged communities across the world eliminate the barriers that prevent them from flourishing. As a global social worker, you will advocate for various communities, including those displaced by conflict or disaster. For example, social workers may assist immigrants in adapting to a new country, promote social justice in marginalized communities or promote economic development in countries with low employment.1 International social work is even a key component in international relations.

There are a lot of considerations in global social work, as it's a highly personal and human-centered profession. Keep reading to learn more about how social workers can apply their invaluable knowledge and skills to improve global communities.

Key Principles and Values

International social workers can influence policies, practices, and laws that change people's everyday lives. Thus, they should be guided by strong principles and values, such as:2

  • The belief that all human beings deserve dignity and fundamental rights
  • Social workers should work to empower people for agency and self-advocacy
  • Social workers are responsible for driving social justice

Since social workers in a global setting interact with people from multiple cultural backgrounds, they need to understand how their own experience may impact their outlook. Before you can begin, you need to recognize your privilege and unconscious biases to effectively help the communities in which you work.3

Global Social Work Practice Models

In cross-cultural social work, there are many practice models available for offering solutions.4 They range from therapeutic techniques, to interventions designed to help address a specific situation the client is having. To address a client's immediate circumstances, you can use the problem-solving model, task-centered model, or solution-focused therapy.

The problem-solving model involves sorting a large problem into smaller segments and addressing them individually. The task-centered practice asks the client to prioritize issues into manageable tasks, and then you work together to cross them off one by one to achieve a larger goal. In solution-focused therapy, social workers work together with their client to identify past solutions and apply them to the present situation. Social workers may also take part in crisis intervention, where they assess and respond to an acute crisis their client is experiencing.

Techniques like narrative therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy focus more on the client’s life experience as a whole.4 These techniques are beneficial when there is more time to discuss, reflect, and create different strategies.

Challenges in Global Social Work

Although it is highly rewarding, international social work is not without its challenges. Overcoming cultural differences and language barriers is one such challenge. Additionally, international social work has often been practiced as part of colonialism.5 When outsiders enter into a community and start asking questions and working to change it, native people may get defensive. This often-contentious history can make it difficult to establish a trusting relationship with people from marginalized cultures. Global poverty and social work may be linked in a person’s mind, depending on their relationship with cultural erasure.

In some cases, people who have had bad experiences with global social work rise up to change it. One example is Omaid Badar, a social worker in the United Kingdom who was a refugee in 2008 and dealt with a camp in England. His experiences of being treated both poorly and well helped shape his approach to working with young clients.6

International Organizations and Partnerships

It's not just individual social workers who set out on their own to work with people. Global organizations such as UNICEF and the United Nations play a big role in global social work. The United Nations in particular trains legislators and others in positions of power on how to protect human rights, alleviate poverty and promote sustainable development. They have also created a manual to train social workers so that more people can join their mission in a respectful and responsible way.7

Organizations such as the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) serve as advisors to social workers and other professional groups.8 This agency helps social workers achieve their goals of bringing positive changes to disadvantaged populations.

Human Rights and Social Justice

Human rights and social work go hand-in-hand. Some people choose to pursue this specialization in social work to be trained to recognize human rights violations and to distinguish between rights and needs.9 This can be a complex and massive undertaking, but one that is highly impactful and valuable.

Within this segment of social work, you may choose advocacy, or working to enact laws and policies that protect human rights. You might also work directly with people in a legal capacity to help them overcome barriers.

Cultural Competency and Sensitivity

Cultural sensitivity is crucial in global social work. It is important not to assume your own culture is “right” while negating your clients’ culture. As a social worker, you need to understand core cultural differences and be open and understanding, even if you disagree with their principles.10

Achieving cultural competency means being able to let your client serve as the authority on their own culture. You need to be open to a dialogue about culture and understand your own perceptions and biases. This way, you can earn your clients’ trust and achieve a stronger working relationship with them.

Social Work Education Options

If you choose to take this path in your social work career, you can pursue a graduate degree focused on international issues and eventually become accredited by the Department of Social Work Accreditation.11 Some schools may even offer specific international social work specializations, or weave global context into each of their classes. These programs will teach you the basics of social work while helping you develop cultural competencies to help you succeed.

Global Social Work in Action

In 2022, the IFSW published a paper to expand its 1996 Human Rights Policy and its 2014 Globalization and the Environment Policy.12 This landmark paper encouraged ISFW and partner agencies, including the United Nations, to address policies that negatively impact human rights and environmental concerns. Partner organizations are also committed to creating sustainable economies and social structures.

Disaster Relief and Humanitarian Aid

The United Nations and other similar organizations are now some of the top contributors to humanitarian aid following natural or human-made disasters.13 As a social worker, you may contribute by helping people find aid or helping build temporary shelters.You may also work with vulnerable communities to develop a safe evacuation and lockdown plan.

Refugee support in social work often involves connecting them with vital resources during dangerous conditions. It can also include helping them find pathways to visas and citizenship, or connecting them with legal support to enter a new country safely.

Sustainability and Community Development

In 2015, the United Nations set sustainable development goals tasked with tackling the most important global issues, including climate change and poverty.14 Social workers have been helping the U.N. achieve these goals by working within communities to address the cause of these issues.

As a social worker, you may work with people in developing countries to enact clean air and water policies, or you might work with local community leaders to support them as they work to drive these policy changes themselves.

Ethics and Challenges

Social workers may have trouble accessing resources in countries rife with conflict, even when no active conflict exists.15 While the conflict may be over in the world’s eyes, people may be experiencing violence and human rights violations locally. A social worker might be ordered to leave the region even though the people are still in danger, or they might be unable to connect clients with everything they need.

Another challenge is balancing the social worker’s own mental health while trying to help people in a violent area, or with limited resources or time. Although you might be extremely invested in your clients' lives, you must be able to separate work and your personal life so as not to become over-burdened with larger global and societal issues.

Career Opportunities in Global Social Work

Global social work offers many career paths. Many people work for organizations such as the United Nations or UNICEF, where positions range from psychological support to program development. You may also work in child protection or manage a variety of social work projects from afar, such as increasing access to reproductive health products in third-world countries.16

Future Trends in Global Social Work

Today, people are more cognizant and communicative about their mental health, and that trend has slowly dispersed around the world. As more countries tackle mental health, more social workers will need training in this field. In fact, you may find mental health work built into future licensing requirements.17 Mental health services are also commonly used to treat addiction issues.

Technology is also helping expand social work services both in the United States and abroad, giving you the ability to make a bigger impact. This means being able to communicate with people across the world to better understand their issues, or use medical technology to treat illnesses that were previously fatal.

Be Part of the Global Solution

Prepare yourself for one of these exciting opportunities with an online Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University. Our curriculum will help you develop cultural sensitivity and personal resilience. Learn from experienced faculty and participate in social work initiatives in global health and other fields.

Schedule a call with one of our admissions outreach advisors today to start your journey.

  1. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from resources.noodle.com/articles/international-social-work/
  2. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from ifsw.org/global-social-work-statement-of-ethical-principles
  3. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=PonPTDEBrn4%3D
  4. Retrieved on March 18. 2024, from socialworklicensemap.com/social-work-resources/theories-and-practice-models/#practice-models
  5. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from www.jstor.org/stable/43486322
  6. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from communitycare.co.uk/2024/01/12/refugee-social-worker-of-the-year-omaid-badar/
  7. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Publications/training1en.pdf
  8. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from ifsw.org/about-ifsw/
  9. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from thesocialworkgraduate.com/post/human-rights
  10. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from icsw.edu/icsw_blog/cultural-competence-in-social-work
  11. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from cswe.org/accreditation/scopeandservices/international-degree-review/
  12. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from ifsw.org/the-role-of-social-workers-in-advancing-a-new-eco-social-world/
  13. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from un.org/en/our-work/deliver-humanitarian-aid
  14. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from linkedin.com/advice/1/how-can-social-work-contribute-global-agenda-sustainable
  15. Retrieved on March 18, 2024 from journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00208728221079228
  16. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from unjobs.org/themes/social-work/2
  17. Retrieved on March 18, 2024, from agentsofchangeprep.com/blog/top-10-social-work-trends-2023/