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International Social Work: A Growing Field of Practice

October 23, 2023

Rooted in social justice and human rights, social work addresses a range of issues that challenge individuals, families and communities. International social workers apply the principles of social work to address human rights concerns that arise in international settings. Some of the issues that international social work addresses include:

  • Migration
  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Child rights and protection
  • Disaster relief 
  • Civil-military issues
  • Gender equity
  • Educational disparities
  • Public health
  • Business and social entrepreneurship

A career in international social work may be rewarding to those inspired to collaborate on solutions that can bring relief to human suffering caused by natural disasters, armed conflicts, political instability, economic crises, diseases, and a host of other circumstances that create distress. Aspiring international social workers can prepare for this role by pursuing an advanced education.

What Is International Social Work?

International social work addresses an array of global humanitarian issues that impact individuals, families and communities as well as those that affect broader society. Many countries, particularly those with underserved populations, benefit from the efforts of international social workers. For instance, in the wake of the massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in early 2023, the sheer scale of the catastrophe called for international support. International social work organizations joined forces with local health workers and social workers and a range of local and international partners to meet the urgent needs of affected communities. These efforts helped deliver emergency medical care, distribute lifesaving aid and provide crucial mental health support to those traumatized by the disaster.

The most notable organizations in the field of international social work include the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW). However, there are several grassroots organizations working to improve the lives of the underserved around the world, including Social Workers Without Borders, which offers support to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.

Regardless of the size of the organization, international social work is guided by certain ethical principles. According to IFSW, these include:

  • Recognition of the Inherent Dignity of Humanity: Social workers uphold the inherent dignity and worth of all individuals. They challenge beliefs and behaviors that devalue or stigmatize people.
  • Promoting Human Rights: Social workers advocate for the fundamental and inalienable rights of all people. They strive to strike a balance between competing human rights while respecting the dignity and worth of each person.
  • Promoting Social Justice: Social workers are committed to advancing social justice within society and among the people they serve. This includes challenging discrimination, respecting diversity, advocating for equitable resource distribution, and addressing unjust policies and practices.
  • Building Solidarity: Social workers actively engage with communities and colleagues, both within and beyond their profession, to create networks of solidarity. Through collaborative efforts, they seek transformational change and foster inclusive and responsible societies.
  • Promoting the Right to Self-Determination: Social workers respect and promote the right of individuals to make autonomous decisions about their own lives, enabling them to exercise control over their personal circumstances while receiving necessary support and guidance.

Other ethical tenets that guide international social work, as outlined by IFSW, include respecting individuals’ rights to confidentiality and privacy and embracing a holistic approach to interventions that recognizes the biological, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions that shape people’s lives.

What Does an International Social Worker Do?

By focusing on local issues and collaborating closely with local communities, international social workers empower people to identify and implement solutions that are best suited to their unique contexts and circumstances. This approach fosters a sense of ownership and agency, enabling communities to take charge of their own development and improve their overall well-being.

Consider the following example, as outlined in the journal World, to understand how that may play out in an international social work project aimed at addressing food insecurity and poverty in a farming community in rural Africa.  

  • Understanding the Local Context: International social workers begin by taking time to understand the community’s culture, traditions and farming practices. Through this process, social workers learn that the village relies heavily on subsistence agriculture and faces challenges caused by erratic weather patterns and limited access to markets.
  • Engaging the Community: The social workers engage in meetings, conversations and gatherings with community members and involve local leaders and elders to ensure inclusive decision-making and representation of diverse perspectives. Social workers build trust and rapport with the villagers by actively listening to their experiences, needs and aspirations.
  • Identifying Challenges and Resources: Through collaborative discussions with the community, social workers identify the specific challenges they face, such as the lack of irrigation systems and access to seeds and fertilizers. Simultaneously, they recognize existing strengths and resources, like local farming knowledge and traditional water conservation techniques.
  • Tailoring Solutions: With a deeper understanding of the community’s needs and resources, social workers work together with the villagers to design tailored solutions. Instead of imposing external technologies or practices, they integrate innovative ideas with the community’s existing knowledge and cultural practices.
  • Implementing and Building Capacities: The social workers facilitate the implementation of the agreed-upon solutions. They conduct training sessions to build the community’s capacity in sustainable farming techniques, water management and soil conservation. They also connect the villagers with local agricultural experts and resources.
  • Empowering the Community: As the project progresses, the community members take an active role in the implementation process, gaining a sense of ownership and agency over the initiatives because they were actively involved in planning and decision-making. This empowerment enhances their confidence in their ability to address challenges and improve their own livelihoods.

How to Become an International Social Worker

Becoming an international social worker is a matter of getting the right education and experience while developing key skills and attributes, including ethical standards, tolerance, appreciation for the stamina and capacity of indigenous populations, and cultural competency that includes a willingness to learn as much as teach. Some of the following steps are required, while others are only highly recommended.

  1. Earn an undergraduate degree. All social workers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree. Those interested in pursuing a career in international social work should consider earning a degree in social work, a foreign language, community organization or a related discipline.
  2. Learn a foreign language. Although this is not always a prerequisite, learning a foreign language is greatly beneficial for those who intend to work abroad. Communication is a highly valued skill in international social work, so it’s advisable for students to learn at least one foreign language.
  3. Earn a master’s degree. While generally not a requirement, some organizations prefer candidates with a graduate degree, such as a Master of Social Work
  4. Attain licensure. Social workers often need to earn licensure as a means of certifying their skills and knowledge, and licensure is required for clinical social workers. While most international social work is not clinical, earning licensure can expand a social worker’s capacity to support individuals in international contexts, including providing mental health support. 
  5. Gain experience. International social workers can greatly benefit from experience in the field, and in many cases it may be required. For those who wish to work abroad as a social worker, fellowships and internships are a great way to gain experience.
  6. Secure employment. After completing the educational steps and acquiring a sufficient amount of experience, aspiring international social workers should seek employment with an organization or nonprofit that aligns with their interests and values.

Important Skills for International Social Work

Through their education and experience, it’s vital for international social workers to cultivate qualities that can help them maintain genuine, respectful and reciprocal attitudes in their work. These qualities include: 

  • Cultural Humility: Cultivating cultural humility helps social workers recognize the complexity of cultural differences. This means acknowledging that they may not fully understand the nuances of the local culture and that they have something to learn from it.
  • Self-Reflection: By engaging in continuous self-reflection, international social workers can better understand their own biases, assumptions and preconceptions. This understanding can help them avoid projecting their beliefs onto others. 
  • Appreciation of Local Knowledge: International social workers should value the wisdom and local knowledge of the community members they serve. Appreciation for a community’s insights and experiences breeds trust and can lead to more effective and relevant interventions.

Pursue a Career in International Social Work

International social workers provide support on global humanitarian issues, such as migration, natural disasters, food scarcity and a host of other challenges. International social work represents not only an opportunity to help those in need and perform meaningful work, but also a great way to expand your horizons and see the world.

Those interested in venturing onto this career path should consider the benefits of an advanced education, such as the online Master of Social Work Program format offered at Virginia Commonwealth University. The program — which offers concentrations in clinical social work and macro social work — includes coursework rooted in cultural competence and instills the values of social justice, diversity and human rights.

Learn more about the program to find out how it can help you achieve your professional goals.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Korndoerfer, M.A., LPC*

*Kathleen Korndoerfer, M.A., is a licensed professional counselor with over 10 years experience in the fields of mental health and social work. Kathleen currently practices in Colorado and specializes in the treatment of PTSD and trauma-related disorders and child and adolescent counseling.

Kathleen Korndoerfer, Licensed Professional Counselor, Montrose, CO, 81401 | Psychology Today