Social Work

What Does an International Social Worker Do?

What Does an International Social Worker Do?
International social work seeks to provide professional services informed by an understanding of the nuanced implications of global events. Image from Pexels
Katy McWhirter profile
Katy McWhirter November 27, 2022

International social workers work with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to deliver human services and healthcare and to clients abroad while advocating more broadly for human rights and social justice.

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International social work may at first seem like a misnomer. Don’t social workers typically focus on local community work? Yes, but… in a world growing more interconnected at every turn, global becomes local. Whether working with a Ukrainian family recently displaced to Oklahoma, building mutual support programs on the Texas-Mexico border, or traveling abroad to provide services to Syrian refugees, today’s social workers benefit from global affairs knowledge and cultural sensitivities in their client encounters.

Even if social workers do not specifically work with international populations in areas of refugee resettlement, border crossings, human rights issues, or international adoptions, chances are they have someone with international ties on their client roster. More and more, every social worker is an international social worker.

So, what does an international social worker do? This article explores that question and also examines:

  • What is international social work?
  • Issues in international social work
  • Examples of international social work in action
  • International social work: education and training requirements

What is international social work?

International social work was developed on the understanding that cultural, economic, political, and social events happening across the world ripple out and affect others thousands of miles away. International social work seeks to provide professional services informed by an understanding of the nuanced implications of global events.

In addition to encouraging intergovernmental awareness and problem-solving, international social work also seeks to develop cross-cultural knowledge in social workers and anyone involved in supporting the wellbeing of others. Social work education has historically focused on building skills in applied practice, producing graduates with inadequate knowledge of global policy, international development, and geopolitical influences. The discipline has worked diligently to improve social work curricula and graduate informed, globally cognizant practitioners.

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There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

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Issues in international social work

International social work identifies several critical issues that repeatedly surface across populations, regions, and age groups. By developing initiatives to redress problems, international social work practitioners and leaders hope to create more responsive human services that solve root causes. Some of the most critical areas to address include the following.

Healthcare

Providing adequate public health services continues to challenge humanity, with up to 800 million people experiencing undernourishment and one in eight people living with mental health disorders, to name but a few issues. Although the responsibility to begin addressing these issues rests on developed nations, the U.S. budget for 2016 devoted only one-fifth of a percentage point to global health initiatives.

If the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that no person or country is immune from a global health crisis. Rather than taking an isolationist approach, international social work seeks to bring leaders from myriad locations and perspectives together to find effective strategies.

Women’s rights

As recent protests in Iran and the rollback of federal protection for abortion in the U.S. have demonstrated, women’s rights continue to be an ongoing fight across the globe. Women’s issues run the gamut, ranging from lack of adequate maternal healthcare and undereducation to domestic violence and the right to autonomous decision-making. Rather than simply supporting women after they experience one of the countless issues they face, international social work looks at ways of developing policy and advocacy initiatives to combat the problem before it happens.

By understanding the political, economic, social, and cultural factors at play in different parts of the world, social workers can coordinate work across international lines to effect greater impact.

Income inequality

Income inequality among nations has improved; developing nations are beginning to grow more financially solvent, although there’s still a long way to go. Unfortunately, income inequality within countries continues to grow. According to the United Nations, 71 percent of the global population lives in places where inequality has risen. Inequality is a large issue, with the gender pay gap affecting individuals and the top and bottom of payrolls.

International social workers understand the underlying issues causing income inequality, ranging from lack of education and disparities in race and gender to technological skills expectations and lack of opportunity. By addressing systemic issues in partnership with other leaders around the globe, international social workers seek to eradicate barriers to equality over time.

Corruption

Corruption comes in many forms and can impact countless areas of human health and wellbeing. In a paper for the International Monetary Fund, researchers argue that corruption exacerbates issues around income inequality and access to education. Within the Palgrave Handbook of Global Social Problems, researchers also note how a lack of health, justice, social trust, and overall human development can all trace back to corruption.

Rooting out corruption at every level creates scenarios where individuals can flourish, grow wealth, gain access to education and health services, and build better lives for themselves. By working with NGOs, the United Nations, and other agencies focused on global social welfare, international social workers seek to identify and perhaps isolate or remove corrupt leaders.

Examples of international social work in action

Through organizations like the International Federation of Social Workers, social workers contribute to the work done by various NGOs and quasi-governmental organizations like Amnesty International, the International Council on Social Welfare, and United Nations, and the World Health Organization. They work with clients, advocate for broader societal reforms, and, perhaps most important, train local social workers to engage and serve the population.

In the 1990s, the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) offered a symposium at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women. Sharing knowledge about domestic violence, social workers from 27 nations came together to create strategies for anti-violence programs that could work in their home countries. By sharing in policy development, social workers created recommendations that could be raised to country leaders and utilized.

Not all undertakings are so broad. Some are localized and case-specific yet still profoundly impactful for the populations they serve. For example, social workers supported NGOs in Kazakhstan to implement HIV-prevention and drug-misuse reduction programs.

International social work: education and training requirements

Becoming an international social worker requires you to complete multiple steps around education, training, and licensure. Because this process involves time, money, and focus, it’s important to think carefully about whether international social work best matches your interests and aspirations before you begin.

You’ll need a natural curiosity about the larger world to be effective in this role. An interest in policy, administration, research, and governmental affairs also helps, as you will need to stay up-to-date on all of these to accomplish your goals. Lastly, whether you plan to work domestically or abroad, you’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with people from different economic, social, cultural, religious, and political backgrounds.

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

Completing a social work bachelor’s degree (BSW) is the first step in the process; it requires four years of full-time study. These programs build competencies in areas of social work research, interventions, client empowerment, child protection, advocacy, and social development. They also include field placements to develop real-world skills.

Make sure to find a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). You can earn a bachelor’s degree in another discipline but it will complicate your entry into the field. If possible, try to minor or double major in a foreign language, as this allows you to work effectively with non-English speaking populations.

2. Seek licensure

In order to practice as a clinical social worker, you must hold licensure in your state. Some states even require non-clinical professionals to be licensed. Requirements vary by location, but the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) provides details on requirements for each state. Licenses must also be renewed periodically.

3. Gain experience

According to Indeed, most international social work roles require approximately five years of experience. Gaining experience through serving in the Peace Corps, participating in disaster relief initiatives, or working with NGOs such as Save the Children can help you build relevant skills and cross-cultural competencies required by international employers.

4. Earn a master’s degree

In order to engage in clinical social work, you must hold a Maste of Science in Social Work (MSW). These programs typically require two years of full-time study and can be completed in-person or online. Online options typically best serve working students, as they provide lots of flexibility. In addition to building advanced knowledge and competencies, some MSW programs provide concentrations to help you specialize in a particular area. These vary from school-to-school, but relevant options include community development and policy, administrative leadership, children and youth, and planning and research.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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