Tackling social issues

Last Updated 23 October 2013, 15:59 IST

Social problems arising out of globalisation create significant areas of international responsibility, observes George Palattiyil.

International social work aims at building an integrated international profession that reflects social work’s capacity to respond effectively in education and practice to the global challenges that are impinging on the well-being of large sections of the world’s population. In other words, international social work aims to advance the causes of the vulnerable and marginalised with the purpose of promoting social justice, equality, and human rights in a global context.

Professional social workers are dedicated to service for the welfare and self-fulfilment of human beings; to the development and disciplined use of scientific knowledge regarding human and societal behaviour; to the development of resources to meet individual, group, national and international needs and aspirations; and to the achievement of social justice. Social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.

The social problems and conditions arising out of globalisation create significant areas of international responsibility and demands expanded knowledge and understanding for the social work profession. Professional social workers are on the frontline addressing some of today’s most pressing international issues. Today, social workers are called upon to carry out a wide array of roles in international settings.

Skill sets

*Critical assessment: Self-assessment is the critical first step in planning for a career in international social work. Am I interested in effecting change on a macro/global level? Am I interested in working directly with clients from a variety of cultural backgrounds? Am I interested in personal and professional development which result from the experience of living abroad?

* Knowledge of welfare systems: Specific knowledge of social welfare systems and their cultural contexts in specific regions and countries is also crucial. Sources of information useful for learning about the social welfare systems of other countries include all of the following: Resources available in libraries; Embassies and consulates; International/foreign/national faculty, students, alumni and friends of friends; Internationally-focused organizations

* Other skills: There are other skills which, while not mandatory, contribute positively to a candidate's credentials. These vary by setting, but may include: computer/technological expertise; agricultural knowledge; health professions training; ability/ experience/ willingness to teach; and social work experience with a particular group or issue of concern to a country. Many of these are not primary social work functions but, in settings in which support functions must sometimes be performed by professional personnel, the possession of secondary job skills may be crucial in carrying out one's primary professional functions.

There exist thousands of organisations worldwide that deal with international social work concerns - many more can provide long-term careers for social workers in international practice.  Long-term positions--more than one or two years in length--generally are career related and, often, are difficult to secure. Short-term positions, on the other hand, tend to be plentiful. They are comparatively easy to obtain and often easier to arrange than long-term ones.


Most universities in UK, USA, Europe, Australia, India, etc have master’s degree in international social work, many of them with specialisation. The University of Edinburgh is one of the earliest providers of social work education in the UK beginning in 1918 and, over time, becoming recognised as a leading institution in this field. Social work education at the University of Edinburgh includes a four year undergraduate Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Social Work, a two year postgraduate Master of Social Work (MSW); a PhD in Social Work, and a post-graduate certificate in Advanced Professional Studies (Mental Health Officers Award), besides a number of credit bearing stand-alone courses.
In order to gain admission to MSc in International Social Work programme, applicants should have equivalent of an undergraduate honours degree in Social Work/Social Sciences or in a related field, preferably holding an upper second class classification. Generally, candidates should show a demonstrable background or interest in international social work and social development, and some work experience in a relevant setting will be desirable.

Range of opportunities

International career opportunities for social workers are found in many types of settings. The following are some categories of organisations and agencies that are known to employ social workers for international work;

* International Inter-Governmental Organisations like the United Nations and its 12 specialised agencies

* International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

* University-based programs

* Foundation programs - larger foundations may employ substantial numbers of professional staff

* Religious organisations - they sponsor thousands of human service programs around the world

* Social work in corporate settings

Areas of international social work also include international social work and social development, HIV/AIDS, public health and human rights, refugees and asylum seekers and cross border reproductive services

A catch phrase for the nineties has become "Think globally, act locally". With an international social work career, it is possible to have the best of both worlds--that of acting on major international social issues, either at home or abroad, and wherever one chooses to work to be engaged in solving social problems of worldwide dimensions.

As the social context of human services becomes increasingly more internationalised, it is crucial that social workers broaden their world view; the personal and professional rewards for doing so can be immense.

(The writer is the program director of MSW at Edinburgh University.)

(Published 23 October 2013, 15:59 IST)

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