Guide to International Social Work

International social workers help eliminate barriers to development for populations experiencing disadvantages. They work to protect human rights and ease economic stress for vulnerable communities. They help ensure basic needs are met and assist in liberating oppressed people. International social workers may focus on issues and initiatives including:

  • Child protection
  • Sex trafficking
  • Feeding the hungry
  • Assisting refugees
  • Offering post-disaster assistance
  • Promoting gender equity
  • Comforting people receiving medical care
  • Administering educational programs focusing on safe sex
  • Domestic violence
  • Promoting physical and mental well-being

The world is becoming increasingly diverse, so a background in international social work may be helpful. According to the United Nations International Migration Report (PDF, 2.2 MB)  , there were 258 million international migrants in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000.

According to the report “United States-Based Conceptualization of International Social Work Education (PDF, 369 KB),” one in every four poor children in the U.S. live in a family with at least one immigrant parent, and 18% of all residents live in a home where a language other than English is spoken. Social workers with a global background may work in the U.S., helping immigrants and those from various cultural backgrounds.

Career Opportunities and Salaries

Work in international social work careers can be very competitive. Ann McLaughlin, director of NGOabroad, writes in “The New Social Worker” that getting volunteer experience in another country can be extremely helpful to become a social worker in a global role. She also recommends accumulating extensive knowledge of the culture you want to work with as you gain domestic social work experience and international work experience in preparation for an international social worker role.

International social work careers can be with government, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits. Some employers of international social workers include:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of social worker positions in the United States is expected to increase at a much faster than average growth rate of 13% from 2019 to 2029. The 2019 median pay for social workers was $50,470 per year. The highest 10% earned more than $82,540.

An international social work salary will depend on the job and the type of funding of the employing organization. Generally, the BLS reports there are different career options based on educational attainment. If you’re considering a social work degree, you might be wondering about the difference between bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in social work.

The BLS reports the following salaries and unemployment rates by degree for 2019:

  • Bachelor’s degree: 2.2% unemployment rate, $1,249 median usual weekly earnings.
  • Master’s degree: 2% unemployment rate, $1,497 median usual weekly earnings.
  • Doctoral degree: 1.1% unemployment rate, $1,883 median usual weekly earnings.

Some international social work jobs may require a specific degree. For top leadership positions, a doctorate might be preferred or required. Many social worker jobs posted by the United Nations require a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s degree is preferred. A Ph.D. in social work may also be an option depending on job requirements.

Pros and Cons of International Social Work

International social work is a unique career field. The work can take you around the globe, and it also presents some unique challenges.

Pros of international social work

  1. You’ll get to travel the world. If you’ve always wanted to work in another country or immerse yourself in new cultures, a career in international social work can provide that gateway.
  2. You help people in need. International social workers help populations experiencing disadvantages. These might be people living in poverty, those who have been victims of an environmental disaster, or those who’ve experienced war or abuse. The work can be incredibly fulfilling because you know you’re making a positive impact.
  3. There’s always something new to tackle. Working as an international social worker is rarely boring. You’ll constantly be working with new people who are dealing with unique challenges. Your work might take you to locations where you’ll learn about new ways of life.

Cons of international social work

  1. Your home is constantly changing. Assignments may require travel on short notice. Your environment will constantly be changing. For some, this may be a positive aspect to international social work, but for those who want to set down roots or who are leaving families behind, it’s more challenging.
  2. There are emotional and physical challenges. International social workers are immersed in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world, including environments that have experienced severe hardship. There may be physical challenges like a lack of sanitation, and emotional challenges involving death and destruction.
  3. International social work can be stressful. International social work can require long workdays in difficult conditions. These physical and emotional challenges require stable mental health so international social workers avoid burnout.

International Social Work Organizations

Study for a Career in International Social Work

Working around the globe or with immigrants here in the U.S. is a way to expand your cultural outlook and become more sensitive to global communities. There are populations from all over the world that can benefit from social work. If you’re interested in helping communities that need assistance, studying to become a social worker can help you achieve your dream career.

Last updated: July 2020