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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- International Association of Schools of Social Work: This is the global association of schools of social work, social work educators and other social work educational programs.
- International Federation of Social Workers: The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) represents 3 million social workers and 141 professional social work associations across the globe. The IFSW consults with the United Nations and other global humanitarian organizations.
- International Council on Social Welfare: This nongovernmental organization focuses on advocacy and social development throughout the world.
- “Breaking the Poverty Cycle”: This book examines how sociocultural norms can be barriers and facilitators of community and personal development. It addresses sustainable human development and examines practical implications for social work practice with those experiencing poverty.
- “Environmental Social Work”: This book teaches about the impact of the environment on human welfare, covering theories of ecological and social justice, sustainability issues and vulnerable groups affected by climate change.
- “Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective”: This book discusses female genital mutilation, an international form of abuse.
- “Green Social Work – From Environmental Crises to Environmental Justice”: This book covers social and environmental justice and how that affects the role of social work.
- “International Social Work” journal: This is the official journal of the International Association of Schools of Social Work, the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Council on Social Welfare. The journal promotes international exchange in the fields of social work, social welfare and community development.
- “Professional Social Work in East Africa: Towards Social Development, Poverty Reduction and Gender Equality”: This book describes the historical context of social work in East Africa and covers issues that affect social work in Africa today.
- “Social and Caring Professions in European Welfare States”: This book looks at social and caring professions in Europe, with research and contributions from experts in Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Poland, the UK, Norway and Finland.
- “Social Welfare in East Asia and the Pacific”: This book covers social challenges and social work practice in 11 East Asian and the Pacific countries.
- “U.S. Public Policy in an International Context”: This book examines U.S. public policies and policy development processes for issues such as elections, criminal justice and health care and compares U.S. public policy with international policies in places such as Japan, Brazil and Canada.
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