International social workers are concerned with addressing inequalities of disadvantaged individuals and communities around the world. The field works to ensure the basic needs of each individual are met, communities are equipped to be sustainable and provide services equitably, and that systems of oppression are dismantled.
An international social worker is a trained social worker providing services and support at the micro, mezzo or macro level. Their work can be done domestically working for an international organization that serves populations around the world, or as is most often the case, working directly with individuals and communities in small villages and communities globally.
The day-to-day work for an international social worker varies, depending on the focus of their position and the organization by whom they are employed. This could range from disaster relief to health education/disease prevention to child protection to gender equity in education initiatives.
How to become an international social worker
Many social workers are drawn to international social work for an opportunity to live abroad, immerse themselves into a new culture, and to make a difference in some of the poorest and most disadvantaged regions of the world. Entering the field of international social work can be quite difficult and extremely competitive. Read on to learn about the steps needed to become an international social worker.
The education requirements are straightforward:
- Obtain a bachelor’s degree
A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) or a related field such as sociology or psychology is necessary. The BSW degree provides coursework and field education opportunities to practice social work at a generalist level.
- Earn a master’s of social work (MSW) degree
A master of social work (MSW) degree is required for entering the field of international social work. This level of education teaches advanced clinical and case management skills, in addition to policy analysis and community organizing. Many MSW programs offer courses related to intercultural communication and social justice advocacy.
For those intent on working globally, some schools of social work offer opportunities for specialized international social work education. For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers a certificate program in Global Human Rights in conjunction with their MSW degree and the University of Denver offers MSW courses, learning abroad and field education opportunities set in four countries around the world. The University of Chicago has incorporated an international social welfare agenda throughout their entire curriculum. This program includes cross-national content in their classes, student exchanges and study abroad programs and international internship placements.
Other steps that may not be required, but are certainly helpful in preparing applicants for international social work:
Select field education opportunities wisely
Selecting practicum settings that provide opportunities to serve refugee populations or specific cultural groups will be beneficial in developing cultural competency, which is a necessity in international social work. The more opportunities you have to learn about a specific culture, including the language and norms, the better prepared you are to work overseas with that population.
Nothing prepares you for working internationally better than living abroad. Study abroad programs can provide a unique, layered, and rich experience to fully immerse yourself into a culture, learn the language quickly and learn firsthand about the issues facing the people and communities of that area. Even if you decide to work with a different population or cultural group as an international social worker, the experiences gained from studying abroad will make it that much easier to adapt to a new environment overseas.
Learn a foreign language
If you have an idea of the region of the world you’d like to work in, take some time to learn the language. Applicants who have at least a basic understanding of the primary language in that area will be much more competitive when applying for an international social work position.
Earn a social work license
While a social work license isn’t necessary for international social work, as private therapy is considered a luxury in most parts of the world, the years it takes to complete licensing supervision and pass the licensing exam provide valuable hands-on experience working directly with clients.
Gain post-MSW work experience
Prior to applying for an international social work position, candidates will ideally have a minimum of 2 years’ experience beyond the masters’ degree. This provides the opportunity to grow personally and professionally and develop some of the skills critical to international social work. This time can also be spent developing connections and building relationships with those already working overseas that may be beneficial when the time comes to apply for global positions.
This can be through multiple short-term projects, or through longer volunteer commitments through the Peace Corps, for example.
International social worker knowledge and skills
Background knowledge critical for international social work:
- Grief, loss and bereavement
- Trauma, including PTSD
- Community development
- General knowledge of the history of the country/region including ethnic and religious groups, conflicts, and any current instabilities
Skills that are critical for international social work:
- Cultural awareness, sensitivity, and cultural humility
- Communication, both written and verbal
- Foreign language
- Understanding of the culture in which you’ll be working including norms, customs, and non-verbal communication
- Patience as the process of change in foreign countries can be cumbersome and slow
- Resourcefulness to think outside the box to solve problems
- Cooperation and collaboration
- Self-awareness and ability to implement self-care, especially when working in overwhelming environments, seeing devastation, poverty, and injustice regularly
- Grant writing and/or fundraising
International social worker career outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that domestic social work employment opportunities will grow 13% over the next decade. As large swaths of the global population ages and countries around the world continue to struggle with providing necessary resources and equal opportunities to their people, a need for international social workers will remain. It could even be argued that the need for international social workers will grow even faster than the domestic rate, particularly as decades-long civil wars continue and certain ethic groups remain oppressed, numerous refugees flee their homelands in search for a better life. International social workers will be needed to assist refugees and asylum seekers in adjusting to a new country and providing services to these individuals and families. Thus, the outlook for international social work appears to be very positive, indeed.
Where are international social workers employed?
There are many well-known NGOs that employ social workers. The links in this section go directly to each organizations’ employment opportunities page.
United Nations (UN) The UN was established in 1945, after 51 countries committed to maintaining international peace post-World War II. Now comprised of 193 member states, international social workers assist in areas of political, humanitarian, emergency relief, sustainable development, and peacekeeping missions. Many well-known NGOs are under the UN umbrella, including:
International Labor Organization (ILO) – Focused on promoting rights at work and labor opportunities and standards for men, women and children, the ILO gives equal voice to governments, employers and workers to shape policies and programs to support the population of its 187 member states.
World Health Organization (WHO) – WHO is dedicated to global health and safety. WHO works with its 194 Member States to achieve the highest level of health for all people.
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) – works in 170 countries to reduce inequality and eradicate poverty. Their areas of focus include sustainable development, democratic governance and peace-building and climate and disaster resilience.
Numerous non-UN NGOs exist, but there are far too many to list in this career profile. Some other well-known NGOs that may be of interest to social workers pursuing international work include:
Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on human rights abuses in more than 100 countries worldwide. They expose injustices and meet with governments and community leaders to work to change policies and laws.
Save the Children – this international NGO works in 120 different countries to save and improve the lives of children around the world. Areas of work include health, nutrition, education, housing, and child protection services.
How much do international social workers make?
Salaries for international social workers may mirror those of domestic-based social workers, with an average annual salary of around $50,000. The United Nations lists social work positions with base salaries ranging from $37,000 to $80,000, depending upon required leadership and other specialized experience. In addition, some of the larger organizations may assist with the costs of moving overseas and pay an additional salary adjustment to cover additional costs of living abroad. Salaries for smaller organizations or those more dependent on fluctuating funding from grant applications will likely be lower and not include salary adjustments.
How can I learn more about international social work opportunities?
NGO Abroad is a social worker-led company that assists social work students and graduates in learning about and preparing for volunteer and work abroad opportunities. Career consulting, résumé development and job boards help streamline the application process.
International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) The IFSW represents 3 million social workers and 141 professional social work associations across the globe. This organization consults with the United Nations and other global humanitarian organizations. Job boards, international conferences and events are available for review on their website.
International social work is an exciting career field with numerous opportunities to assist the most disadvantaged populations around the globe. It can be difficult to break into the field, but even beginning students can take the steps necessary to develop pertinent skills and make connections that can lead to a future in this arena. With continued education and experience, opportunities abound to help improve the lives of others worldwide.
1.What do you think is the most important thing for social work students to be aware of while they prepare for a career in social work?
2.What do you think is the most useful training for social workers?
3.How is the field of social work changing?
What do you think is the most important thing for social work students to be aware of while they prepare for a career in social work?
As students prepare for a social work career, I think that it is essential for them to be aware of (and continuously explore) their own values, privilege, and bias, as well as how these factors influence their work. The field can be quite emotionally challenging, but also tremendously rewarding. We need to be aware of our issues and triggers so that we don’t inadvertently project them onto our clients. Just like we’re advised on an airplane if the oxygen mask drops, we need to help ourselves before we can be of use to someone else. The more we know ourselves, the better we can suspend our own biases and judgements and start with a true appreciation of our clients and what they have to offer and tell us about their lives, hopes and goals. Social work is all about the relationships we develop. We need to embrace the fact that we are merely catalysts or facilitators in promoting social change and development, but it really is the people we partner with (our ‘clients’) who are the true change agents.
What do you think is the most useful training for social workers?
There are several things that I believe are essential to helping us become effective social workers. For example, training to expand our self-awareness while also maximizing opportunities for exposure to, and engagement with, a wide variety of social issues is critical to our development as social workers. The more experience we have, the better! Likewise, interactions with people who have different backgrounds and experiences than our own also further contributes to our personal and professional development. Embracing opportunities to learn how to network to leverage resources, engage in research to advance policy and practice, and advocate for change are some of the most useful training opportunities that prepare social workers for contributing to the advancement of wellbeing and full societal inclusion for all.
How is the field of social work changing?
I think that the field is moving from a post-modern framework wherein clients are recognized as experts over their own lives to now evolving into truly appreciating the critical and essential value of partnership. Emerging approaches to social work practice are not only seeing clients as experts in their own lives, but also with expertise to contribute to the greater good of the community. In some practices, the values are shifting from charity and colonizing approaches to more reciprocal and synergistic, human-centered strategy.
If you had to break all of social work down into fundamental skills, what would they be?
To me, interviewing and empathy skills are the most important skills and the foundation for all effective social work practice. Knowing how to facilitate and hold conversations that open communication wherein clients, communities, or organizations can, together, mutually explore the issues, needs, capabilities, available resources and gaps in services is key in order to move forward to affect change.
What does the future of social work look like?
The field of social work is exploding in all sorts of directions while the opportunities abound for newly minted graduates. Social work is about dismantling oppressive structures and, as such, for well over a century social workers have been on the forefront of human rights movements, poverty alleviation efforts, addressing mental and behavioral health needs, guiding child and family wellbeing, initiating trauma-informed care, and treating substance use disorders, to mention a few. They are gaining recognition now for what we’ve always known: that social workers are fundamental to mobilizing resources and opportunities for individuals and communities to thrive.
Social Workers are also playing leadership roles in social innovation and development. With that, now more than ever before, I believe (and hope) that social work is finally transforming from a charity orientation of ‘supporting those less fortunate’ to practicing from an understanding and value of mutuality and reciprocity. It is only through this approach that we can transform our communities into a truly inclusive and thriving society.
If you had to choose one or two books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, etc. to be included on a required reading list for social work students, what would it be?
This is a very difficult question to answer. There are just so many!
My favorite podcast right now is StoryCorps. StoryCorps’ mission is “to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.” Each episode is a brief (maybe 20 minutes at the most), unscripted conversation between two people about what is important in their lives. Each story causes us to pause, reflect, and consider how we can learn and grow from what they’ve shared.
I also highly recommend Poverty, Inc. It explores the question: “Fighting poverty is big business. But who profits the most?” This documentary takes a deep dive into charitable poverty alleviation programs and organizations to help us understand why they fail and perpetuate a broken system.