Home Education News How social work makes a major international impact

How social work makes a major international impact

by Lisa A. Yeager

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While a lot of social workers dedicate their time to their local communities, some choose to use their skills to help the underserved and needy in other countries.

Choosing to work as an international social worker provides some great opportunities to learn and work with a variety of people. Immersing yourself in the culture of others helps you gain valuable experience and conflict-resolution skills that you can use in any job.

International social work allows you to learn and experience new cultures

Working closely with regular citizens in a different country allows a social worker to learn a lot about the culture and people from a unique perspective. Visiting a country as a tourist and interacting with locals is far different from diving into their communities and helping them access resources, support and assistance that can improve lives.

Living and working in a different country can be a very rewarding and even life-changing experience. Working in a new place offers a lot of learning opportunities and chances to see how other cultures deal with some of the issues we all have in common.

International social workers often work with government or non-profit agencies

Social workers often gain employment through their own nation’s government or the government of another country that needs assistance helping with outreach to implement their social programs.

Non-profit groups often go to other countries to provide support and services to those in need. Choosing to work with a non-profit can offer opportunities to specialize in a core area, such as helping women and children or providing mental health resources and support.

International social work can be quite stressful at times but very rewarding

In some cases, international social work can be significantly more stressful than sticking to work within your native country. The reasons for this may include language and cultural barriers, civil unrest or war, extreme poverty, disease outbreaks and challenging economics.

You should only choose international social work if you are likely to be able to handle a major stress load at times. It is important to mentally prepare yourself for the problems and situations you will most likely see. Learning as much as possible and watching videos can help prepare you for entering service in a foreign land.

Language classes are recommended

While there are often interpreters available, it is always better if a social worker has some understanding of the native language. Interacting with locals freely will make it far easier to do your job. Knowing the language where you are assigned results in more trust between yourself and the local population. You are much more likely to be able to form a great connection and get people to open up to you if you make them comfortable.

Spanish is a good example of a language that is spoken in many different countries, including the United States. Taking the time to become fluent in Spanish opens up a lot of opportunities both at home and abroad.

As an international social worker, you will learn about globalization’s effects on society

The effects of globalization on every society are hard to miss. Globalization means goods are produced and shipped all over the world. Working conditions, living facilities and wages all vary greatly based on the company and products. Social workers will quickly see the effects of unfair practices on one side and the availability of inexpensive goods on the other.

Social workers can learn how to help workers advocate for themselves and improve their lives as much as possible. Seeing the problems that are occurring in societies throughout the globalized world will teach aspiring social workers how to approach some situations in their own country when trying to help others.

How to start a career in international social work

International social workers are in demand, but there are some skills you need to succeed at helping others abroad. The following steps will help you to develop the required skills:

Earn your master’s degree in social work

You need a certain level of education to become a licensed social work and be competitive in the job market. The gold standard is to earn a master’s degree in social work. The good news is that there are now many online courses available to earn this degree.

So, what is a MSW degree? An MSW degree is a graduate-level degree that offers students the skills and education they need to qualify for social worker licensing where they wish to practice. Degree programs, such as the one offered by Cleveland State University, include a field placement where students gain real-world experience before beginning practice as an independent social worker. Advanced and accelerated programs are available for those that already have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution.

Sometimes, you can even arrange for an international placement as part of your master’s degree program. If your degree program offers field placement services, it is important you let them know well in advance of your interest in international social work. It is possible to complete your entire field placement in another country.

Community service hours

Your degree program will require that you complete a set number of field placement hours. Whenever possible, faculty and staff within the social work department will work with you to find the field placement that is most suited to your interests and career goals.

In addition to this placement, you should consider doing some community service whenever possible. Even a few hours a week can make a big difference on your resume, and you will be helping others at the same time. Doing extra community work demonstrates that you are a motivated and caring individual.

Hone your cultural awareness

The more you know about the various cultures and people that you are the most likely to experience during an international placement the better off you are. An international social worker must be very open and willing to work with others from many different backgrounds and ethnic groups.

Knowing common customs is important before embarking on any international trip. There are some general stereotypes of Americans that are perpetuated worldwide. Knowing what these stereotypes are and taking steps to negate the effects of these is important.

Learn to love research

While you will undoubtedly need to perform research beforehand, you should be prepared to do extensive research and paperwork during your international assignment. There is always something to learn no matter how hard you try to prepare ahead of time.

Consider just how much travel is ok with you and your family

While traveling is going to happen more if you are an international social worker, it is important to consider how much travel or being away from your native country you can handle. There is a big difference between a month-long assignment and one where you stay six months or more.

While in a foreign country, there may be considerable travel too. Locations may be very remote, and you may have to move around a lot to do your job. Travel in some countries is significantly more dangerous and may take a lot longer due to rough roads, terrain and weather conditions. Travel may be more cramped too. Having some experience traveling for a week or longer at a time is helpful in preparing for social work assignments abroad.

Make sure you can get a passport

A passport can take some time to get. In order to do social work abroad, you will need to have a valid passport. For most people this is not a problem; however, there are some offenses and situations where a person may be banned from international travel for a specific period of time.

Remember that a passport is not something that can be issued instantly. You should allow at least six weeks for a new passport just to be on the safe side.

International social work may involve very physical manual labor tasks

While talking to clients and connecting them to help and resources may be part of your job, there are other aspects that you may perform that are far different than what you would expect in other areas of social work. For example, if you are assigned to work in an area where there is a lack of housing, you might spend some of your time helping build or renovate homes. If an area has been hit by a natural disaster, you might work with people within the community to make repairs and rebuild necessary infrastructure and services.

Make sure you are ready and capable of the physical duties that are possible before you accept any international positions.

Examples of international social work duties

You might be doing many things in your daily duties as an international social worker. From offering emotional support and counseling to picking up a hammer and helping frame a house in a natural disaster area, international social work offers a lot of rewards and excitement all while helping others lead their best life.

Post-war humanitarian aid includes social workers

Wars have permanent effects on countries and the people within them. After a war is over, there is a lot of damage to infrastructure, housing and people. Mental and physical health problems can go on for far longer than any war.

Social service workers may work as grief counselors to help people learn to cope with their feelings after a war and discover ways to overcome daily challenges.

Environmental recovery efforts sometimes involve social workers

Many areas of the world are trying to protect their environmental resources and reduce the impact of poor environmental practices on their citizens. When a country decides to take a more active role in the environment, there are repercussions and changes that may significantly impact the lives of their citizens.

In some cases, an environmental disaster can make changes mandatory regardless of how strictly the government of a country is interested in true environmentalism. For example, if a major industry in an area is shut down due to new pollution control measures, then there may be a temporary or even permanently devastating effect on the local economy leading to more poverty and mental issues. A social worker can offer supportive counseling and help workers and their families find resources to help them through these major life changes. This may include temporary assistance with food, housing, utilities and medical care. Helping displaced workers find new employment is another important goal.

Social workers can increase economic development in underserved populations

There are a lot of countries and areas within countries that lack economic development. While people have some marketable skills, they lack essential resources that allow people to start businesses. Social workers can help bring people together to create economic development in their communities. By working together, people can help one another establish businesses and offer services to others that have a major impact on the quality of life and financial stability of everyone.

Making economic development happen can take some time, but it is important for social workers to encourage communities to take steps even if they need to take a lot of small ones to reach their goals.

Social workers can help broker peace deals between groups of people

Conflict resolution skills are very important when working with people from many different backgrounds. Social workers can help people overcome their differences and work together. Helping others embrace the things they have in common and work together for their mutual benefit is critical for long-term prosperity in many cases.

Helping resolve conflicts that can hold people back is truly invaluable. Having a neutral party to help with negotiations can make a major difference in getting two opposing parties to listen to each other and develop a solution that offers a fair deal for all.

Social workers help improve community health

Access to adequate medical care is important. Without good health, it is hard for a society to get ahead in any area. Social workers can help establish medical clinics and educate others about good health practices.

Introducing and offering birth control options can help people better plan their families and achieve greater financial security.

International social work can help prevent violence

Violence is often the result of stressful events and circumstances. When social workers come into an area and start to work to help people overcome challenges and improve their lives, rates of violence tend to go down. This means a reduction in abuse at home and in the workplace as well as violent crimes within society.

Finding help for victims of violence helps them heal, recover and provides them with time to see what options they have for moving forward.

Social workers can help with drug and substance abuse issues

Illicit substances are a problem all over the world. In modern times, more people than ever are addicted to both legal and illegal substances. This can lead to a variety of issues, including homelessness, mental health decline and inability to work. Other health issues are also quite common.

Social workers can offer counseling and work with other programs and facilities to offer rehabilitation support and services.

Mental health services

All countries would benefit from an improved mental healthcare system. Access to counseling and therapists can improve society’s mental health outlook and overall morale. Major mental illnesses left untreated can lead to serious consequences and reduced quality of life.

Access to mental health treatment and medications can make a big difference in society. Overcoming mental health stigma is one of the main challenges of mental healthcare in developing countries where resources are limited in many areas of daily life.


International social work is a great way to be the change you want to see in the modern world. There are many opportunities for travel and meeting interesting people while learning about their culture and helping improve their lives.

Social workers have been proven to be very effective in creating positive effects in communities with limited financial resources. The habits and work ethic they often instill have long-lasting effects. Achieving a degree in social work is easier now than ever before, thanks to online education and good field placement services and programs. Advanced placement programs also exist for those that hold at least a bachelor’s degree in any field.

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