International social workers are employed in a variety of countries and contexts, working to develop policy and provide social services for vulnerable populations on a global scale.

As technological advancements, policy changes, and migration flows increase connectivity around the world, social workers now more than ever need to be prepared to respond to the unique challenges of a globalized world.

Social work has become truly international in scope, with many practitioners actively engaged in work that transcends borders. Accordingly, international practice is of growing importance to the mission of the social work profession.

For social work students interested in working internationally, a specialization in International Social Work is recommended. The following are key areas of study and practice included in an International Social Work specialization.

Cultural Competence and Respect for Diversity

A key component of the International Social Work specialization is learning to practice cultural competence and maintain a deep respect for diversity. International social workers are expected to interact with people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds from all over the world, which means they must value and be able to engage with difference. Cultural competence in social work practice does not mean that one has to become an expert in any particular culture, but refers to an approach to working with individuals that recognizes and appreciates cultural differences.

A specialization in international social work helps students to understand the many ways that culture influences an individual’s worldview, including conceptualizations of health and well-being. Students in the specialization will learn theoretical viewpoints and practical techniques for working effectively with people of different cultures, in ways that seek to understand and honor cultural diversity. Students will learn to practice reflexivity regarding their own culture, worldview, and outsider status in relation to individuals from other countries.

Students in this specialization will also be trained in pertinent practicalities of international social work, such as working with interpreters, international and intra-national laws affecting social work practice, and developing and implementing culturally-responsive interventions and programs.

Human Rights

Students who elect an International Social Work specialization will gain expertise in human rights law and advocacy. Social work is an action-oriented profession, and international social work especially provides opportunity for social workers to engage in human rights work that delivers on our action-based legacy. The International Federation of Social Workers, a global social work organization, sees human rights as a fundamental aspect of social work practice at the international level.

“The strong compatibility of the profession’s mission and values with human rights suggests a natural linkage. Human rights provide the profession with a clear direction for a presence at the international level, while also bridging local and national issues with global concerns.”

Thus, social work students who select an International Social Work specialization can expect to learn about policies related to the global human rights agenda, in order to influence policy dedicated to securing and protecting human rights. Additionally, the specialization in International Social Work will teach  practical models for protecting human rights and responding to human rights violations on the ground.

International Development

The International Social Work specialization will also instruct students in key theories and service delivery from the interdisciplinary field of international development. Much of the human services work carried out by NGOs and international aid organizations in “developing” countries is based on an international development framework, which includes both economic and human development perspectives. While international development practice and social work practice are distinct, they share some similarities and common goals at the international level – namely, working to develop the capacity of countries and communities to implement long-term solutions to social, environmental, political, and economic problems. Social workers who wish to attain employment abroad should be familiar with the main theoretical concepts of international development, and thus, these topics will be covered in an International Social Work specialization.

International Field Placement

Finally, students interested in a specialization in International Social Work should expect a requirement to complete at least one field placement abroad. Many programs are flexible regarding which placement takes place in another country (first level or second level). Most programs offering a specialization in International Social Work recognize that immersing oneself in another country and working internationally provide an invaluable training opportunity for students to gain firsthand experience of international social work practice. Therefore, even if an international field placement is not a requirement, it is highly recommended for those wishing to pursue international social work careers.

Related Article:  The Pros and Cons of International Field Study

The International Social Work specialization offers many opportunities for social workers to engage with culturally and ethnically diverse individuals, families, and communities at the global level. For those interested in working in a global context, the International Social Work specialization is a wise choice.


Lynne Healy (2008) “Exploring the history of social work as a human rights profession” International Social Work, 51, pp745-­‐746