The role of social workers is dynamic and constantly evolving. International perspectives on social work highlight the critical, wide-ranging responsibilities of the profession worldwide.
Social workers engage in far-reaching work. They are employed across areas as diverse as casework, counseling, education, research, policy development, community engagement, and advocacy, creating change from micro to macro levels. The principles of social justice and human rights are central to all social work.
The role of social workers is necessarily holistic; in order to achieve big-picture goals of bettering people’s lives and improving how society functions, social workers must work with individuals, groups, and institutions across complex circumstances.
An International Outlook
The social work environment varies around the globe, dictated to a degree by local political climates, cultural norms and expectations. What doesn’t change, however, is that the primary role of social workers is to protect society’s most vulnerable people, whether that means helping children who are living in poverty in the United States or delivering services and support to the millions affected by the Syrian refugee crisis.
Reporting on the Syrian crisis, Rory Truell, the Secretary General of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), commented, “At the heart of social work are the principles of respecting human dignity, actively supporting the right of people to have a say in their own development and recovery, and building people’s capacity.”
Dutch social worker and sociologist, Willem Blok, author of Core Social Work: International Theory, Values and Practice, puts it this way: “The key role of social workers is to support people who, for whatever reason, are not able to fulfill their basic and secondary needs and to participate fully in social life.”
Blok says, “An appreciation of the significance and function of their role – of their vital contribution to a humane, democratic functioning of society – is important for a social worker to be able to anchor their practice in national and international social policy and understand its place in society.”
A Global Agenda for Social Work
In 2012, three leading international social work organizations – the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) – joined forces to launch a global strategy to address systemic societal issues that perpetuate poverty, inequality and oppression.
The resulting Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development notes that social workers are at the forefront of witnessing the “daily realities of personal, social and community challenges.” It highlights the need for social workers, educators and social development practitioners to work collaboratively to create global change.
Together, the three organizations, and the thousands of social workers who gave input on the agenda committed to:
- Promoting social and economic equalities.
- Promoting the dignity and worth of peoples.
- Working towards environmental and community sustainability.
- Strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships.
Looking to the Future
Themed Global Agenda Reports have since been launched at the biennial Joint World Conference on Social Work, Education and Social Development (SWSD). The 2016 conference, held in Seoul, looked at the purpose of social work in a changing world. Reporting on the keynote speakers, The Guardian noted that Silvana Martinez, a regional president for the IFSW, asked: “Can we speak about social work without speaking … about power, about politics, about those who hold power?” (The next conference, scheduled for 2018, will discuss social work and social development practice, policy research and education under the theme, “Environmental and Community Sustainability: Human Solutions in Evolving Societies.”)
Ian Hyslop, a lecturer at the University of Auckland, argued that governments in the western world have fostered a worldview focused on personal responsibility for disadvantage and poverty, rather than looking at societal causes.
Hyslop encouraged social workers fighting for social justice to be voices of dissent, saying, “We can either roll over … or we can speak up for ourselves and the clients we serve, for the clients that we aim to bring justice and dignity to.”
What do you think the role of a social worker is today? Discover the wide-ranging impact social workers can have on all aspects of society with our Careers section.