International Social Work: Professional Action in an Interdependent World

(Lynne M. Healy, Oxford University Press, N.Y.: 2001).


Healy does a good job of providing an overview of the field of International Social Work; however, like any textbook, especially a relatively small one such as this (roughly 300 pages) what is left out is substantial.  (For example, in her milestones in the International History of Social World Around the World she neglects the great work of Marguerite D’Youville in Canada a century before Jane Addams.)  Therefore, it is very important that you use the book as a start and develop a list of readings to build upon this foundation.  Also, a number of fine documentaries and films would be of great value in terms of your more fully appreciating the importance of this topic.  Some of my favorite movies, documentaries, and books will be listed at the end of this brief review of Healy’s book.


On page 11 of the book the author gives you an example of International work in terms of the Grameen Bank which has long been a favorite example of mine.  The bank gives out unsecured loans in very small amounts to the impoverished who would never get a loan from a regular bank.  These small loans can literally transform a person’s life and change the future of a family overnight.  For example, the bank may buy a pedal bike for a person who normally rents the bike and then uses it to transport people around town and by the end of the day most of the profits go to the bike owner.  By owning the bike his resources can double over night from this one small loan.  This is but one of many such examples of how a little thing can make a huge difference in a person’s life.  However, what is also nice in the example that Healy gives is that we can import ideas such as this one from developing countries and apply the concept to the benefit of the poor here in the United States.  (I have long used a documentary on the Grameen bank in my teaching.)


One of the questions that Healy raises is whether we can identify a common base of social work practice worldwide and in attempting to answer that question she quotes Hokenstad, Khinduka, and Midgley (1992) and how they identified four sets of commonalities from their analysis of social work in 10 countries.  These three are all leaders in the field of social work and their list is on page 99 of Healy’s book and is as follows:


  1. Social work takes on a broad range of roles and responsibilities in each country where it is present.
  2. In all countries examined, social work defines itself as an agent of social change and reform.
  3. Work with the poor is a part of social work in almost all countries.
  4. There are shared values of ‘promoting human dignity and social justice, empowering poor and vulnerable peoples, and encouraging intergroup harmony and goodwill’ (p. 182 of Hokenstad et all, p. 99 of Healy).


The following is the year 2000  IFSW definition of international social work:


“The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being.  Utilizing theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments.  Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.”


Although at first glance this seems a very obvious and uncomplicated statement, as Healy points out it is complicated when you start defining what social workers should do in a world where values are dramatically different in various parts of the world.


Empowerment and self-determination have long been considered such basic values of our democracy and profession that they are taken for granted as being in the best interests of every INDIVIDUAL.  And that is where we can so easily go wrong.  Our Western emphasis on the “individual” sometimes comes in conflict with Asian and African communal and group oriented values.  Do we impose our values on other cultures because we are sure they are superior values?  On the other hand, should we simply accept the values of other cultures?  As Healy points out, neither of these positions are sound and she recommends a middle ground position.  She also notes how once American society rejected feminism (still does to some extent) and we still have a lot of problems with how to relate with the gay and lesbian citizens amongst us.  Cultures are dynamic and changing for the better or the worse so that those who are trying to retain the status quo are unappreciative of the inevitable forces of change.  One day social workers in American may also change our values.  What changes might you think we should make?  Should we be more communal?  Should we be less or more accepting of diversity?  These are not easily answered questions.  The point that they arrive at is that we should be ever vigilant so that we do not imperially impose our values on others while also carefully examining the values we have adopted without thoughtful reasoning.


One way that the clash of values can be dealt with is to focus on those areas where no clash is imperative.  We are always faced with limited resources so that we are constantly deciding where to place those resources.  Therefore, it can be less problematic if we elect to place the resources where no value clash is likely.  For example, instead of helping an individual by empowering them when this might upset a traditional balance within a group, we can focus on group improvement.


For me one of the toughest areas for Americans to tackle is the area of economics.  As Healy points out (pp. 110-114), oil producing Arab countries got mad at the United States because of our relationship with Israel and they created OPEC and gas prices soared.  This forced third world countries to survive by borrowing so then they had huge debt crises which required cutbacks in their government services which undermined the quality of life of their citizens.  In short, American foreign policy in relationship to Israel has resulted in more deaths worldwide than the total population of Israel! 


In Appendix B of Healy we find the 10 Commandments, related to the U.N. Summit for Social Development, passed by the United Nations...  This is a wonderful document even though it has never been implemented it is still an excellent overview of where we should be going.


  1. We commit ourselves to creating an economic, political, social, cultural and legal environment that will enable people to achieve social development.
  2. We commit ourselves to the goal of eradicating poverty in the world, through decisive national actions and international cooperation, as an ethical, social, political and economic imperative of humankind.
  3. We commit ourselves to promoting the goal of full employment as a basic priority of our economic and social policies, and to enabling all men and women to attain secure and sustainable livelihoods through freely chosen productive employment and work.
  4. We commit ourselves to promoting social integration by fostering societies that are stable, safe and just and that are based on the promotion and protection of all human rights, as well as on non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security and participation of all people, including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and persons.
  5. We commit ourselves to promoting full respect for human dignity and to achieving equality and equity between women and men, and to recognizing and enhancing the participation and leadership roles of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life and in development.
  6. We commit ourselves to promoting and attaining the goals of universal and equitable access to quality education, the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and the access of all to primary health care, making particular efforts to rectify inequalities relating to social conditions and without distinction as to race, national origin, gender, age or disability, respecting and promoting our common and particular cultures; striving to strengthen the role of culture in development; preserving the essential bases of people-centered sustainable development; and contributing to the full development of human resources and to social development.  The purpose of these activities is to eradicate poverty, promote full and productive employment and foster social integration.
  7. We commit ourselves to accelerating the economic, social and human resource development of Africa and the least developed countries.
  8. We commit ourselves to ensuring that when structural adjustment programmes are agreed to they include social developmental goals, in particular eradicating poverty, promoting full and productive employment and enhancing social integration.
  9. We commit ourselves to increasing significantly and/or utilizing more efficiently the resources allocated to social development in order to achieve the goals of the Summit through national action and regional and international cooperation.
  10. We commit ourselves to an improved and strengthened framework for international, regional and subregional cooperation for social development, in a spirit of partnership, through the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.


RECOMMENDED FILM: Apu Trilogy.   RECOMMENDED READING: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.