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International social work amidst global uncertainties: A critical analysis

30.04.2021    Ndangwa Noyoo

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Background and contextual issues
  4. Globalisation and international social work
  5. Defining international social work
  6. Delineating social work from international social work
  7. Ultra-nationalistic Europe
  8. Post-Brexit Britain
  9. Trump’s America
  10. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
  11. Future prospects for international social work
  12. Conclusion
  13. References
  14. Author


This paper critically analyses international social work against a backdrop of increasing global upheavals and uncertainties. Presently, there are shifting world-wide trends which seem to be threatening and eroding the established global norms and standards that have been in existence in the last 73 years. Some of these new shifts are viz: ultra-nationalism in Europe, post-Brexit Britain, Trump’s America and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The paper argues that international social work, more than ever, has a significant role to play in these turbulent times and should strengthen its interventions.


After the Second World War ended in 1945, the world witnessed unprecedented global transformations. These changes further gained momentum towards the end of the twentieth century. They helped to reshape the world in fundamental ways and especially in the manner in which nation-states responded to the question of meeting human needs and tackled social ills. In the said period, the world saw the liberation of former colonial territories in Africa and Asia, and the rise of new nation-states. Significantly, the end of the Second World War and the cessation of hostilities in 1945, was a crucial moment for the global community because the United Nations was formed immediately after this. Previously, work had already been undertaken to establish this world body before the war ended. Thus, on 1 January 1942, the Declaration of the United Nations, proposed the formation of a structure that would safeguard global peace after the war. On this historic day, representatives of 26 nations enjoined their governments to resist the then fascist forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, and thwart their intentions to dominate the world. Accordingly, various governments, through their representatives, assembled at San Francisco in the United States of America (USA) and agreed to the Charter of the United Nations which established the organisation known as the United Nations (UN). It can be deciphered from the Preamble of the Charter of the UN that there was an understanding that the world needed to look after the lives and well-being of future generations, through this organisation and also save them from the scourge of war, and to act in a way that demonstrated faith in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and worth of the human person (United Nations, 1945; Henkel, 2010). Given this backdrop, the purpose of this paper is to critically analyse international social work amidst global uncertainties triggered by mainly the following issues: ultra-nationalism in Europe, post-Brexit Britain, Trump’s America and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This fluid situation was heightened before the outbreak of COVID-19 which is currently ravaging the world and has resulted in countless morbidities and fatalities.

Background and contextual issues

It is noteworthy that after the formation of the UN, the world became polarised along ideological lines. Thus, between 1947 and 1991, the world was defined by what was known as the Cold War. This referred to a state of geo-political tensions, between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its satellite states in the Eastern Bloc (also known as the Warsaw Pact – military alliance), on the one hand, and the USA and its Western allies that constituted the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), on the other. Furthermore, from the 1960s onwards, large numbers of newly independent countries in Asia and Africa joined the UN and soon formed a majority group in the organisation. Consequently, the newly independent nations in the developing world were split along the lines of their allegiances to either the West or Eastern Bloc. Thus, throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the West and East fought proxy wars in nations they supported in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In the same breath, the UN’s General Assembly became a stage for confrontations between the North and South, as well as the West and Eastern Bloc. To this end, the two superpowers of the USA and USSR, pursued their own agendas based on their respective ideologies.

Arguably, to the most part, the UN watched helplessly on the side-lines, as the Cold War power games unfolded. Henkel (2010) argues that these superpowers were meticulous in their efforts to ensure that the UN was not allocated any powers that could have led to any appreciable infringement of their sovereignty. Despite these challenges, the UN and its various agencies, worked tirelessly to strengthen social and human development interventions across the globe. The UN also raised international solidarity to high levels against global hunger and famine, natural disasters, diseases and pandemics, destruction of the environment and civil wars, among others.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the reunification of Germany, and subsequently, the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc in 1991, the Cold War effectively ended. Also, the decolonisation process in Africa was completed in the early 1990s. For a while, the USA remained the world’s superpower, but China would emerge as a new power which altered the global balance of forces. For Bergsten, et al. (2009), China poses a major challenge to the USA and the rest of the world simply by virtue of its status as a new global economic superpower. They argue that such rising powers can disturb the existing international order and trigger security as well as economic conflicts. In addition, the North-South divide became quite stark after the Cold War, especially with the rise of the Washington Consensus and the global hegemony of Western financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In this paper, the Washington Consensus denotes a set of neo-liberal policies imposed on developing countries in the 1990s which mirrored a new form of colonialism. Some of these neo-liberal policies are inter alia: deregulation of the economy, privatisation of state enterprises, financial liberalisation and promotion of foreign direct investment (Steger, 2013).

The IMF and the World Bank would almost put countries in the developing world, especially in Africa, in servile positions as they made them to adhere to their economic prescriptions encoded in the now infamous Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). The SAP led to African countries losing most of their sovereignty in matters of economic management and reduce them to almost beggars. During this period, unilateralism was slowly ascending and would become more pronounced after the USA invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and later Iraq in 2003. Crossley (2008: 14) informs us that unilateralism is a tendency by a state to work alone in reaction to regional or global challenges. States act unilaterally if they do not wish to submit to international norms or if they believe these norms to be in opposition to their own interests. It is important to bear in mind that the world is not as neatly unipolar as it was before the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s. This is because there is a resurgent Russia that wants to re-assert itself and in some instance in a very violent manner. For example, in 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia and in 2014, invaded Ukraine as part of fulfilling its expansionist agenda.

Russia’s quest to rise again can be attributed to its leader Vladimir Putin who has ambitions of seeing Russia being a superpower. Lo (2015: xvi) sheds some light on this issue:

It is easy to forget amid drama of human tragedy and escalating tensions that the Kremlin’s actions arise out of a particular context. They are at once a microcosm and reaffirmation of Putin’s larger vision for Russia’s domestic development, its relations with the West, and the conduct of foreign policy. They pertain not only to a troubled past and volatile present, but also to a wholly unclear future.

All these and many more successive global developments have led to the rise of unilateralism from both the West and East. Africa, though not a major participant in the aforementioned acts of aggression, is directly impacted by the global tensions, and especially the financial turbulence, that comes with increased oil prices, because of the USA-led wars in the Middle East, for instance. Typically, the new global dispensation that emerged after the Cold War and the attendant power vacuum that this new situation created also resulted in terrorism becoming more global. First, it was the Al-Qaeda terrorist organisation and its deceased leader, Osama Bin Laden, that gained international infamy because of their violent and brazen acts, which saw the terrorists bombing the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, with more than 200 innocent people dying in the process. Then Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2011. Close to 3000 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured from the terrorist attacks. Then, it was ISIS or Islamic State, that came to the fore, with its more gruesome acts. In Africa, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab continue to wreak havoc and terrorise people, although these terrorist organisations have not gone global.

Globalisation and international social work

Towards the end of the twentieth century, there was an exponential rise in new technologies that helped to make communication, commerce, travel and disease control much easier. At the centre of the aforementioned transformations is a phenomenon known as globalisation. Dreher et al. (2008:15) define globalisation as the intensification of cross-national interactions that promote the establishment of trans-national structures and the global integration of cultural, economic, environmental, political, technological and social processes of global, supranational, national, regional and local levels. Nolan (2008: 2) points out that globalisation is driven primarily by the capitalist system that, according to him, liberated human beings to even greater degrees, than hitherto, from the tyranny of nature, the control by others over their lives, poverty and war. He recognises that capitalist freedom is a two-edged sword and in the era of capitalist globalisation, its contradictions have intensified. For instance, they comprehensively threaten the natural environment. Thus, a ferocious international struggle is underway to secure access to scarce resources and it has contributed to intensified global inequality within both rich and poor countries, and between the internationalised global power elite and the mass of citizens rooted within their respective nations (Nolan, 2008).

The foregoing developments across the globe have indeed far-reaching socio-political, economic and cultural implications, especially for the developing world and Africa. More often than not, Africa finds itself in the untenable situation of constantly reacting to what nations in other parts of the globe have done and not proactively shaping global actions. Arguably, this heightened globalisation created a situation where nations, especially in the West, began to become more in-ward looking and thus inspiring ultra-nationalistic movements and the rise of right-wing political parties and Brexit as well as political actions aimed at ‘making America great again’ in the USA, as proposed by Donald Trump. This agenda is typified by the whole idea of building a wall on the southern border of the USA with Mexico. The next section elucidates the key concept of the paper.   

Defining international social work

International social work does not seem to be prominent in many countries, especially in Africa. Also, it has remained very fluid for decades and it is quite a difficult concept to grasp, even if it seems self-explanatory. For instance, some people confuse it with global social work, but the two do not mean the same. According to the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1995) cited in Healy (2008) global means pertaining to or involving the whole world, whereas international can mean any of the following: between or among two or more nations, of or pertaining to two or more nations or their citizens; pertaining to the relations between nations, and having members or activities in several countries. Healy (2008:10) notes that the term has been used since at least 1928, and scholars have devoted considerable attention to defining international social work. Also, international social work means international professional action,and capacity for international action, by the social work profession and its members. To this end, international action has four dimensions:

  1. Internationally related domestic practice and advocacy
  2. Professional exchange
  3. International practice, and  
  4. International policy development and advocacy.

Furthermore, Healy and Link (2012) define international social work as a multidimensional concept. They observe that the purposes of international social work are to promote global social justice and human well-being, and to ensure the on-going relevance of locally based practice, by calling attention to global relations that affect local conditions. Thus, international social work can mean the following:

  • a way of looking at appreciating the world (world view) and acknowledging the impact of globalisation and human well-being
  • practice, including locally based practice informed by international knowledge
  • practice, concern, and action on globally experienced social issues
  • participation in international professional organisations and dialogue
  • understanding the global profession, and
  • promotion of development and human rights; and future and action-oriented movement for global change (Healy and Link, 2012: 12).

International organisations, especially those that focus on transnational or transboundary social work-related issues, such as humanitarian crises that are triggered by natural disasters, are well-placed to drive international social work practice. International social work is exemplified by development agencies in the South, where social workers work. It resonates with official international agencies or organisations that deal with cross-national issues, among others (Payne and Askeland, 2016). Such organisations have been at the forefront of international efforts and activities aimed at helping humanity for generations. Indeed, attempts to create international organisations in social work can be traced back to the early part of the twentieth century. There are now three major organisations that bring social workers together from around the world and which have a major influence on knowledge, skills and values. These are: International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) (Hugman, 2010; Healy, 2008). The IASSW, IFSW and ICSW have consultative status with the UN. As earlier stated, the UN embraces global issues and has been leading endeavours aimed at raising the quality of life of different people across the globe. In this regard, the social work profession has a rich history of participating in and influencing the work of the UN and its affiliate agencies (Mama, 2011). Social workers who are linked to the UN have synergies to organisations closely allied with this body, such as the International Consortium on Social Development (ICSD) and the Commonwealth Organisation of Social Workers (COSW).

Therefore, when discussing international social work, there is a need to look at major international governmental and non-governmental organisations, and their activities that touch on global co-ordinating, advocacy, service and research functions. Furthermore, attention must be given to the work of international professional associations(Elliot, 2013). In order to arrive at a working definition of international social work, this paper adapts one which is advanced by Cox and Monahar (2013: 28-29):

International Social Work is the promotion of social work education and practice globally and locally, with the purpose of building a truly integrated international profession that reflects social work’s capacity to respond appropriately and effectively, in education and practice terms, to the various global challenges that are having a significant impact on the well-being of large sections of the world’s population. This global and local promotion of social work education and practice is based on an integrated-perspective approach that synthesises global, human rights, ecological and social development perspectives of international situations and responses to them.

In line with the foregoing definition, some of the important features of international social work are the following:

  • Action to address social work education and practice at global and local levels
  • Integrated-perspectives approach – that is, a synthesis of global, human rights, ecological, and social development perspectives, and
  • Individual and collective well-being (Cox and Monahar, 2013).

Delineating social work from international social work

After defining international social work, there is a need to delineate social work from the former. The IFSW and IASSW (2014) observe that social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social workengages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance well-being (IFSW and IASSW, 2014). According to Payne and Askeland (2016), social work is a product of modernism in Western states, as industrialised economies developed in the late 19th century. That is, it emerged from an idealistic belief that the state could overcome social problems using science and knowledge. In most countries, therefore, it is part of state services and claims a rational evidence as the basis of its practice. To be precise, social work developed out of the socio-political and economic contexts of the West, particularly Britain. According to Pierson (2011: 5) Britain was the first country to industrialise and the first therefore to have to grapple with the social problems associated with industrialisation. The mass migration, from the countryside to cities, produced a unique set of challenges that emerged within the space of a single lifetime. In dealing with the many social problems that flowed from industrialisation, for example, extensive child labour, poor sanitation, urban epidemics especially cholera, Britain did not have ready solutions or other countries’ experiences to look into (Pierson, 2011).

Furthermore, the origins of social work stem from voluntary action in Victorian society underwritten by a burgeoning capitalist system. In this setting, there was a voluntary-statutory relationship in which the state oversaw the deterrent Poor Law for the ‘undeserving’ poor, who were perceived as being beyond help. While many voluntary organisations regarded their role as complementary to the state, social workers took a different view. They perceived the historic mission of social work as to help the poor and emancipate them from oppression through social reform (Powell, 2001). Subsequently, social work was exported to the non-Western world principally via Christian missionary evangelisation and colonialism. Crucially, the development and exportation of social work to other parts of the world was taking place at a particular time in its evolution as Healy and Link (2012: 12) argue:

Professional social work originated in Europe and North America at the end of the nineteenth century, a century of imperialistic expansion and domination of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean by the United States and European powers. Domination was far-reaching, disrupting patterns of family, culture, and religion; drawing boundaries for the convenience of the colonies without regard to local rationalities. The effects have been long lasting and are replicated in newer forms of domination by the international economic order. Social work was introduced to some countries in Asia and Africa by Western missionaries and by officials of colonial governments. In other cases, social work arrived in newly independent nations under UN auspices or through bilateral aid projects.  

Arguably, due to the foregoing historical reality, social work in Africa and many parts of the developing world still have Western and colonial trappings. However, some social work academics and practitioners in these parts of the world have been researching to find ways to decolonise and indigenise social work. Therefore, it is important to assert that international social work is having to navigate through the social work’s historical baggage. This issue becomes crucial especially in an era where most of Europe is becoming ultra-nationalistic. The next section pays closer attention to several areas that form the basis of this paper’s arguments, namely: ultra-nationalistic Europe, post-Brexit Britain, Trump’s America and the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Ultra-nationalistic Europe

Before the onset of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Europe was becoming more and more nationalistic, and strengthening its borders to deter what it regarded as an influx of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, from mainly the poorer countries of the South. As a consequence, some European countries were beginning to pursue more inward-looking policies and divesting from global multilateral processes. It is important to note that nationalism precedes ultra-nationalism. Therefore, when discussing nationalism, it is useful to distinguish between one that is tolerant and another that is conflictive or referred to as ultra-nationalism. In its broadest sense, nationalism may be positive or negative, defensive or aggressive, and future-oriented or backward-looking. It may contain both rational and irrational elements, be internally consistent or contradictory, and be prone to cycles of intensity and passivity. Nationalism becomes a negative force when, by strictly defining the boundaries of a community, it generates a pronounced anti-liberal and ethnocentric bias, asserting one group’s culture, language, and religion while denigrating outsiders as inferior and so forth (Stein, 2000). In its most extreme developed forms, ultra-nationalism resembles fascism, marked by xenophobic disdain of other nations, support for authoritarian political arrangements verging on totalitarianism, among others (Bugajski, 2000: 65-66).

Ultra-nationalism is also associated with populism and right-wing politics. According to Galston (2018) the rise of populism, mostly right-leaning, is the most important European political development of the 21st century. It has eroded support for traditional centre-right parties as well as the centre-left. Hence, this has resulted in the end of the centre-left/centre-right duopoly that dominated European politics since the end of the Second World War. Thus, party systems throughout Europe have fragmented and most have shifted towards the right. Hence, the rise of populism has opened the door to increased Russian influence throughout Europe (Galston, 2018). Actually, the rise of ultra-nationalism in the West was preceded by its development in Eastern Europe. It seems this part of Europe has defied earlier predictions that it would wholeheartedly embrace Western liberal democracy. Hollerman (2018) observes that in the 1990s, many in Western European countries had believed that the post-socialist nations to their east were merely ‘younger’ versions of theirs. Their free markets were going through adolescent rebellion and democratic institutions were present, but not fully formed. According to this vision, Central and Eastern Europe would follow the economic liberalisation and globalisation that North America and Western Europe went through, after the Second World War. Hollerman (2018) further observes that few imagined that a mere 25 years later, it would be Western Europe and the USA drifting towards the xenophobic populism that triumphed first in Hungary and Poland, before moving westward towards France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom (UK).

For Bugajski (2000), the emergence of political pluralism in Eastern Europe also heralded the rebirth of ultra-nationalism. Although its exponents have differed in their origins, programmes, social bases, and impact on political developments in the region, they have also shared certain fundamental characteristics. These include the centrality of the notion of the state as an ethnically-based unit, a suspicion of democratic institutions and of unbridled freedom of expression; a preference for administrative unitarism and centralism, and maintenance of a high state of intervention in the economy, in order to regulate the ethnic composition of control over production and distribution (Bugajski, 2000). Inevitably, due to the cited global trends in the past decade, new right-wing political movements have brought together coalitions of neo-Nazis with mainstream free-market conservatives, and normalising political ideologies that in the past rightly caused alarm. In Western Europe, this network of ‘mainstreamers’ and their usually violent street-level supporters are winning ever larger electoral majorities; in countries like Poland and Hungary they are already in power and attempting to restructure education, immigration, and the judiciary in their own illiberal image (Hollerman, 2018).

Post-Brexit Britain

The word Brexit was something that was not even in the English vocabulary before 2016. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2019) Brexit is a word that is used as a shorthand way of saying the United Kingdom (UK) was leaving the European Union (EU) - merging the words Britain and exit to get Brexit, in the same way as a possible Greek exit from the Euro was dubbed Grexit in the past. This was after Britain’s referendum was held on Thursday 23 June 2016, where nearly everyone of voting age participated and voted for Britain to either leave the EU or not. The campaign to leave the EU won by 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent. The referendum turnout was 71.8 per cent, with more than 30 million people voting (BBC, 2019). Since then, the country has experienced uncertainties, with Britain not knowing how to effectively leave the EU and the former was not willing to offer certain concessions to Britain. The complexities and realities surrounding Brexit have not been easy to disentangle by Britain’s politicians in both the governing party and opposition parties. The whole Brexit saga has seen the resigning of one Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2016, and being replaced by another, Theresa May, who remained embattled throughout her two-year rule. She was subsequently replaced by Boris Johnson who became Prime Minister in 2019. His rise to power was precipitated by a snap election that was announced by Theresa May in April 2017 which ostensibly was meant to secure a Brexit mandate and strengthen her rule, but served to erode her power base. Johnson came to power on the platform of instituting a ‘hard’ Brexit denoting the desire not to be hamstrung by any EU conditionalities. However, this has proved difficult to achieve.

Needless to say, the UK is now in a post-Brexit phase as the referendum already took place in 2016. However, what seems to dumfound British politicians and the public alike is that they had not anticipated that it would be such a difficult exercise. It seems they both had not realised how entwined Britain had become with Europe. Equally, it looks like they had not come to terms with the fact that the world had changed so much, since the signing of the Treaty of Accession in 1972, by then Prime Minister Edward Heath, which had brought the UK into what was referred to as the European Economic Commission (EEC) and, also, due in part to globalisation. Some commentators have noted that what drove this quite bizarre move to leave the EU was the rising nationalism in the UK driven mostly by right-wing populism, which seemed to have been motivated by the increasing numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants arriving in the UK from the poorer parts of the world. In addition, some people who had campaigned for Britain to leave the EU had not only misled the British public, but they had sought to sow fear and even hatred in the minds of ordinary citizens so as to heighten their anxieties and make them vote to leave the EU. However, the confusion that is surrounding Brexit – with the UK not being able to completely sever ties with the EU - as anticipated during the referendum, continues in 2020. This conundrum has posed serious implications for the country’s economy. This situation was only disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic which has devasted this country, with more than 40,000 people perishing from the virus.  

Trump’s America

When referring to ‘Trumps America’, this discussion takes cognisance of another puzzling development unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. Donald Trump became the 45th president of America in January 2017, and in the process, blowing away all conventions pertaining to leadership etiquette and decorum, among others. For instance, lying and misleading the public have been normalised during his presidency. Even though Trump’s political campaign for the presidency of the USA was riddled with so much controversy, he was elected by a sizeable number of Americans who believed and continue to believe in his divisive message. His campaign was inspired by ideological positions of the far-right and ultra-nationalists which hinge on in-ward policies. Trump’s campaign was defined by his slogan: “Make America great again” which had been coined earlier and popularised by the 40th president of the USA, the late Ronald Reagan. To say that the Trump presidency has been tumultuous is an understatement. He has been a divisive figure and helped to accentuate racial divisions in the country. His public utterances seem to have given credence to the motives and agendas of ultra-racist and anti-Semitic organisations in America. His polarising influence, over the American polity, is constant and is mostly articulated through daily tweets on twitter on a wide-range of subjects. Holden et al. (2019) observe that Trump’s use of radicalised offensive language is well documented. The list includes, but not exhaustive to, impunging a United States District Court Judge of Mexican descent, responding only tepidly to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in Virginia, where a counter-protester was killed, insulted and denigrated Haiti and African countries, mocking the way Asians speak English and giving ‘shout-outs’ to ‘my African-Americans.’ He also went out of his way to insult the intelligence of African-American politicians and sports heroes.

It can be argued that Trump’s election campaign and his presidency, have emboldened racists and other bigots in America to openly pursue their agendas of hate. This occurrence has been brought to the fore through research evidence. In their summation, Crandall et al. (2018, p. 1) observe:   

The 2016 presidential election was characterised by the remarkable expression of prejudice toward a range of groups. In two closely related studies (N¼388; 196 supporting Trump, 192 Clinton), we measured (1) perceptions of social norms toward prejudice or (2) people’s own levels of prejudice toward 19 social groups, shortly before and after the election. Some groups were targeted by the Trump campaign (e.g., Muslims, immigrants) and some were not (e.g., atheists, alcoholics). Participants saw an increase in the acceptability of prejudice toward groups Trump targeted but little shift in untargeted groups. By contrast, participants reported a personal drop in Trump-targeted prejudice, probably due to changing comparison standards, with no change in prejudice towards untargeted groups. The 2016 election seems to have ushered in a normative climate that favoured expression of several prejudices; this shift may have played a role in the substantial increase in bias-related incidents that follow closely upon the election.

As this article is being finalised, the USA is still reeling from 20 straight days of non-stop protesting against the killing by the police of an unarmed African-American, George Floyd, in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020. The initial reaction to Floyd’s killing was first of disbelief, and then outrage, which was exhibited in rioting, burning and looting. The protests and riots spread across the country in a matter of days and found their way to the gates of the White House. The killing of Floyd, by the police, seemed to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back as this death had been preceded by countless shootings and killings of unarmed, mostly black men, by the police. Demonstrations then took on a global scale as they spread to Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. It seemed the world had just had enough of racism in America and police brutality against African-Americans. Instead of striking a conciliatory tone, Trump further inflamed the already volatile situation with his rhetoric and polarising actions. In addition, just when it looked like the killing of George Floyd was a turning point in the history of the USA’s race relations, another black man, Rayshard Brooks, was shot dead by the police in Atlanta, Georgia, a week after Floyd’s burial. It remains to be seen whether Trump will rise to the occasion and help to heal the wounds of this nation. Nevertheless, the race question in America remains mostly unanswered.

Thus, uncomfortable and candid conversations, progressive policy and legislative reforms as well as cultural change, will have to take place in the USA for the country to move forward. These race protests and riots come on the back of an already fragile and devastated society which has been haemorrhaged by COVID-19. America has never seen so much death in its modern history as the pandemic has devastated households and communities with a total number of close to 2,094,069 active cases and 115,732 deaths, making the USA the epicentre of the pandemic globally. The pandemic has revealed the deep socio-economic inequalities in the USA as many African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and other brown minorities have been disproportionally infected and affected by the deadly virus, with many more succumbing to it. To make matters worse, Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been dismal. Throughout this health crisis, Trump’s responses have oscillated between downplaying the pandemic to blaming other people and ‘forces’ for his administration’s failures.

Trump’s divisiveness has not only been confined to domestic politics. He has alienated his NATO allies and exasperated them with his constant actions that have served to undermine this alliance, which is still intact since the end of the Second World War and throughout the Cold War. He has openly courted Russia at the expense of the interests of his Western allies and has effectively diminished the role of the USA in the Middle-East. This behavioural pattern extends to the USA’s role globally which has been reduced by Trump’s continuous focus on his so-called base. This group voted him into power and have consistently remained loyal to him despite the numerous scandals that he has been embroiled in since he became president. Also, Trump has been at odds with and questioned the role of the United Nations and wondered why the USA was paying more money to this international body. Such a belligerent stance has seen Trump recently withdrawing the USA from the World Health Organisation (WHO). This came to pass after he accused the global health body of being partial to China and allegedly not calling it out during the early phase of the COVID-19 outbreak. Trump’s actions at home and abroad have bolstered unilateralism and diluted multilateralism. He has helped to amplify the former cited global challenges, given the reality that the USA is a superpower, and thus has great influence over the whole world. However, it seems the vacuum that is being created in the global arena by the USA’s withdrawal is being occupied by China and Russia. All these issues have been compounded by COVID-19 which is raging across the globe.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic

After it was initially identified in the city of Wuhan in China in late 2019, COVID-19 spread to the rest of the world in just a few months. In December 2019, Chinese authorities in Wuhan had confirmed that there were people who were being treated for a deadly new virus. By January this year, many people in that country had died after succumbing to the pandemic. As this article is being finalised, there are more than 8,000,847 confirmed cases, and close to 436,632 fatalities globally. The COVID-19 pandemic that has engulfed the whole world has led to unprecedented responses from nation-states, across the globe, such as curfews and national lockdowns in order to reduce the spread of the virus. In some countries, these measures have led to human rights violations. This global pandemic is raging across the world with such ferocity and rapidity that national governments, global multilateral institutions and members of the medical fraternity have been thrown into a tailspin, as they scramble for ways and means to combat it. After countless countries suffered infections and deaths in Europe and North America, Africa also began reporting cases of infections and deaths from the pandemic. Hence, many African countries have instituted lockdowns or curfews aimed at disrupting and curbing the spread of the deadly virus. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, one issue that became evidently clear is how the world is interconnected today. Nations and people alike, across the globe, have become more interdependent than ever before. Indeed, the effects of the pandemic have unequivocally shown that globalisation is a real phenomenon. It is also important to mention that global solidarity, which seemed to have waned before the outbreak of COVID-19, is somewhat being reinvigorated. This situation augurs well for international social work as its responses are anchored on among others, international solidarity. As the world seeks for answers and remedies to this global pandemic, it is important for international social work to be at the centre of the fight against COVID-19.    

Future prospects for international social work

Lyons (2016) points out that social work has traditionally been seen as a local, ‘culture-bound’ activity, specific to a given time and place. But in the concluding decades of the twentieth century, even countries that had previously been regarded as isolated or independent, homogenous, and stable, were subject to increasingly external, international economic forces, and many experienced rapid social change and increased diversity internally. The twenty-first century only accelerated these processes of social change. Hence, international social work needs to quickly adapt to these changes and be able to provide solutions to the increasing global challenges mentioned in this paper and especially COVID-19. However, international social work should not be left at the global level, but should be understood by local actors who should then be able to understand how global issues influence local conditions. This paper concurs with Payne and Askeland (2016) who assert that social workers need an understanding of international social work as part of their profession. Even if they are not international social workers themselves, their daily practice and the needs and problems of their service will be affected by international socio-economic trends. Also, students and educators will be aware that the international element in the literature and practice that they study questions the universal validity of knowledge and practice.   


This paper discussed international social work and reflected on, among other things, the role it could play in the global arena during these uncertain times. The article argued that international social work is an approach to social work that has a potential to respond to global challenges and provide solutions through its unique foci. Therefore, international social work has to be at the forefront of leading a new agenda against retrogressive global forces mentioned in the paper. However, concerted efforts at the country level, in social work education, are needed to infuse more international social work content into curricula, whilst highlighting key lessons from world history. As for Africa, it is important that social workers are not only reactive to international trends, but also help to shape country-level, regional, and continental processes that should feed into international social work. In these perilous times of COVID-19, international social work can serve to bring to the fore new ways of responding to the needs of marginalised communities such as tapping into the vast networks of international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGOs), that transcend national boundaries, to disseminate ideas, critical information and solutions in the fight against the pandemic, for instance. Furthermore, international bonds of solidarity could be enhanced through various international organisations to move beyond national borders and meet the needs of vulnerable groups in both the Global North and South.


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Prof Ndangwa Noyoo
Degrees: BSW (UNZA), MPhil (Cantab.), PhD (Wits)  
University of Cape Town (UCT)
Department of Social Development

Cite this publication
Noyoo, Ndangwa, 2021. International social work amidst global uncertainties: A critical analysis. In: socialnet International [online]. 30.04.2021 [Date of citation: 19.05.2022]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: