The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development:
A place to link together and be effective in a globalised world
David N Jones and Rory G Truell1
David N Jones IFSW President’s Special Representative for the
Rory G Truell IFSW Secretary-General
New global challenges in human conditions propel us into a search for new
global responses. The worldwide recession, heightened inequality, extensive
migratory movements, increased pandemics and natural catastrophes, and
new forms of conflict, for example, force us, as social work and social
development professionals and educators, to be more aware of global
realities and to act differently.
When The Agenda for Social Work and Social Development process started
around 2004, nobody anticipated that we would be launching this initiative in a
time of major financial and social crisis. The reality of that crisis is now
generally acknowledged, for example, in the United Nations report ‘The
Global Social Crisis’ (United Nations Department for Economic and Social
Affairs 2011) reflecting concerns identified earlier in the report of the World
Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization (2004).
In the foreword to the 2011 Report, Sha Zukang2 (keynote speaker at the
Hong Kong world conference 2010)(Sha 2010) argued that it is essential that
governments ‘take into account the likely social implications of their economic
policies. It has been shown time and again that economic policies considered
in isolation from their social outcomes can have dire consequences for
poverty, employment, nutrition, health and education, which, in turn, adversely
affect long-term sustainable development’ (p iv). The Report found that many
governments did not pay enough attention to the social implications of the
recent global financial crisis and urged that social investments be given
priority in recovery programmes.
The challenge for all of us involved in social work and social development is to
effectively build the linkages between the global trends and realities, and the
1 The authors acknowledge the support of the Joint Coordinators of The Global Agenda process -
Charles Abbey (ICSW) and Abye Tassé (IASSW) and also that of Denys Correll (ICSW Secretary
General), René Schegg (IFSW Policy and Communications Officer) and Shirley Fisher (IASSW
Assistant of the President)
2 United Nations Under Secretary General for Social Affairs
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local community response (Pettifor 2004; Lyons, Manion et al. 2006; Payne
and Askeland 2008; Healy and Link 2011). Our experience is that social work
practitioners increasingly recognise the regional and global connections in
their work; many understand that ‘local’ is ‘international. Nevertheless, some
practitioners still ask, “What has international social work to do with social
work in my town”. 'Everything' is the response of the authors of this article.
The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development (The Agenda)
(International Federation of Social Workers, International Association of
Schools of Social Work et al. 2010) was developed in response to the
increased global complexity in which we all live and work (Jones, Yuen et al.
2008). The process was also explicitly designed to strengthen the profile and
visibility of social work, to develop new partnerships, to boost the confidence
of social workers and to enable social workers to make a stronger contribution
to policy development. This represents a re-positioning of the global social
work profession, together with social development professionals. The aim is
to achieve sustainable, collaborative outcomes drawing on the acknowledged
skills of social workers in creating multi-faceted, pragmatic solutions to highly
complex problems, both individual and social (Sucharipa 2001; Sweifach,
LaPorte et al. 2010).
The Agenda process started in 2004, arising from a series of parallel
developments. The IFSW Executive agreed that the Federation needed to
develop strategies to provide clearer professional leadership in response to
the evidence of world-wide low morale and loss of confidence felt by social
worker practitioners (Stevens and Higgins 2002; Jones 2005; DePanfilis and
Zlotnik 2008; Vyas and Luk 2011). At the same time, IASSW was exploring
strategies for increasing global influence and ICSW was changing the
relationship between global conferences and its advocacy strategy. The three
organisations had already decided to hold joint world conferences and the
planning for the Hong Kong conference was therefore consciously linked to
this new, shared, strategic objective reflecting the new approaches needed to
realise the new partnership. The conference programme was shaped to
support the development of a world social agenda and the three organisations
began examining how the process could be supported and sustained.
Background papers were commissioned and published on the website
(International Federation of Social Workers 2010b) and alliances were formed
with UN and other bodies.
The process came alive when around 3,000 social work practitioners,
educators, social development professionals and policy makers came
together in the Hong Kong world conference (http://www.swsd2010.org) and
supported the launch of a global movement led by IFSW, IASSW and ICSW.
These organisations recognised the need to link education, social work
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practice and sustainable social development into a single collaboration. The
preamble to The Agenda which emerged from this process states its aims as
’developing multiple platforms to foster the emergence of a Global Agenda for
the profession through the shared, collective voice of its members’. The
shared intention was to engage conference participants and those not able to
attend in a new form of dialogue which would identify agreed priorities and
shape the action plans of each organisation. This was recognised as an
ambitious and daring process, with significant risks, but the conference
evaluation shows that it succeeded in large part, at least up to that point.
The three founding organisations represent only the beginning of the
collaboration. It is intended that further alliances will be built with likeminded
movements to maximise the impact of creating positive social change. Such
change will best occur when we can find common strategies that link our work
globally with our work regionally and locally.
The three organisations are well placed to support this development as each
has formal consultative status with the United Nations and other key global
bodies. Each organisation also has regional sub-structures with links to
member countries and, in the case if IC, links with national governments.
Many of our members also have these links at national and local levels. This
requires new ways of working and forging new partnerships. Whilst there is
clearly a need to develop new skills in advocacy and to invest in individual
and organisational capacity building, it is also mission possible!
New ways of working does not mean leaving our principles behind. Indeed,
our professional principles are fully appropriate to guide us towards working
across multiple levels and ultimately towards creating sustainable social
outcomes with the people who use social work services.
The global agenda for social work and social development
The text of The Agenda and the supporting documents and action plans are
available on the website www.globalsocialagenda.org and have been widely
distributed through our membership. The core themes identified by the 3,000
participants in Hong Kong were subject to extensive, global debate and
feedback, in particular widespread debates in schools of social work and
social work agencies on World Social Work Day 2011. The responses
broadly endorsed the four priority areas, which are:
•Social and economic inequalities within countries and between regions
•Dignity and worth of the person
•Importance of human relationships
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The final round of post-conference consultation culminated in a tripartite
meeting in Ghana in November 2011 which resulted in a new platform which
identified shared commitments and a renewed determination to promote
social work and social justice. The representatives agreed that:
- the full range of human rights are available to only a minority of the
- unjust and poorly regulated economic systems, driven by
unaccountable market forces, together with non-compliance with
international standards for labour conditions and a lack of corporate
social responsibility, have damaged the health and wellbeing of
peoples and communities, causing poverty and growing inequality;
- cultural diversity and the right to self-expression facilitate a more
satisfactory intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual existence, but
these rights are in danger due to aspects of globalisation which
standardise and marginalise peoples, with especially damaging
consequences for indigenous and first nation peoples;
- people live in communities and thrive in the context of supportive
relationships, which are being eroded by dominant economic, political
and social forces;
- people’s health and wellbeing suffer as a result of inequalities and
unsustainable environments related to climate change, pollutants, war,
natural disasters and violence to which there are inadequate
Recognising these realities, the representatives formulated key objectives
related to each of the four key themes of the Agenda which had been agreed
in Hong Kong. Each theme targets commitments to three areas. The first set
of commitments focuses our joint activities on presenting a social work and
social development perspective in our work at the United Nations and other
international agencies. The second set of commitments recognises the
importance of strong and resilient communities to achieve stable well-being
and the importance of the role of social work and social development
practitioners in facilitating healthy and strong communities. The third set of
commitments relate to the internal activities of our own organisations, directed
towards ensuring that policies and standards are consistent with addressing
the root causes of poverty and oppression and promoting sustainable social
environments which make a reality of respect for human rights and dignity.
Finally, the platform recognises the significance of education and training and
of the working environment for effective and ethical social work practice and
includes commitments to coordinate research and activity to improve these
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The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitment to
Action was formally released in the week of World Social Work Day and UN
Social Work Day in March 2012 (International Federation of Social Workers,
International Association of Schools of Social Work et al. 2012). The three
organisations have agreed an implementation strategy, including a
commitment to promote a global network of regional centres to support
implementation of the agenda and to research the work environments which
promote positive outcomes in social work and social development. The
Stockholm world conference in July 2012 will enable participants to focus on
implementation of The Agenda and strategies for action (Stockholm World
Making the links: aligning global policies
The work on The Agenda is only one element in a global review of formal
statements about the identity of social work. In parallel to the debate on The
Agenda, IASSW and IFSW launched a consultation to review the Definition of
Social Work (International Federation of Social Workers and International
Association of Schools of Social Work 2001; Hare 2004) and another to
review the Global Ethical Principles (International Federation of Social
Workers and International Association of Schools of Social Work 2004).
IFSW was also involved in an internal organisational review prior to the
appointment of a new Secretary General, making this a period of fundamental
self-examination as well as outward-facing strategic action for the Federation.
The current definition of social work has been in place since 2000 (Hare
2004). In many respects, the achievement of the agreed definition has proved
remarkably enduring and robust. For many social work associations, the
2000 definition has served its purpose very well. It has been embedded in the
policy of many governments and in many social work curricula. The definition
webpage and related journal articles continue to attract a large volume of
visitors and readers. However, IFSW and IASSW had the wisdom to realise
that the future would present new challenges and therefore resolved that, “it is
understood that social work in the 21st century is dynamic and evolving, and
therefore no definition should be regarded as exhaustive.” The consultation
process aims to ensure that The Agenda, the Definition and all core
documents are consistent.
The acceptability of the global definition has not gone unchallenged. The
conceptual problems inherent even in the attempt to debate a single, global
definition in a postmodern cultural environment have been robustly exposed
and examined (e.g. Sewpaul and Jones 2005; Payne and Askeland 2008).
One literature review of the state of social work across the developed world
concluded: ‘Social work is a contested concept and subject to competing
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definitions. Its language is confusing and contributes to the lack of clarity
about what it is that social workers do. This means that there is no universally
accepted idea of valid knowledge, skills or expertise for social workers.
However, there is fairly wide agreement that social work is committed to rights
and justice; and that it exists to assist, support and enable those who suffer
from the negative effects of social inequalities. Social work has a function of
social integration; it is also widely seen as having the function of dealing with
failures in other policy areas such as crime, health or education’ (Asquith,
Clark et al. 2005 p2) (see also Payne 2006; Fargion 2008).
Whilst the global definition has provided a framework for debate and a target
for challenge, the increased understanding of global complexity and the need
to work on multiple levels in different contexts, has resulted in the emergence
of regional definitions, translating the global definition to unique contexts and
interpreting it according to local circumstances (Bolzan 2007). For example,
the Brazilian Federal Council of Social Work has stressed the need for the
definition explicitly to emphasise the role of social work in developing actions
that strengthen people’s autonomy, participation and citizenship aimed to
change their conditions of life (Federal Council of Social Work (CFESS) of
Brazil 2010). Likewise some indigenous social workers have articulated the
need for unique but linked definitions to ensure cultural methodologies are
appropriate to them (Weaver 1999; Cheung and Liu 2004; Yunong and Xiong
2008; Gray et al. 2010; Staniforth, Fouché et al. 2011).
These examples of interpreting broader global standards to regional contexts
will increase as the profession strengthens across the many diverse practice
settings around the world. The cascading effect should also work both ways
to ensure a dynamic interaction between global and regional strategies.
Aligning strategies will increase our impact and give more effect to the
There are similar debates about the extent to which it is possible to promote
statements of ethical principles which are truly universal (see for example
Annan 2003; Pettifor 2004; Healy 2007; Banks, Hugman et al. 2008; Lovat
and Gray 2008; Sweifach, LaPorte et al. 2010; Banks and Nøhr 2011; Healy
and Link 2011; Jones 2011). Within the Asian context, many argue that the
importance of social cohesion and family stability should be more explicitly
weighted against a perceived western preference for individual autonomy
(Hugman 1995; Liu and Lu 2007; Alphonse, George et al. 2008; Sun 2009)
and that traditional spiritual and philosophical insights offer relevant
perspectives for local practice and need to be recognised in universal
statements (Liu and Lu 2007; Hatta 2009; Sun 2009). Nevertheless, a four-
year, formal consultation about the ethical principles concluded in 2010 with
agreement in both IASSW and IFSW that there was no mandate for change
some suggestions for minor amendments were examined ‘that would show
the ways in which the core attention to human rights and social justice as the
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primary values of the profession is not simply a reflection of ‘global northern’
concerns’. However further consultation suggested that ‘these amendments
were seen as introducing other problems’. It was agreed that ‘this should be
kept under review and there should be ongoing conversations about how to
ensure that differences of culture and tradition are appropriately addressed’
The global standards for the education and training of the social work
profession (International Association of Schools of Social Work and
International Federation of Social Workers 2005) constitute the third of the
global statements endorsed by IASSW and IFSW. The development of this
statement also presented political and philosophical challenges, as is
recognised in the introduction to the document itself and in subsequent
discussion (Sewpaul 2005; Alphonse, George et al. 2008; Trygged 2010).
Gray and Webb powerfully argue that ‘Global standards in social work
undercut indigenous skills and values and negate the expertise of
professional judgement’ (Gray and Webb 2008, see also Dominelli 1996).
However, those attending the global general meetings of both IASSW and
IFSW in 2004 supported the value of the statement, which was approved with
no votes against and only one or two abstentions. Eight years later, the
philosophy underpinning The Agenda takes account of this discourse and
attempts to synthesise these different perspectives, illustrating the
inclusiveness and maturation of social work and social development.
Making the links: regional to local
Linking strategies between regions is also increasing in importance within
social work and therefore it is prominent in The Agenda. The development of
regional key objectives will assist in creating focus within the regions and will
also enable the global bodies to promote targeted regional need at world
forums. It is equally important for social work bodies to be visible in the
increasingly significant regional structures, such as the European Union,
ASEAN and OAU.
Some examples of recent developments in regions include a specific regional
social work response to natural disasters and catastrophes in Asia Pacific.
This included a regional conference on disaster response in Kuala Lumpur in
2007 and the regional conference in June 2011 in Tokyo became a place for
regional learning as social workers and their communities recovered from
devastating earthquakes and tsunamis across the region (Truell 2011b). The
2011 regional conference in Latin America and the Caribbean identified the
need to strengthen a regional identity for social work in the context of fighting
poverty and the need for citizen empowerment (Federación Internacional de
Trabajo Social – Región Latinoamérica y Caribe 2011; Truell 2011a). The
European Region has taken a number of initiatives and developed a number
of statements intended to increase cohesion within the region and
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demonstrate the relevance of social work, the most recent being a Charter of
Rights for Social Workers (e.g. Jones 1997; Jones 2004; Jones and
Radulescu 2006; International Federation of Social Workers European Region
2010; International Federation of Social Workers European Region 2011).
The IFSW African Region has worked closely with schools of social work to
relaunch and support the Association of Schools of Social Work in Africa
(Mwansa 2010) and to support the development of a distinctive African social
work identity (Rankopo and Osei-Hwedie 2011). Africa has also taken the
lead in developing a constructive engagement with UN Habitat and
representing social work in the biennial World Urban Forum (Mbugua 2008).
Each of these regional initiatives will also be promoted by the three global
bodies and assist individual, local social workers to meet the aspirations of the
people they work with.
Making the links: personal to global
In the introduction of this article we suggested that some social workers may
question the relevance of a global agenda to practice in their setting - and we
answered: everything. As people move increasingly from lower-income to
higher-income countries to avoid poverty, and the dynamics of migration
become more evident, no social worker will escape the reality of globalisation.
When someone (a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, an auntie, an uncle)
migrates from one country to another, s/he often leaves behind a caring role
causing increased difficulties for those left in the country of origin. At the other
end, in the adoptive country, the person’s integration is often problematic,
requiring significant level of social support. There is also growing evidence of
increased migration of social workers and other professionals between
countries and regions (Carson 2006; Pittman, Aiken et al. 2007; Welbourne,
Harrison et al. 2007; Moriarty, Hussein et al. 2011) and of the personal and
moral consequences of these movements for individuals and countries
(Improvement and Development Agency 2006). To minimise the difficulties
on all involved, social workers at both ends of the migration trajectory now
need to talk and collaborate. These approaches to social work will soon be
regarded as standard given the pace of globalisation.
This is one of numerous examples illustrating why the Global Agenda is
relevant to local practice contexts: international is local. Making the linkages
to support the people we work with or making the linkages to bring global
change that will affect local change is now part of the social work job
Making the links: practical to conceptual
This article has illustrated the global, regional and local challenges faced by
social workers and some of the institutional initiatives which IASSW, ICSW
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and IFSW have developed. We have also examined a number of critiques of
global initiatives, some of which have questioned the relevance and viability of
taking unified global action and making global statements. Whilst we are very
conscious of the challenges involved in conceptualizing a coherent global
description of practice and professional identity, we have no doubt that there
is a real expectation that we will persist with the endeavour in ways which
respect the ethical principles of inclusivity and respect for diversity.
Our organisations are also conscious of the challenges inherent in finding
common ground between the different elements or specialities within social
work itself (Payne 2005), a process which becomes more complex for all
parties with the inclusion of social work, social welfare and social
development (Maxwell 2008). We recognise that there are legitimate debates
about the relevance of professionalism and the critiques of a narrow, self-
serving approach to professional identity and self-interest, for example,
especially in the field of social development (Dominelli 1996). This is a
particular challenge for social work given our ethical stance in relation to self-
realisation and empowerment and our opposition to processes of colonisation
and domination. We also recognise that the structures of social work and the
titles used by social professionals also vary within and between regions (for a
European example see Boddy and Statham 2009) (for evidence from China
see Tassé 2008) (for examples from Africa see Laird 2003; Mazibuko and
Gray 2004; Kreitzer, Abukari et al. 2008) (for insight into the Latin American
debate see for example Netto 1999; Netto 2006).
Through the democratic structures of our respective organisations, we at least
ensure that our global statements and priorities are subject to often prolonged
critical debate around the world (see history of advocacy by IFSW in Hall
2006). We have opened up The Agenda process to online debate and we are
monitoring what is written. The leadership of all three organisations is
determined to resist a crude domination by powerful voices but we also
recognise that the insidious processes of dominant ideologies can unwittingly
trample on weaker voices and minority interests. All members of the global
community of social workers and social development professionals have a
responsibility to challenge the use of unthinking power and to nurture debate
and scrutiny. We all have to be seen to be transparent and true to our values.
Others have persuasively argued that, ‘despite constant pressures on social
work for precise descriptions of what social workers do, the truth is that all
social workers know that the very stuff they deal with—human nature—is
inherently a realm of uncertainty and unpredictability. No matter how strong
the calls for evidence-led practice, and no matter how large the mass of
evidence, it is an inescapable fact that good social work practice will forever
rest on the ability of social workers to make sound judgements in unique
situations—situations which are the complex amalgam of two individuals—the
worker and client—sharing worldviews and experiences so as to address the
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client’s problems in coping with a particular aspect of their life’ (Lovat and
Gray 2008 p1108).
However our organisations are also aware that social work has to survive and
thrive in a global, political and competitive environment. Social workers in
practice work alongside other professions who may have less reticence about
advocating their specific skills and contributions, and self-interest, often at the
expense of social work. Whilst no social worker wishes to be professionally
defensive or territorial, it is legitimate for national and global bodies to ‘stand
up for’ the specific and often unique combinations of insights, skills and
expertise that social workers bring to multi-professional teams and
It is interesting, in passing, to speculate about the possible reasons for the
apparent reticence of the social work profession to claim credit for its
achievements, personal and collective. It has been argued elsewhere that
this probably reflects, in part, the difficulty of providing credible, ‘evidence’ in
an increasingly narrowly ‘evidence-based’ (Pawson, Boaz et al. 2003; Thyer
and Kazi 2003; Gilgun 2005) and ‘managerialist’ (Boston 1991; Kirkpatrick
2005; Harris and White 2009) environment. However, anecdotal evidence
from several discussions around the world suggests that another reason for
the somewhat self-effacing approach of many social workers is that we know,
through training and experience, that claiming credit for change which has
been achieved can effectively destroy that change as ‘users’ resent the
implication that ‘it was done to them’. We learn to encourage and give credit
to 'users' and to deprecate our own contribution, even when in fact it does
'make the difference'. This creates a mindset in which we take a 'one-down'
position, always attributing credit to others. It becomes almost unethical to
say 'I did that'. The trap for social work is that we do this because it works in
our practice - but we also have to learn to be more assertive and to take credit
when it counts in other settings (Kidder 2005).
We do have an ethical and moral duty to make sense of our practice
experience and to inform policy development and priority setting by
engagement with global and regional political institutions (Mmatli 2008). We
need to speak with confidence about the contribution of social work and social
development (Deacon, Macovei et al. 2009), for example in the debates about
the Millennium Development Goals (Sha 2010; United Nations 2010a; World
Bank 2010), health inequalities (International Federation of Social Workers
2008; Bywaters et al. 2009), social protection (Correll 2010; United Nations
2010b) and the physical environment (International Federation of Social
Workers 2004). Several UN officials, including Helen Clark3 (International
Federation of Social Workers 2010a) Zukang Sha (2010) and Dave Paul
Zervaas (2007) have highlighted the close links between many UN social
initiatives and social work, calling for a new partnership. Global visibility and
engagement can make a difference in terms of the environment of politics and
3 Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP)
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ideas which shape the evolution of local agency activity and priorities. We
should not be seduced into an overly close relationship with those in power,
however. Our value base should also encourage us to ally ourselves with
community, citizen and user movements and to recognise unique and local
needs and interests (Ferguson and Lavalette 2006; Bywaters 2009).
We therefore commend The Agenda process as a genuine, democratic and
determined endeavour to provide a focus for social work, to reassert the
specific contribution of social work knowledge and skills to a world in social
crisis and to encourage self-confidence among social work practitioners,
educators and policy makers.
In the title of this article we said that The Agenda offers a space for formal
linkages. Much has already been achieved with the linking of the global
bodies to work together and the existing regional and national structures.
Some regions have already started to articulate their objectives based around
the 4 Agenda themes. The next stage involves working at all levels to act
upon and fulfil these objectives. This can only happen when all levels
‘What has the Global Agenda got to do with you?’ EVERYTHING. Your
contributions will shape the strategies that IASSW, ICSW and IFSW will be
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