Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Encyclopedia of Social Work. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: Google Scholar Indexing; date: 09 December 2023

International Aid, Relief, and Humanitarian Assistanceunlocked

International Aid, Relief, and Humanitarian Assistanceunlocked

  • Carmen Monico, Carmen MonicoNorth Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
  • Karen Smith RotabiKaren Smith RotabiAssociate Professor, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, United Arab Emirates University
  •  and Taghreed Abu SarhanTaghreed Abu SarhanUnited Arab Emirates University


International development, humanitarian aid, and relief are at the heart of international social work practice. They have evolved historically and globally; shaped by world markets, social and environmental forces, including natural disasters. Considering this context, the authors cluster relevant social-work theories and practices as (a) human rights perspectives and (b) ecological, feminist, and cultural theories. They discuss both micro and macro practice, with an emphasis on the latter. Case studies are presented with the overlay of relevant international conventions, guidance, and international private law. A continuum of humanitarian assistance is presented considering different countries. Guatemala is a prominent example in addition to Haiti’s massive earthquake of 2010 with recent revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation by humanitarian aid workers, post-conflict community-based practices in Afghanistan, and the largest cross-border forced migration in modern history of Iraqi, and Syrian refugees with this second group being of particular concern given their mass displacement. Capacity building as related to social work training is emphasized. This entry concludes that much remains to be accomplished with regard to capacity building among humanitarian assistance organizations so that the principles and practice strategies of international social work are institutionalized.


  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Poverty
  • Social Justice and Human Rights

Updated in this version

Article updated to reflect recent reseasrch and new scholarship.

Social work has had a long-term commitment to humanitarian assistance and international professional action (Healy & Link, 2011). Humanitarian assistance is defined here as inclusive of humanitarian relief or emergency aid as well as development assistance. The former is granted to countries undergoing emergencies, such as natural disaster, while the latter is planned, incremental, and sustainable change in the long term (Bess & Link, 2011; Estes, 1993; Fink & Redaelli, 2011). Fundamentally, humanitarian assistance is a general term; activities are typically targeted to social, economic, and environmental improvements, and the practice involves a wide range of international organizations with various missions (Healy, 2008; Sowers & Rowe, 2007).

Humanitarian aid and development assistance are part of a continuum (Healy, 2008). However, Simms and Trim (2011) make a distinction between humanitarian assistance and humanitarian interventions—the former is often carried out solely or jointly by nongovernmental actors with a certain degree of involvement of state agencies in a voluntary manner, whereas the latter involves a certain degree of compulsion and even military actions from one state onto another (Simms & Trim, 2011). It is also important to distinguish that foreign aid refers more specifically to the official assistance of a government to a foreign country and includes aid practices among bilateral, multilateral, and United Nations (UN) agencies (Easterly & Williamson, 2011). Henceforth, we shall use the term humanitarian assistance in this discussion as it encompasses concepts of humanitarian aid and relief (understood as immediate, short-term, often in the context of social conflicts and human disasters) and international development (understood as longer term, often involving reconstruction; alleviation of major social problems, such as poverty; and socioeconomic development; Beigbeder, 1991; Cox & Pawar, 2012).

While different authors from various disciplines may have used the above terms interchangeably, all of these practices have a long history dating back to World War II, relating to a wide range of concerns, and taking place at various levels of social, economic, and environmental systems (Simms & Trim, 2011). The way in which humanitarian assistance practice has evolved historically and around the world has been influenced by ongoing humanitarian interventions and current foreign aid policies of the day. These policies and interventions are ultimately shaped by world markets, conflict, and other social and environmental forces to include natural disasters (Beasley et al., 2012).

Intersecting with humanitarian assistance is the profession of social work, and the area of practice concerned is often called international social work or global social work practice. Healy (2008, p. 7) defines international social work “as international professional action and the capacity for international action by the social work profession and its members.” Building on this definition, Cox and Pawar (2012) argue that international social work is an interdependence of education and practice in a diverse context, which is integrated by four integrated perspectives—that is, a synthesis of global, human rights, ecological, and social development aimed at achieving individual and collective well-being.

The history of international social work dates back to first International Social Work Conference, held in 1928, with the attendance of more than 2,000 members. As a practice area, it has been the focus of attention of articles in the Social Work Yearbook since 1937, and today other notable publications include journals such as International Social Work (Healy, 2008). In the time since this early work, global social work has emerged as a vibrant practice area, encompassing a wide range of social interventions with a strong social justice and human rights orientation, often targeting both social and economic empowerment within a social development paradigm (Elliott, 2011; Healy, 2008; Healy & Link, 2011; Mapp, 2014; Midgley, 1999). Journals focused on global practice include the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work and Global Social Welfare: Research, Policy and Practice.

Given the global interdependence in the 21st century, social workers have assumed an ethical responsibility to engage in and respond to global concerns (Healy, 2008; Healy & Link, 2011; National Association of Social Workers, 1999, Section VI). Taking leadership in global initiatives are pioneers in international professional action, including organizations such as the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Council on Social Welfare, and the International Consortium for Social Development (Healy, 2008). The IFSW has promoted a universal code of ethics for social work, and while this code does not specifically speak to humanitarian assistance, guidance related to equality, human rights, and social justice are internationally defined and require social workers to engage in socially just activities at all levels of social work intervention (Gamble & Weil, 2009; Healy & Link, 2011; IFSW/IASSW, 2018; Mapp, 2014; Reichert, 2011; Wronka, 2008).

Of concern to the social work profession are the humanitarian assistance dimensions of what is typically called macro practice, including activities such as policy implementation, organizational management, social planning, and program development (Gamble & Weil, 2009; Healy & Link, 2011). An approach commonly used in community planning is participatory rural appraisal, which has been used to gather villagers’ perspectives regarding humanitarian aid and development assistance (Owens, 2004). Micro practice is also prominent, and this work in the international arena includes crisis counseling, child welfare and family support service provisions, and other direct services (Healy & Link, 2011). Of the latter, micro practice is particularly relevant when one considers the consequences of poverty and oppression on families and individuals, including orphaned and vulnerable children and at-risk populations such as women, elders, people with disabilities, and refugees, many of whom receive direct practice care from social workers and other allied health professions (Sowers & Rowe, 2007).

An example of this systemic approach is that of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW), which launched a 10-year initiative in 2016 grounded in the principles of social justice, inclusiveness, diversity, and equity (AASWSW, 2021). The 13 Grand Challenges serve as goals implemented through various strategies: (a) to promote individual and family well-being by ensuring healthy development for youth, closing the health gap, building healthy relationships to end violence, and advancing long and productive lives; (b) to build stronger social fabric by eradicating social isolation, ending homelessness, creating social responses to a changing environment, and harnessing technology for social good; and (c) to enable a just society by eliminating racism, promoting smart decarceration, building financial capability and assets for all, and reducing extreme economic inequality. Multidisciplinary networks established to follow up on this action called for social workers to assess progress at midpoint; they issued a 5-year report on how those involved in this initiative (leading researchers, educators, and policy experts) have advanced science- and evidence-based practices linked to social work interventions (AASWSW, 2021).

The role of social workers and examples of social work contributions to the practice of humanitarian assistance are discussed here. This article emphasizes the public and private organizations typically involved in these forms of global social work practice. First, it frames the practices in theory, then moves to applied examples, focused on problems and projects that are particularly relevant to the theories presented and global social work practice.

Humanitarian Assistance and Social Work Theory and Practice

A number of social work theories and practices are relevant to humanitarian assistance at the international level. Among them are human rights perspectives and ecological, feminist, and cultural theories. What follows is an examination of these perspectives and theories with case studies.

Theoretical Frameworks and Humanitarian Assistance: Human Rights Perspectives

Healy (2008) reminds us that “the worth and dignity of all people is universally recognized in social work’s codes of ethics” (p. 738). In fact, the IASSW and the IFSW declare that “social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that facilitates social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people” (IFSW/IASSW, 2018, p. 2). From a human rights perspective, social workers are well-positioned to take on the roles of human rights defenders and leaders, often advocating on behalf of and taking action with those who are underserved or living in conditions of poverty and oppression (Mapp, 2014; Reichert, 2011; Wronka, 2008).

Even before the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), founders and leaders in the social work field promoted human rights movements around the world (Healy, 2008). In fact, social work pioneer Jane Addams was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize due to her influence on the global peace movement as well as her macro practice social work, which included the development of the settlement house movement in Chicago, where countless people living in poverty, especially immigrants, were given social and economic opportunities within a community development approach (Farrell, 1967). Addams and the women of Hull Settlement House modeled global practice in a local setting serving immigrants and using social development strategies for change at the neighborhood and broader community levels (Addams, 1912).

In the time since Addams’ and the women of Hull House’s community development and human rights work, international coordination for development has evolved not only in terms of social work practice but also to include a series of international agreements and international private law for guidance. The following is a brief presentation of international conventions and private law selected as most relevant to humanitarian assistance from a social work perspective, and a discussion of international goals agreed on as measurable targets for development and ultimately poverty eradication on a global scale (Khan, 2009).

Selected and Relevant International Conventions, International Private Law, and Guidance

The 21st century marked the beginning of an era of reforms in the social welfare systems around the world aimed at strengthening global standards and measures while providing boundaries for humanitarian assistance. The United Nations proclaimed that the 1947 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDR), and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC; Reichert, 2011) are defining international agreements. Both the UDHR and the CRC defined a set of rights for all people, particularly children (Reichert, 2011), and influenced the establishment of other international agreements.

Other international instruments relevant to humanitarian assistance include three United Nations conventions or protocols. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (United Nations, 1979) is one of them. Another one is the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (United Nations, 2000b), also known as the Trafficking Protocol, which is part of the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (United Nations, 2000a) and contains notions about the use of force, fraud, and coercion. Last is the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (United Nations, 2006), which focuses on the rights of those with disabilities and the obligations of states and nations to ensure that these rights are realized. Complementary to this set is the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (Roby & Maskew, 2012; United Nations, 2000c). Further, the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children (United Nations, 2010), which were written by the United Nations Human Rights Council to enhance the implementation of the CRC, protect orphaned and vulnerable children, including those in emergency situations. For example, these guidelines encourage countries to not move children from one country to another for alternative care “except temporarily for compelling health, medical or safety reasons” (United Nations, 2010, p. 22). These guidelines include the need to seek opportunities for the deinstitutionalization of children whenever possible and finding ways to reunite children with their immediate and extended family members when possible as a humane alternative to institutional care. Approaches to prevent children from impersonal institutionalization and placements with families are preferred care alternatives.

Working with orphaned and vulnerable children is a practice area to which social workers have been committed for a long time (Bailey, 2009). The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was agreed upon in 1993 at The Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH). As discussed in the entry on intercountry adoption published in this Encyclopedia of Social Work, the Convention was enacted to address growing allegations of abduction, sale, and trafficking of children around the world. The Convention seeks to ensure “the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children” for intercountry adoption (HCCH, 1993a, p. 1, emphasis added). The Convention responded firmly to the increase in intercountry adoptions since World War II and during the Vietnam War, and it addresses the problems of illicit and unethical intercountry adoption practices as a way of bridging differences between legal systems across borders and ultimately synchronizing laws developed to control this form of human trafficking (HCCH, 1993b, 2008).

Since World War II, intercountry adoption has emerged as a humanitarian aid approach with the notion of “child rescue” (Bergquist, 2009, 2012; Engel et al., 2010). Field scholars (Gibbons & Rotabi, 2012; Rotabi & Bunkers, 2011) have challenged this notion because less than 0.01% of all orphaned and vulnerable children have benefited from intercountry adoption, while problems of force, fraud, and coercion and a market-drive system have had broader societal impact and have challenged sustainable social intervention (Bartholet & Smolin, 2012; Gibbons & Rotabi, 2012; Young, 2012). Despite the decreasing trend in intercountry adoptions worldwide since 2014 associated with more restrictive national regulations (Monico, 2013) and the recent border closings during the COVID-19 pandemic, intercountry adoptions continue to involve social workers and others employed by adoption agencies. The Convention upholding the best interest of the child and the principle of subsidiarity (reunification, kinship or group care, and national adoption must be considered first before intercountry adoption; HCCH, 1993a) clashes with the urgency to serve children languishing in institutional care (Bartholet & Smolin, 2012). The discourse of “child rescue” disguised in humanitarian assistance does not contribute to the protection of children and the ethically driven intercountry adoption as a core practice area.

The Case for Sustainable Development Goals

The international community has been instrumental in keeping global targets for advancing development globally. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed upon in 2000 by 189 countries were assessed at the September 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Summit. Building on the accomplishments of the MDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are part of the global agenda for “transforming our world” through a plan of action for the completion of the 17 SDGs and 169 targets by 2030. Grounded on the universal principles of human rights, and attending equally the people, the planet, and prosperity, the SDGs “seek to realize the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental” (United Nations, 2015, p. 3).

Effective and targeted capacity building to nations for the accomplishment of the SDGs is one of the key strategies. Promoting multi-stakeholder partnerships as well as establishing data collection capacity, monitoring progress, and holding governments accountable are considered essential for addressing systemic issues. The SDGs aim at ending poverty and hunger; ensuring healthy lives and better well-being; inclusive and equitable education; gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women; and more sustainable uses of resources such as water and energy. They also promote a wide range of terrestrial ecosystems and sustainable consumption and production by combating climate change and engaging in more equal growth among countries (United Nations, 2015).

Human rights defenders such as Khan (2009) criticize the goals and initiatives as not being focused on core issues and underlying problems of poverty that lead to human rights violations around the world. Hudson and Mosley (2008) noted that poor countries have accepted foreign aid to finance poverty reduction and other development efforts, producing economics driven by unstable expenditures and disbursements associated with the volatile influx of aid. Recipient countries tend to assume a low profile in aid allocation decisions, undermining the humanitarian aid impact (Harrigan & Wang, 2011). The Heritage Foundation (Schaefer & Miller, 2014) researchers criticized that this platform “implicitly endorses a top-down, input-driven development strategy that has not been successful historically.” Yet, 6 years into the SDGs implementation, a United Nations (2021) report confirmed that even if the COVID-19 pandemic set progress off track, the SDGs are more important than ever. SDGs continue to require a global equality commitment and capacity at all levels to implement the action plans universally and in a transformative manner.

Theoretical Frameworks and Humanitarian Assistance: Ecological Theory

The analysis of the social and natural environment is critical for identifying and understanding the multiplicity of perspectives among the diverse actors involved in humanitarian assistance and international professional action. Ecological theory is an overarching theory for social work as it is holistic, and the various systems of individual, family, and community life are nested and interactive with emergent outcomes, as is consistent with the transactional lens of social work (Rotabi, 2008). As a theory, it is a systems model that accounts for the interactive, changing, and even fluid nature of family and community systems and their environments (Ritzer, 2017). Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) social ecological model is often used to illustrate nested systems and the impact of system interactions on the human development of and social care for children within a series of nested systems. However, an even more holistic and complex model incorporates both the natural and social environment, including the influence of social class and the unequal distribution of natural and social resources within the society (Houston, 2002). This lens helps to account for the social forces that lead to social injustice and ultimately to the need for humanitarian assistance on a global scale.

Social and natural forces combine, or multiply exponentially, in emergent risk. In this context, the ecological perspective frames the analysis necessary for holistic humanitarian assistance policy and program planning. While recognizing some efforts to develop an early warning system for disasters, Miles et al. (2012) conclude that an “integrated disaster risk reduction and urban land use planning strategy” is necessary (p. 378). From a broad or holistic analysis, development planning not only meets the needs in the crisis but also provides strategies of empowerment and sustainable solutions for the long-term development of communities, essential components of social and economic improvements (Gamble & Weil, 2009). The application of ecological theory has increased understanding of the “multi-faceted terrain of human experience [which has been] pivotal to the re-focusing of services towards prevention, family support, the alleviation of poverty, and the development of social capital” (Houston, 2002, pp. 302–303). Analytically, an ecological framework of assessment and planning also incorporates macro policy and funding issues to develop appropriate interventions in a coordinated manner. However, this is an area of contention as many critics point out lack of coordination and failures of development, as discussed previously in an overview of the global development goals (Khan, 2009).

For example, it has been found that aid is “fragmented among many donors, large and small, and donors do not specialize, splintering aid allocation among many countries and many sectors” (Easterly & Williamson, 2011, p. 1930). A study of the performance of aid agency practices (Easterly & Williamson, 2011) concluded data on aid assistance was of poor quality and showed poor practices; in fact, “Both are signs of a fundamental lack of accountability of the official aid system to any kind of independent monitoring” (p. 1946). Thus, ecology theory can help understand the complexity of aid assistance, which empirical studies such as the ones presented previously have found to be ineffective and agency performance to be poor; these constitute major concerns in humanitarian assistance practices.

What follows is a theoretical application of this ecological theory by the authors. A community may be at a state of relative homeostasis or stability one day, with adequate food supplies meeting the basic needs of the population. Then, when a disaster occurs, the system becomes unstable and chaotic as the devastation may be related to weather patterns as well as to other infrastructure issues, such as the community’s water management systems or farming on flood lands or in areas of deforestation. These factors come together, in an interactive manner, and the emergent property is a community disaster. While family and societal violence is already present in the community, during disaster crises, the problems of hunger, particularly food insecurity, and social problems become acute. In emergency situations requiring humanitarian action, violence against children takes “sinister” forms (UNICEF, 2019). The case studies presented here exemplify a practical application of the theory.

Vulnerability to Sociopolitical Crises, Natural Disasters, and Public Health Emergencies: Central America Northern Triangle, Afghanistan, and Jordan

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, n.d.) estimated that by the end of 2022, there were 108.4 million people forcibly displaced around the world, of which 48 million were internally displaced, nearly 26.4 million were refugees, and 4.1 million were asylum seekers. Sixty-eight percent of the total (24.5 million) come from five countries—Syrian Arab Republic (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1. million)—and 7.9 million come from other countries. Here, the cases of nationals from three subregions of the world experiencing endemic conflicts—the Central America Northern Triangle, the Middle East, and South Central Asia—are discussed.

The Central America Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) illustrate the complexity of the social and natural systems—ecology—of the human and community experience. These countries have been severely affected by civil wars, organized crime, and climate change (Monico & Méndez-Sandoval, 2019), increasing their vulnerability and undermining the contributions of donor aid and humanitarian assistance. Two- or three-decade-long internal conflicts in those countries have left thousands of people killed and millions displaced. In particular, child protection has been undermined by structural issues, such as poverty and violence, child labor exploitation, and the commercialization of children (Monico & Méndez-Sandoval, 2019). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) estimated that sea level will likely rise while temperatures will very likely increase in Central and South America.

Guatemala is considered a country at high risk of climate-related hazards because of its propensity to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as tropical depressions and hurricanes (Berry-Koch, 2011). Drought, storms, and floods directly affected approximately 4 million people in Guatemala from 1995 to 1999, producing widespread food insecurity and great hardship among the poorest. In 2008 alone, mudslides affected 1.3 million people, displacing 37,142 people and affecting 80% of rice and beans crops in four regions of Guatemala (Berry-Koch, 2011). A 2015 World Bank Systematic Country Diagnosis confirms that Guatemala is one of the top 10 countries with greater vulnerability worldwide (World Bank, 2015). Guatemala’s disaster risks are exacerbated by the genocide of Indigenous peoples during the civil war (Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, 1999) and the endemic poverty, social inequality, and centuries of oppression of the Mayan communities, whose members often live in homes in mountainside areas, without land and access to farming areas. Insufficient economic resources, low-paying jobs, lack of land tenure, poor urban planning, low-quality housing, clogging drains, and poor waste disposal are key factors creating a greater impact of natural disasters in Guatemala (Miles et al., 2012). Climate and socioeconomic vulnerabilities in addition to rapid population growth make these countries more prone to higher human costs and negative productivity related to climate change. Honduras and El Salvador have experienced similar climate variability and socioeconomic vulnerability, which are root causes of the massive migration to the United States, a policy priority in the development of future international aid and humanitarian assistance to those countries (Monico & Pitts, 2021). Investments in combating organized crime in the Northern Triangle and securing the U.S.–Mexico borderlands are important strategies to address the recurrent border challenges. Yet, humanitarian assistance for education of youth at risk and other social programs for vulnerable populations in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is more likely to prevent future remigration (Monico, 2017). The authors propose to change the current paradigm by reorienting humanitarian aid and international development efforts toward strengthening human security in those countries to change migration trends.

Next is an ecological analysis of Afghanistan, focusing on the social and economic context as well as the environmental conditions, which led people from this conflictive nation to live in unstable and unsustainable conditions and put humanitarian assistance on a roadblock. U.S. humanitarian aid to support reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan amounted to $145 billion over 20 years, producing some success in health care, maternal health, and education; yet, these efforts experienced many failures, in part due to limited good governance and weak independent media and civil society (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction [SIGAR], 2021). The U.S. Department of Defense spent $837 billion in warfighting, which resulted in the loss of 2,443 American troops and 1,144 allied troops, as well as 20,666 U.S. troops injured; furthermore, 48,000 Afghan civilians were killed and 75,000 were injured. An evaluation of aid for reconstruction in Afghanistan involving 760 interviews and thousands of government documents (SIGAR, 2021) concluded that the prolonged violent conflict and widespread corruption posed significant challenges “in creating long-term, sustainable improvements [that] raise questions about the ability of U.S. government agencies to devise, implement, and evaluate reconstruction strategies” (p. vii). The same evaluation mentioned an Asian Foundation study confirming that 40% of survey participants reported fear of personal safety in 2006; this indicator increased to 75% in 2019. The SIGAR (2021) evaluation stressed the lack of cohesion, unrealistic timelines, and insufficient sustainability of the institutions implementing the U.S. strategy, as well as the limited knowledge of the Afghan context and insufficient monitoring and evaluation in project development.

The ruling of the Islamic fundamentalist group from 1996 to 2001 set the stage for the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which was exacerbated by the geopolitical conflict and later by the spread of COVID-19. Limited supply of vaccines, vaccine hesitancy, attacks against health care workers, who are experiencing burnout and mental health issues, “coupled with recent droughts, food shortages, lack of adequate drug supply, unmet funding requirements to fight the pandemic, and black fungus cases, have exacerbated the country’s public health problems” (Essar et al., 2021). The limited health care capacity, the political and military gains of the Taliban, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops posed greater risk and adverse impact during the pandemic, while undermining the progress made by the humanitarian assistance provided from 2001 to 2021. As the Taliban seized this entire nation in the week following the U.S. troop withdrawal and established a hard-line government, thousands supporting the U.S.-led intervention fled the country in fear of persecution, with at least an additional estimated half a million Afghans expected to flee and seek refuge. While the country was occupied, a dozen donor countries financed 75% of government expenditures; since the troop withdrawal, however, the international donor community suspended bilateral foreign aid or blocked the Taliban from accessing multilateral humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan (Maizland, 2021), with expected slow down and even reverse of the progress made in the past two decades in Afghanistan. Since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2021 to September 2023, the U.S. government invested an additional $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan’s reconstruction (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2022).

Next, the ecology of Syrians, the largest group of refugees worldwide, is examined. Although hundreds of refugees have landed in Europe, the majority have remained in the Middle East. The ongoing war in Syria has posed competing priorities among international aid donors to Syrians in Jordan, which has taken more Syrian refugees than Turkey but less than Lebanon. Refugees in Jordan live in an uncertain limbo between protection and marginalization while the Jordanians themselves struggle with poverty and unemployment (Al Qadire & Alomari, 2020). Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, Jordan has legally admitted 655,000 Syrian refugees, but the estimate of total Syrians in Jordan is almost 2 million. This massive influx has placed a tremendous burden on Jordan, a country with limited resources. Syrian refugees in Jordan need to be registered with the UNHCR and the Jordanian Ministry of Interior in order to get access to health care. COVID-19 is an additional burden for Syrian refugees, specifically in harsh winter, with crowded and unsanitary living conditions making it increasingly challenging to prevent the spread of the pandemic (Al Qadire & Alomari, 2020).

Theoretical Frameworks and Humanitarian Assistance: Feminist–Cultural Perspectives

Key to the feminist theory is the notion of intersectionality, referring to a complex system of multiple structures of oppression to which women are subjected, causing their disempowerment (Crenshaw, 1991). Intersectionality is a

useful strategy for linking the grounds of discrimination (e.g., race, gender, etc.) to the social, economic, political and legal environment that contributes to discrimination and structures experiences of oppression and privilege . . . to understand and assess the impact of the[se] converging identities on opportunities and access to rights, and to see how policies, programs, services and laws that impact on one aspect of our lives are inextricably linked to others.

Race is not an objective or fixed reality; it is a social construction that changes over time, and intersectionality builds on the experiential knowledge of people of color (Ritzer, 2017). Muñoz Cabrera (2010) suggested the use of Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality in feminist analysis, given the complexity of social systems that include multiple, simultaneous structures of oppression that make women oppressed beyond social class and gender alone.

In the realm of humanitarian assistance, gender perspectives have not been sufficiently integrated into post-conflict reconstruction in countries where “different types of violence—political, economic, and social—coexist and overlap, and can be identified at four different levels—the individual, inter-personal, institutional, and structural” (Moser & Clark, 2001, p. 30). This feminist–cultural approach is fundamentally necessary in environments in which high levels of violence against women exist (Muñoz Cabrera, 2010), which undermines humanitarian assistance efforts.

Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador became some of the most violent countries in the world. The problem is most apparent in violence against women, which is so severe that the term femicide is used to describe the killing of women by men simply because they are women (Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, 2009a). In Guatemala, it was estimated that at least two women in the country die each day as a result of femicide, and countless others live with domestic violence assaults and rape (Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, 2009b). A lawless environment—called impunity—fails to adequately respond, creating a sense of chaos in communities that are often run by gangs or other criminals, especially in urban areas (Costantino, 2006; Myrna Mack Foundation, 2009; Sanford, 2008). All of this combines or intersects in a manner that paralyzes development, and the condition itself is caused by underdevelopment of civil society, discrimination, and extreme poverty, as previously outlined. Approaches addressing immediate problems of violence and long-term development are often based on community practice strategies that are common in social work (Gamble & Weil, 2009).

In Guatemala, civil society challenged the larger systems of inequality and oppression through concerted efforts to promote women in development projects and through development of empowerment models that typically focus on economic opportunity, such as small business enterprises (Rights Action, n.d.). Institutional approaches have typically focused on professional development, such as training of lawyers and judges, and the implementation of community-based strategies, such as training of police (American Bar Association, n.d.). In Guatemala, Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation) is an example of a local nongovernmental organization that receives funding from a variety of national and international sources to include private donations and humanitarian assistance organizations. The Survivor’s Foundation provides legal representation services and psychosocial support to women and children whose rights have been violated, while ensuring support to survivors engaged in advocacy work and media outreach to address violence against women, human trafficking, and child abuse and an end to government corruption and impunity (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2016). The work of this and other civil society organizations in Guatemala to improve the ecology for vulnerable populations is now more critical than ever as the country is facing increased challenges with climate change and a vicious cycle of population emigration, deportation, reintegration, and remigration (Monico & Pitts, 2021). The focus of this article now turns more broadly to the concept of international social work.

Role of the Social Workers in Humanitarian Assistance: The Case of Refugees in Jordan

Healy (2008, p. 13) identified four areas of international social work: “internationally informed domestic practice and related policy advocacy, participation in and utilization of international exchange, international practice, and international policy formulation and advocacy.” Each of these social work practice areas captures the global transactional nature of social work practice, even for social workers who do not leave their home communities, by practicing locally with a focus on global problems (Gamble & Weil, 2009; Sowers & Rowe, 2007).

For example, Jordan is one of the most impacted countries in terms of experiencing the single greatest mass migration in modern history because of war in Iraq and Syria as well as displacement of Palestinians and others seeking safety. Refugee camps are important locations in which social services are administered, with the Al Zaatari camp being one of the largest such camps in the world (numbering over 80,000 residents) in this time of mass migration for safety during war (McKirdy, 2016).

Family tracing activities for reunification are essential, as those who are lost in migration and disaster must find one another. This is particularly true for children who are separated from their parents during transit. Services for unaccompanied refugee minors are a critical aspect of care, including culturally relevant approaches to solving the problem of placing unrelated children with foster families in refugee camps (Rotabi et al., 2017). Grief counseling support in the case of death of loved ones is also essential as social workers engage in case management to plan for permanent settlement. The United Nations Humanitarian Crisis Relief (UNHCR) organization and Jordanian nongovernmental organizations actively engaged in resettlement efforts carry out most of this work (McKirdy, 2016).

From a macro-orientation, social workers have also been involved in policy advocacy, persuading policymakers to make humanitarian assistance commitments that were consistent with social work values and intervention design. For example, the treatment of orphaned and vulnerable children and family rights during this time of crisis has been a major concern for U.S.-based social workers (see Rotabi & Bergquist, 2010). Advocacy work on behalf of these children has included the call for socially just policies to be enacted by the U.S. government, with an orientation to child and family rights when making alternative care determinations when children were lost from their families due to chaos and crisis (United Nations, 2010).

Social workers who actively respond to natural or human-made disasters are often making assessments of the scope and scale of the catastrophe in the early days after the event (e.g., see Balsari et al., 2010). When responding, it is essential for social workers who deploy services to the scene to be knowledgeable about cultural beliefs and religious practices of the people being served (Rotabi et al., 2017). This may seem an obvious point, but it must be underscored that times of crisis are particularly sensitive periods of need as people often draw upon their most basic coping mechanisms to include core faith and cultural practices, which give them comfort in the face of extreme stress and trauma.

A critical problem for many of those migrating in recent times is early marriage for girls, which is a harmful cultural practice (Human Rights Watch, 2014). For example, in the refugee camps in Jordan, it has been observed that some girls as young as 12 or 13 years are being arranged for marriage; sometimes this occurs because the family fears for their daughters’ virginity when war rape is common. Marriage is one way to ensure that a young girl’s virtue is truly secured—marrying off a daughter early (when she is a virgin) is a reality in war zones where war rape is a persistent fear (Save the Children, 2014). Other issues arise, too, in these resource-scarce environments; for example, a Syrian family was found to be living in cramped living quarters of one tent in a Jordanian refugee camp, and they decided to arrange the marriage of their young daughter so that they could be awarded a second tent for more space. This decision was the result of the fact that when one declares another married couple in the family group, expansion into larger sleeping quarters may be granted. When Jordanian social workers began to understand that this child was being arranged into a marriage to solve space problems, they responded with negotiation and problem-solving skills to prevent harm to this child. Seeking other solutions, Jordanian social workers were able to help the family understand the harm that would come to the girl child and then make other plans for seeking greater space (Save the Children, 2014). Space is limited in refugee camps, and workers face challenges when exploring the needs and beliefs of families, particularly when dealing with child marriage; in some instances, this may be prevented as a child protection measure when a social worker is able to act as negotiator or mediator (Sowers & Rowe, 2007).

Refugee services and other initiatives described previously came together as humanitarian assistance. These examples are outlined to illustrate Healy (2008)’s four areas of international social work practice and the dynamic nature of humanitarian aid response. Now, the complexity of humanitarian assistance will be illustrated, including part of the financial foreign aid structure, and examples of capacity-building projects that social workers have embarked upon in the child protection sector in countries where there is not an acute crisis related to recent and wide-scale disaster. Highlighted are child rights and application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan. According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees constitute approximately 10% of Jordan’s population, including 655,000 Syrians, 67,000 Iraqis, 15,000 Yemenis, 6,000 Sudanese, and 2,500 from 52 other nations, and the most recent are Afghanis. More than 80% of them live outside refugee camps in cities and towns (Omari, 2021). Many Syrian refugees are involved in community-based work at local farms. As a result, lockdown resulted in many of them losing their daily income, which is approximately 4 or 5 JoDs ($5–$7). Moreover, many Syrian refugees in Jordan suffer noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and respiratory and ear diseases, that require long-term medication and follow-up (Omari, 2021). Also, those people have been more affected by the pandemic as their situation is further strained and they are vulnerable to health complications if they contract COVID-19. Jordan was a pioneer in including refugees in its nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive, and Syrian refugees felt more protected after they received the vaccination. The vaccination center in Zaatari Syrian refugees camp in Jordan is the first in the world at a United Nations administration refugee camp; refugees in urban centers have also received COVID-19 vaccines (Omari, 2021). UNHCR (2020) performed a rapid assessment to measure the impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in both Zaatari and Azraq camps. The assessment sheds light on the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable Syrian refugee women throughout the country. The crisis has resulted in an increased risk of domestic violence, food insecurity, and economic insecurity in camp and non-camp settings; in particular, refugee women in camps and in rural areas are struggling to access services and information (UNHCR, 2020).

UNICEF and the United Arab Emirates: Humanitarian Assistance Programs

After World War II, the need to respond to orphaned and vulnerable children was such that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was founded in December 1946. UNICEF later became a permanent part of the UN’s system. It is represented in countries around the world, focused on both international development and humanitarian aid. Most of UNICEF’s work is in the field, with staff in over 190 countries, carrying out the organization’s child rights mission in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), using the best interests of the child principle as main guidance (UNICEF, n.d.). Each CRC signatory country has a national plan of action to meet child rights, and while funding flows from the UN, country offices are highly engaged at the local level to both fundraise in their regions and determine humanitarian aid and development targets and strategic plans relevant to the local social problems (UNICEF, n.d.). This multilateral institution recognizes that humanitarian action “is central to UNICEF’s mandate and realizing the rights of every child” and has included humanitarian responses in its core commitment and strategic plan (UNICEF, 2019, p. 12). UNICEF provides technical assistance and support in development of child welfare and child protection initiatives to assist in building systems capacity to truly respond to the needs of vulnerable children and their families.

UNICEF’s programming work is developed with guidance from regional offices and from the New York UN office, with oversight at the local level, including critical local government input in each national office. This complicated power structure aims at promoting the international child rights agenda as defined in the CRC while responding to the needs and self-determination of the country being served. UNICEF works with partners in the community to execute initiatives, more frequently focused on capacity building with a commitment to policy development and local capacity to act. Development initiatives are tailored to that local level and reflect the pressing needs identified for each country.

Using the CRC as an anchor, UNICEF brings together countries around the world to consider child rights and move toward implementation of policy and broad-scale social change to realize the rights of the child. It should be noted that every country in the world has ratified the CRC with the exception of the United States. Nonetheless, the work accomplished within this global initiative bridges across all socioeconomic contexts, including high-resource countries.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with all Arab Gulf countries, has signed the CRC. The UAE is one of the wealthiest countries in the world due to global oil markets, and it is an unusual case example as often aid and assistance are thought to be focused on impoverished environments. The UAE has a clear social development plan dedicated to improving the lives of all citizens, including vulnerable peoples, and it is an exceptionally generous humanitarian assistance donor country (UAE Interact, n.d.). The country has more than adequate financial resourcing to fund its projects and programs. A variety of initiatives have been coming together to respond to the unique social ecology of the UAE and its development needs that include observing child rights through the CRC implementation. Much of the work is focused on “capacity building”—that is, the capacity of communities to respond to child protection needs, and this includes the need for social workers who have been adequately educated and trained to fulfill the workforce needs. The UAE has a strong tradition of educating social workers at the undergraduate and master’s level (Al Bahar, 2011). Workforce training initiatives have been taking place in parallel to all of these developments. As a result, the UAE is well poised to implement child protection legislation and related policies.

Social Work Projects as Capacity-Building Models: Guatemala and Jordan Explored

Development initiatives most frequently focus on capacity building in impoverished countries—that is, strengthening existing systems in low-resource countries to include technical training of various sectors of the workforce, including social workers. Capacity building in welfare service, especially in social work and child protection, has gained momentum around the world. A case example in Guatemala illustrates this approach to humanitarian aid, followed by a consideration of Jordan as a completely different social environment, with many of the same problems due to the shared nature of post-conflict social problems.

A wide range of grassroots, nonprofit, and international organizations providing humanitarian assistance in Guatemala are building human capacity and community resilience by developing educational opportunities for youth at risk. To implement the Central American Regional Initiative for Security, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) financed the Violence Prevention Program (VPP), which supported projects to reduce crime and violence through education, cultural activities, civic participation, and community policing in 44 communities in the departments of Guatemala, Alta Verapaz and Chiquimula (USAID, 2013), including vocational education of 37,040 children and young adults. Implemented by Research Triangle Institute International and Center of Research and International Cooperation (USAID, 2013), the VPP multiyear, multimillion dollar project included a partnership with the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG) to develop vocational training in an academic setting for youth in Guatemala Eastern highlands.

From May 2012 to July 2014, the UVG pilot project supported with VPP funds aided 159 young adults aged 16–24 years with scholarships for technical education (Monico, 2017). A study of this pilot project (Monico, 2017) identified that youth risks are multidimensional and structural, with significant gender and ethnic inequalities, and that program elements must include the involvement of community leaders and youth, interinstitutional collaboration and strengthening, staff awareness and training, and comprehensive services not just to the youth but also to their families and communities (Castañeda & Grazioso, 2017). Community Roots (CR), a USAID follow-up project in Guatemala, seeks to build on the VPP accomplishments while addressing the violence prompting migration; one of the project components is the development of migration prevention plans (USAID, 2021). The CR was launched in 2016 for completion by 2023 with an investment of $40 million, and it is being implemented with World Vision (USAID, 2021).

Monico (2017) confirmed the critical role that education of youth at risk plays when investigating the development of other programs enabling child rights and community education; promoting education for life and work; developing models of girls’ education and community development; and creating young “extraordinary” Guatemalans who can bring change to poverty-stricken geographical areas with widespread crime, drug trafficking, and family abuse. All of these programs involved social workers and other social service professionals who have made important contributions in the development of human capacity and community resilience in Guatemala. There are many other projects focused on all sectors to include rule of law and civil society, agriculture, and women in development (Abom, 2004; American Bar Association, n.d.; Blue, 2005; Rohloff et al., 2011).

Jordan is another country in the region that has a significant history of social work education and training (Al-Makhamreh & Sullivan, 2013). Jordan is attempting to respond to the aforementioned refugee crisis with appropriate social service program development and provision of programs across a range of needs. This work builds upon several years of capacity-building initiatives to strengthen the profession. Seeing the need to develop the profession, Her Majesty Queen Rania established the Jordanian Work Education for Excellence Program (JSWEEP) to represent a collaboration between the Ministry of Social Development, the Jordan River Foundation (an organization headed by Her Majesty), the National Council for Family Affairs, the Family Protection Department, and the Columbia University of Social Work (Al-Makhamreh & Sullivan, 2013). JSWEEP offers a range of programs to professionalize the practice of social work in Jordan. JSWEEP, along with partner nongovernmental organizations, has been providing training for all gender-oriented and child protection services, and it continues to do so.

These initiatives sprang from a base of education as the first Jordanian program of social work education was started in 1965 at the Social Services Institute. The Institute was the first educational body to provide formal instruction for social work students. It was a 2-year community college and was part of the Ministry of Social Development (Soliman, 2017). Currently, social work is taught at the bachelor’s level in three universities. There has been a tremendous amount of activity in developing social work education nationally. For example, the Department of Sociology at Yarmouk University has been offering a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social work for over a decade; the department has indicated that it is also planning to offer a master’s of social work due to the need for an advanced qualified social services workforce (Soliman, 2017). This is just one example of multiple universities coming together, with outside assistance from the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, to develop social work education (Al-Makhamreh & Sullivan, 2013).

Also critical in the development of the profession is the emergence of the Jordanian Association of Social Work, founded in 2008. The association developed a code of ethics for social workers, a hopeful step in indigenizing practice (Reamer & Nimmagadda, 2017). Even with these steps forward, there is a huge gap between theory and practice in many instances, including a lack of many organizations requiring a social work degree for employment. This is the case in most Arab countries—many of those who are employed under the title “social worker” are hired without the diploma—and thus there is limited knowledge and experience for many of those entering the social service workforce (Soliman, 2017).

The development of these examples required program design among other strategies for implementation with an aim for institutionalization. All these areas fall under capacity building and emphasize the role and functions of social workers. United Nations organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children have been critical partners in the development of a social service workforce—particularly funding initiatives—consistent with the CRC, which requires that ratifying countries work toward

the establishment of social programs to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment, and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment.

To meet this end, it is essential to build capacity of the social services workforce, including not only program and intervention development in Northern Triangle countries, Afghanistan, and Jordan but also the development of social work education and training occurring in a number of countries, above and beyond those initiatives presented here (Better Care Network and Global Social Service Workforce Alliance, 2014). Other countries implementing initiatives that strengthen social work as a profession, with significant assistance from the development sector, include Somalia, Cambodia, and India (Rotabi et al., 2017).


Humanitarian assistance is a large and encompassing practice area to which social workers have historically made significant contributions, especially in terms of human rights and child protection (Healy, 2008). This article presented a snapshot of the practice area, emphasizing relevant human rights instruments, international private law, and other guidance dedicated to the well-being of all peoples globally. Particularly illustrated were a variety of projects in which social workers have taken on key intervention roles, ranging from micro to macro activities and underscoring capacity-building approaches to social problems and especially child protection.

The genuine nature of “the new humanitarianism” rests on linking humanitarian aid and relief with international development, particularly in complex contexts, such as during conflict and in post-conflict reconstruction (Cox & Pawar, 2012), and in the persistence of environmental risks and disasters associated with climate change. Whether it be relief during a crisis or more sustained strategies for change, humanitarian assistance efforts make a difference in the lives of millions of people around the world. Much remains to be done in terms of empirical research about how culturally grounded social interventions result in the sustainable improvements of people’s livelihoods; a long-term perspective of research on effectiveness is critically needed (Rodon et al., 2012). In fact, neglect of some fields of international social work practice and particular population groups has been observed (Cox & Pawar, 2012), indicating opportunities for growth and further development of this practice.

This article provided examples of capacity building in terms of professional development of social workers in the child protection sector. They show promise for further funding to develop the profession of social work in low-resource countries as well as high-resource countries. The national and international associations of social workers have identified global social work and humanitarian assistance as priority areas, and the IFSW (2018) calls social workers to challenge unjust policies and practices everywhere to align with the ethical values and principles of the profession. Yet, to accomplish those priorities, practice strategies of social work must be institutionalized. For example, humanitarian assistance organizations, including those involving social workers, must become more responsive in addressing the global challenges of the 21st century (AASWSW, 2021). Sustained capacity-building programs are necessary for greater social, economic, and environmental impact to protect vulnerable populations, particularly those living with multiple, intersecting vulnerabilities.