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date: 21 October 2020

Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development

Abstract and Keywords

The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development (“the Agenda”) has been developed and promoted jointly by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). It is a global platform that advocates for a “socially just world” based on social work and social work–development understandings and principles. The impact of the Agenda upon the international social work community is described, and the implications for daily social work practice are examined.

Keywords: community development, dignity, global, global policy, international, inequality, professionalism, service users, social development, social work, social work values, sustainability, United Nations


The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development (“the Agenda”) was developed by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) to make explicit the knowledge and experience of social work and to reclaim the influence of the global social work, social work education, and social development professions in order to effect transformational changes in social policy and practice at international, regional, and national levels. The term “social work” is used throughout to include the practice of social work and social development, and the education and training of practitioners.

As an evolving platform, the Agenda aims to ensure that the experience and skills of social work and social development practitioners are utilized in policy development to achieve sustainable, collaborative outcomes that address the highly complex problems created by increasing inequality (Truell & Jones, 2015). The Agenda has explicitly strengthened the profile and visibility of social work and assisted social work organizations throughout the world to make stronger contributions to the development of national policy. At regional and global levels, the Agenda has also assisted the social work profession to develop a new level of unity and express common campaigning themes and messages, which has the effect of breathing new life and energy into the profession (Jones & Truell, 2012; Correll, 2011; Abye, 2014).

Developing the Agenda

The Agenda process started in 2004, arising from a series of parallel developments. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) executive agreed that the Federation needed to develop strategies to provide clearer professional leadership in response to the evidence of worldwide low morale and loss of confidence felt by social worker practitioners (DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008; Jones, 2005; Stevens & Higgins, 2002; Vyas & Luk, 2011). At the same time, the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) was exploring strategies for increasing its global influence, and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) was changing the relationship between conferences and its advocacy strategy (International Council on Social Welfare, 2005). The three organizations 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 realize the new partnership (Jones, Yuen, & Rollet, 2008). The conference program was shaped to support the development of a world social agenda, and the three organizations began examining how the process could be supported and sustained. Background papers were commissioned and published on the websites of each organization (International Federation of Social Workers, 2004), and alliances were formed with the United Nations (UN) and other bodies (Jones & Truell, 2012).

Trends in economic and social policy have significantly increased inequality within and between nations and have compelled social workers to find new ways of responding to new realities (Picket & Wilkinson, 2009).

In 2010 the Agenda was launched when 3,000 social work practitioners, educators, and policy makers came together in the Hong Kong 2010 World Conference. The new global economic crisis and social reality were clear, and the need for shared action was seen as urgent.

Rapporteurs at the conference collated ideas emerging from the conference workshops and presented the outcomes in the closing session. The rapporteurs drew the elements together and presented themes and strategies to the closing session. The following four pillars of the Agenda emerged and were endorsed:

  • promoting social and economic equalities

  • promoting the dignity and worth of peoples

  • promoting environmental and community sustainability

  • promoting human relationships

The Agenda received overwhelming support from delegates, who supported the launch of a global movement led by IASSW, ICSW, and IFSW.

Evolution of the Agenda Process

The agreed-on aims of the Agenda, which emerged from this process, were to develop 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 the global social work (and social development) community in a new form of dialogue, which would identify agreed-on priorities and shape the action plans of each organization.

Following the conference a final round of post-conference consultation with members of the three organizations culminated in consensus on the core elements, affirming the conference outcomes. The tripartite meeting in Ghana in November 2011 focused on actions needed by each organization and the partnership to ensure a strategic focus on the four priority areas. In Ghana the representatives agreed that:

  • The full range of human rights are available to only a minority of the world’s population.

  • Unjust and poorly regulated economic systems, driven by unaccountable market forces, together with noncompliance with international standards for labor conditions and a lack of corporate social responsibility, have damaged the health and well-being 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 globalization that standardize and marginalize 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 well-being suffer as a result of inequalities and unsustainable environments related to climate change, pollutants, war, natural disasters, and violence to which there are inadequate international responses (International Federation of Social Workers, International Association of Schools of Social Work, & International Council on Social Welfare, 2012, p. 1).

Recognizing these realities, the representatives formulated key objectives related to each of the four key themes of the Agenda that had been agreed in Hong Kong. Each theme targets commitments to three areas. The first set of commitments focuses joint activities on presenting a social work and social development perspective in work at the United Nations and other international agencies. The second set of commitments recognizes 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 relates to the internal activities of the social work community’s own organizations, directed toward ensuring that policies and standards are consistent with addressing the root causes of poverty and oppression and promoting sustainable social environments that make a reality of respect for human rights and dignity.

The Launch of the Global Agenda

“The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitments 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, & International Council on Social Welfare, 2012) at simultaneous events in Geneva and New York.

The Agenda was received on behalf of the United Nations by Helen Clark (head of the United Nations Development Program). She commented:

It is an honour for me to accept the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development on behalf of the UN, and to congratulate the International Federation of Social Workers, the International Association of Schools of Social Work, and the International Council on Social Welfare on developing The Agenda.

I understand that the Global Agenda was adopted with the overwhelming support of delegates to the joint conference of your three organisations in Hong Kong. That suggests that there is a widely shared and clear vision across the international social worker community, which gives the Global Agenda great credibility . . .

We too are pledged to address the root causes of poverty, oppression, and inequality. We support the call in the Global Agenda “to create a more socially-just and fair world which we will be proud to leave to future generations . . .”

For more than a century, the social work profession has been at the forefront of promoting human rights and supporting people to realise their full potential. Various arms of the United Nations have worked with your organisations in global fora, and alongside social workers in-country to advance progress on the Millennium Development Goals, engage citizens in development, and strengthen social protection systems . . .

The formal presentation of your Global Agenda also reminds us of the shared vision and values we have, and of the importance of working together for a better world

(Clark, 2012).

The Agenda was also received in the UN Geneva office of the United Nations by Assane Diop, International Labor Organization (ILO) executive director. He referred specifically to the Social Protection Floor Initiative and said that the large number of social workers and social development workers were needed to help:

Create the political will to build the Social Protection Floor, create public awareness about the need for the social protection floor, and design, implement and monitor the Social Protection Floor

(Diop, 2012).

Mr. Diop said there was “formidable support for the mandate of the Global Agenda” in the United Nations. He further said that social protection in all aspects of social and economic life was a necessity for all people to live in dignity and that the Social Protection Floor (SPF) should be visible in all countries of the world.

The Agenda was also received by the UN in Nairobi, Santiago de Chile, and Bangkok and by a number of international bodies including the African Union, Commonwealth Foundation, Council of Europe, and Social Platform of NGOs in Europe.

Implementing and Promoting the Agenda

The Stockholm Joint World Social Work Social Development 2012 conference in July 2012, commissioned by the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW), and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), enabled participants to focus on implementation of the Agenda and strategies for action. The three presidents, in separate speeches on behalf of the three organizations, restated the commitment to joint work on the Agenda and to monitor its implementation.

It was agreed that one of the four Agenda pillars would be used as the main theme of each of the following joint world conferences. The launch of a global report at each conference would document examples of practice and the social work perspective on the social issues that related to the theme. The 2014 joint world conference in Melbourne highlighted the first Agenda pillar: “Promoting Social and Economic Development.” The 2016 joint world conference in Seoul will highlight the second pillar: “Promoting the Dignity and Worth of Peoples,” and so on.

It was also agreed by IASSW and IFSW that World Social Work Day (held every third Tuesday in March) would use the same theme as that highlighted in the joint world conferences.

The First Global Report on Social Work and Social Development, launched in 2014 in Melbourne, focused on “Promoting Social and Economic Equality” (International Association of Schools of Social Work, International Council on Social Welfare, & International Federation of Social Workers, 2014). The same theme also provided the focus for a special issue of the journal International Social Work (Abye, 2014), reflecting the intention of the three organizations to extend the debate about the Agenda themes within the profession and to encourage challenge and debate. The issue’s editorial recognizes the diversity within the social work and social development professions and the value of continuing dialogue about the Agenda themes and processes:

This special issue is a representation of different debates that are at a time convergent and at others divergent, thus reflecting the profession. The first five articles are dedicated to current thinking and practices on the central theme of promoting social and economic equalities and discuss these from different angles (Spolander et al., 2014; Ioakimidis et al., 2014; Lombard & Twikirize, 2014). The last five articles critique and articulate the Global Agenda for social work and social development from different standpoints (Gray & Webb, 2014; Nikku & Pulla, 2014; Sims et al., 2014). Thus, the special issue is far from being a final point of discussion within the profession both on the central theme of how social workers and social development practitioners can be agents for social changes and transformation, and on whether or not the Global Agenda development process can be a mechanism that opens different forms of engagement. It is best understood as a starting point from which to launch a large debate in order to understand the diversity of postures available within the profession

(Abye, 2014, p. 284).

The first report, which comprises five regional reports and a global overview, examines the social consequences of growing inequality and social work responses and gives examples of social work practice incorporating the principles advocated in the Agenda. The report notes:

Social work and social development practitioners are not normally involved in global, macroeconomic decisions. However practitioners do bear witness to their social consequences and realities on a daily basis and have a duty to provide feed- back about the outcomes of social policies. We observe that unreliable, unequal, fluctuating societies undermine health and well-being and erode the potential for positive futures and that these instabilities are often driven by macroeconomic decisions.

The key messages that concluded the global section of the report summarize the social work perspective on how global, regional, and national social policy should be shaped:

  1. 1. People cannot be developed by others.

Our frontline experience has taught us that to escape from poverty and oppressive situations, people need to be actively involved in their own futures.

  1. 2. The cornerstone of a thriving economy is a stable, well-resourced, and educated community.

All too often governments argue that they cannot afford to invest in community, whereas our frontline experience informs us that investing in community stimulates entrepreneurship, skill development, cultural innovations, and business growth and widens opportunities for young people, men, and women.

  1. 3. People are happier and well-being is better for all in more equitable societies.

The massively unequal distribution of wealth causes more social instability, health, and crime problems, negatively affecting everybody.

  1. 4. When people have a collective voice, they are more able to advocate for their rights and participate in decision-making processes, resulting in better well-being.

Following the release of the 2012 report, representatives of the three global bodies implemented the next stage of the plan, involving the establishment of regional observatories to strengthen the capacity of each region to gather and analyze social work perspectives on regional problems and solutions and develop a report.

A call for expressions of interest was made with the closing date at the end 2014. The three global bodies met in January 2015 and identified lead structures for the observatories in each of the five regions. In 2016 the reports from the regional observatories and a global overview were published as the Second Report for the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development with the theme of “Promoting the Dignity and Worth of Peoples” (International Association of Schools of Social Work, International Council on Social Welfare, & International Federation of Social Workers, 2016). International Social Work journal published a special issue on the same theme to coincide with the conference and the publication of the report (Ioakimidis & Dominelli, 2016) and Social Dialogue also included a special report (Lombard, 2016).

This report was officially launched at the Joint World Conference in Seoul in June 2016. Each of the regional sections and the global overview highlighted actions and campaigns that had taken place in the preceding two years that promoted the dignity and worth of peoples, and the professions’ responses to global social crises, with specific attention to the crisis causing people into refugee status and the need for universal and transformational social protections systems to be established in all countries.

The release of the second report coincided with launch of the third Global Agenda pillar: Promoting Community and Environmental Sustainability. This theme will remain the focus of the Global Agenda implementation process from 2016 to 2018 and will culminate in the publication of the Third Report at the 2018 world conference in Dublin, Ireland.

The title of this third pillar underwent some change during the 2010–2014 consultation. The Hong Kong formulation was “Working Towards Environmental Sustainability” with the final formulation as: “Promoting Environmental and Community Sustainability” (Jones & Truell, 2012a). This reflects the determination of the Global Agenda Coordinating Group from the three partner organizations to use positive and assertive language. The reformulation also encapsulated the inter-relationship between environmental sustainability and community.

Influence on the Social Work Profession

The objectives of the Agenda are having, and will continue to have, far-reaching implications for the social work profession. The Agenda objectives clearly indicate a new set of political intentions for the three global organizations. The strategy more explicitly focuses on changing the dynamics that affect people and communities, as demonstrated in the Agenda commitments document (International Federation of Social Workers, International Association of Schools of Social Work, & International Council on Social Welfare, 2012):

We commit ourselves to supporting, influencing and enabling structures and systems that allow people to have power over their own lives.

We commit ourselves to supporting, influencing and enabling structures and systems that positively address the root causes of oppression and inequality.

We commit ourselves wholeheartedly and urgently to work together, with people who use services and with others who share our objectives and aspirations, to create a more socially-just and fair world that we will be proud to leave to future generations.

The implementation of these commitments at the global professional level is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the 2014, 2015, and 2016 World Social Work days. These annual events saw the IFSW-IASSW campaign posters spontaneously reprinted in 33 languages in 2014, 40 languages in 2015, and 45 in 2016, and widely used in universities and workplaces.

In both content and images the posters showed the political nature of the profession and that it was actively campaigning, utilizing social work principles and messages. The 2014 poster marking the Agenda pillar: “Promoting Social and Economic Equalities,” pictured campaign-style T-shirts stating: “Social and Economic Crises—Social Work Solutions,” “Promoting equality and equity,” “Enabling people to living life sustainably,” “Facilitating caring communities,” “Building participation,” “Respecting diversity—Connecting people.”

The 2015 poster showed people demonstrating with placards stating: “Upholding human rights 4 all,” “Respecting voices—valuing diversity,” “Respectful communities = sustainable communities,” “Social work for human dignity,” “Freeing silenced voices.” The 2016 poster illustrated a community setting with the words “Societies thrive when the dignity and rights of all people are respected: social workers towards an undivided humanity.”

On both World Social Work Days members of International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) took these messages to their governments in order to influence changes in social policy or held media press conferences or high-level meetings to highlight the national and international social work perspective on the negative aspects of globalization. Some members also took to the streets in the form of peaceful protest, waving the posters and celebrating social work’s positive and powerful contributions to societies (International Federation of Social Workers, 2015). These actions united the profession in a political social work messaging to an extent never seen before.

International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) made an explicit link between the Agenda and its priority campaign to support the Social Protection Floor (SPF) initiative: “A component of the agenda and the main agenda for ICSW is the SPF Initiative”; the SPF “is investing in social justice and economic development. Ensuring a Social Protection Floor for the entire world populations represents a considerable challenge, but calculations by various UN agencies show that a basic floor of social transfers is globally affordable” (Correll, 2010).

At regional levels, each of the three global organisations has also engaged with the Agenda. In 2012, the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW) presented the Agenda to the Council of Europe. The Council for Social Work Education published an edited manual, “Teaching Human Rights: Curriculum Resources for Social Work Educators,” which requires schools to prepare students to promote advocacy in the Agenda areas of human rights and social and economic justice (Hokenstad, Healy, & Segal, 2013).

The Agenda was the foundation of the 2013 African regional conference held in South Africa that focused on: “Giving voice to peoples who are targeted by social development policies to influence the policy development frameworks.” The conference concluded with recommendations on the policies and structures that will replace the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (which expired in 2015). The end of conference statement presented a set of key messages to the UN and the international community to address the major causes of regional poverty and exploitation. These include the need for global frameworks of agreed-on fair taxing and just trade systems. Concern was expressed that the last 10 years of economic growth in Africa have not made a comparable difference to the social conditions of the vast majority of people. The Africa Progress Report 2013 showed that more money is illicitly taken out of Africa through tax avoidance than all monies received from aid. Social workers called on the UN and other international agencies to develop new regulations that call the multinationals to account and build the foundations for regional economic and social prosperity. Delegates also reminded governments and international agencies that they cannot “develop” other people but must be inclusive (Truell, 2013b).

Another regional example of translating the objectives of the Agenda into political advocacy was the Statement on Austerity submitted by IFSW to the European Union in 2013 jointly with the IFSW member organizations living through the negative effects of austerity (International Federation of Social Workers, 2013). This statement highlighted the need to ensure that people’s well-being was not subject to the instability of the neo-liberal economic market:

As international professionals who see the results of both strong and weak communities and societal structures, we witness that resourced and confident communities are the cornerstone of a stable and thriving economy. Businesses want to operate in environments where the workforce is skilled, secure and reliable and there is sustainable demand from consumers. We therefore call upon the EU to abandon austerity and free market approaches and urgently introduce new processes that bring the affected parties together to establish long-term and planned solutions, which emphasise: People living in a coherent, stable and equitable environments, and sustainable economies.

The Agenda was also highlighted at the United Nations on the 2014 and 2015 Social Work Days at the UN. In 2014 at the New York UN headquarters, IFSW stated that the principles underlying international trade systems needed to be transformed(Truell, 2014a):

What would a fair and just global economy look like? Just like today, regulation would be based on multilateral treaties. However, a just economy would be founded on: human rights, fair pricing, international standards of labour, enforced corporate social responsibilities, capacity building for developing countries, agreed forms of dialogue underpinning supply and demand agreements—enabling all parties to participate, and share in benefits.

In 2015 at the United Nations in Geneva, the three global bodies campaigned for the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals to include a specific goal stating that every country should have a government-led Social Protection System (Truell, 2015), and that Social Protection Systems should be built on the principles of human rights and not just on access to limited benefits and under-resourced services:

Social workers are not passive employees. We believe that social protection should be transformational, built from the real needs of all people and the realisation of all people’s rights. Too often social protection has been seen as an “end-of-the-pipe” solution, when all else has gone wrong, and labour markets and economies have failed. It’s imperative that transformative social protection leads the change in all ways of life. We see the potential for social protection to bring about changes in the economy, in democracy and in the redistribution of wealth.

A new conception of social protection is needed. This should focus on preserving society and social relationships, promoting social integration, and making relationships among people as harmonious as possible.

(Truell, 2015)

ICSW held a global conference on human rights, citizenship, and social protection in Denmark, building on links between the Agenda and the developing momentum around the Social Protection Floor (International Council on Social Welfare, 2015).

The Agenda has also begun to influence the development of curricula and the teaching of social work; for example, one qualitative study in the West Indies concluded that: “the findings support the Global Agenda as culturally relevant to the social realities facing Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean region at this time. The prevailing view was that notwithstanding the responsibility to institutionalise the currency of the profession to influence social policy development on critical human rights and social justice issues, country-specific mandates and jurisdictions must be maintained as the primary determinants of social work practice, education and policy development. The potential value, applicability and advancement of the four commitments put forward in the Global Agenda were also highlighted” (Sogren & Nathaniel, 2015).

Beyond shaping the outward looking focus of IASSW and IFSW the Agenda has also had an impact on the internal policies of each organization. For example, the Global Definition of Social Work has been reviewed and changed to reclaim this holistic approach to society and human relationships. Both organizations are also undertaking a review of the joint Statement of Ethical Principles and IFSW approved revised constitutional aims in 2016 to ensure consistency in organizational objectives.

Such internal actions embed the political and action-orientated focus in each organization, thereby securing a set of expectations of the world bodies to continue acting on social work principles and making concrete contributions to policy environments. The next challenge for the organizations and the profession is to ensure that these insights and understandings about society and human behavior are integrated into the daily practice of social workers. This will be a key focus of the ongoing work of the Global Observatory and its regional structures.


The 2010 launch of the Agenda in Hong Kong where the four pillars were established; the development of these pillars into the publication: The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitments to Action; and the embedding of the pillars into world conferences and the World Social Work Day campaigns have driven the global profession into an unprecedented unity and focus.

Each of these steps has been a significant milestone on a journey that has and will continue to reposition social work in advocating for social policy based on social justice and human rights. The Agenda has reinvigorated the profession with a new sense of optimism, confidence, and awareness of its essential contributions to society.


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