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date: 22 April 2021

International Council on Social Welfarefree

  • Sergei ZelenevSergei ZelenevInternational Council on Social Welfare


The International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on advocacy, knowledge-building, and technical assistance projects in various areas of social development carried out at the country level and internationally. Created in 1928 in Paris to address the complexities and challenges of social work, the ICSW has evolved through the years to embrace the major issues of social development, becoming a global organization committed to improving human well-being. Establishing common ground on issues of international significance and acting with partners through its nine regional networks, ICSW represents national and local organizations in more than 70 countries throughout the world. Membership also includes major international organizations. By virtue of its constitution, it operates as a democratic and accountable organization.

Brief History

The International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) is one of the oldest international nongovernmental organizations (NGO), dating to 1928. Its history is closely linked with international social work, but nowadays, ICSW’s transnational activism goes much further, embracing the major issues of social development, social justice, and social welfare everywhere in the world. Historically, social work and social practice represented two key pillars of its activities, but emphasis on social development in a broader sense has been more pronounced recently.

The immediate predecessor of the ICSW—the International Conference on Social Work came into existence in Paris in 1928 as a results of efforts undertaken by several visionaries and practitioners based in different countries to strengthen social and professional cooperation in the area of human welfare. The scale of human suffering in the wake of World War 1 prompted calls from many humanitarians to join forces in addressing the ravages of the war’s destruction, poverty, and deprivation though improved professional efforts, including the exchange of pertinent professional experience on social work and social welfare.

The idea of a large-scale international forum on social welfare was proposed by Dr. Clotilde Mulon at the 46th U.S. conference in 1919, but the key person who brought this idea to fruition, acting as a facilitator, was the Belgian doctor René Sand, who served as the secretary-general of the League of Red Cross Societies from 1921 to 1926. Not only a doctor of medicine, but also an educator and a scholar of human relations who had great expertise in the specifics of hospital organization and was eager to disseminate information on health and hygiene to the general public, Dr. Sand skillfully used his broad knowledge and deep immersion in the political and social affairs of the time to navigate the preparatory process of the conference (ICSW, 2008).

After several years of preliminary work at the preparatory meetings, the discussions culminated in a meeting in Prague in November 1927, at which the guidelines for the organization of the upcoming international event were developed and adopted. When conceptualizing the framework of the international conference, the organizers took into consideration the American model linked to convening annual national social work conferences, which had been in existence since 1874, adopting it to international requirements (Rollet, 2016).

The stated goals of the conference were to foster discussion and idea-sharing between social workers and social welfare organizations from around the world, assist with the dissemination of professional information, and establish personal contacts. These efforts promoted international cooperation within the social work profession and beyond, bringing on board numerous activists, experts, and practitioners. The additional significance of the conference was that it gave birth not only to the ICSW, but also to two other organizations active in the area of social work and social development—the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) (Rollet, 2016; Healy & Link, 2011).

The novelty and significance of the first International Conference on Social Work that convened in July 1928 in Paris was that this meeting, unlike international health conferences of the time, was not state-sponsored, but rather was a bottom-up initiative, reflecting the efforts of civil society representatives from several countries to coordinate activities aimed at improving the human condition, promoting techniques for philanthropic practices, as well as shaping organized charity (ICSW, 2008). The largest intergovernmental organizations of that time—the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation—provided technical support, with financial backing from several national and regional foundations. Mapping and identifying the field of proposed activities, the first International Conference on Social Work underscored that social work could not be constrained to individual cases, but rather required broad-based interdisciplinary efforts to relieve suffering resulting from want (i.e., providing palliative assistance), to restore people to so-called normal conditions of life (through curative assistance), to prevent social afflictions (preventive assistance), and to improve social conditions and raise standards of living (constructive assistance) (Macdonald, 1975, p. 7).

The participants discussed the concept of human welfare at length, focusing on the need to avoid harm and suffering and highlighting the importance of the dedicated use of resources intended for the prevention or cure of social hardships. But the key role of direct individual practice within the social work profession was acknowledged, along with the need to promote legislative and administrative measures targeting a group or community and to undertake research in the field of social welfare. Social work was understood broadly, embracing both individual help and collective forms of social support, as well as legislative action. There was a widely shared agreement on the need for professional qualifications and skills, while the importance of professional training of social workers and greater efficiency of social work was also emphasized (Eilers, 2003).

However, the opinions of more than 2,500 participants, who represented a diverse group of social workers, healthcare providers, welfare officers, and other activists differed as to the respective roles of the state and private institutions. The variety of views was also reflected in the submissions of national committees and in publications of the executive committee, even though there was an agreement about the basic values of international social work practice and the general directions as outlined previously. The conference became a truly international event attended by participants from 42 countries, 31 of which already established national committees.

Starting with that first conference, the importance of the thematic approach was firmly reflected in the agenda of every meeting; the first priority theme was “Social Work and Industry.” The first conference was also remarkable for the high proportion of women who took part in its preparation and discussions—about two-thirds of the attendees were women. The conference elected a woman—Dr. Alice Masarykova, the president of the Czechoslovakian Red Cross—as the first president of ICSW, and she served for four years. Dr. René Sand became the first secretary-general of the International Conference on Social Work, a post that he held from 1928 to 1932 (Eilers, 2003).

The aim of this institutional move was forward-looking, to translate a wealth of ideas that had emerged at the first conference into practice, using the positive momentum to continue and strengthen international social welfare activities. René Sand became president of the organization in 1936, and he held that position until the outbreak of World War II. Having become a permanent organization, the International Conference on Social Work represented national councils on social work and social welfare, promoting humanistic values and advocating for disadvantaged population groups, and also assisting its members with information and consultative work. At the same time, recognition of the substantial differences in approaches taken at the national level precluded the adoption of a uniform action plan and strategy for everyone, leading to acceptance of the substantial autonomy of each organization. But the key goals—to exchange professional information, to strengthen personal relationships, promote effective social work, and ensure better delivery of social services, seen in the context of achieving social justice and social welfare—were upheld during the next two conferences, organized and convened in 1932 and 1936. The first of these, devoted to the topic “Social Work and the Family,” was convened in Frankfurt, Germany, and the second, on “Social Work and the Community,” in London. These conferences were the last before the outbreak of World War II.

Revived after the interruption caused by that war, the ICSW held its first postwar meeting in 1946 in Belgium. The next year signified the beginning of discussions on the new constitution of the ICSW, which was formally adopted in 1954 in Toronto, Canada. The constitution stipulated that the ICSW would be the worldwide organization for individuals and organizations concerned with social welfare. Its major functions were to provide “an international forum for the discussion of social work and related issues” and promote “the exchanges of information and experience among social workers and social agencies throughout the world” (ICSW, 2008, p. 22).

International Conferences in Postwar Period

The ICSW international conferences resumed in 1948. Since that time, the global conferences of ICSW have been held periodically, either every two or every four years. Since 2010, the Global Conferences on Social Work and Social Development have been organized every two years through close collaboration among the ICSW, IASSW, and IFSW—the three sister organizations, as they have been termed because all three trace their origin to the first International Conference on Social Work held in Paris in 1928.

The international conferences regularly convened by ICSW dealt with recurring issues and new subjects that reflected political realities and deep changes on the global scene. The chosen topics reflected both specific and general issues related to social welfare and the human condition. For example, at the fourth conference held in 1948 in the United States, in the wake of World War II, the priority theme was quite specific, focusing on social work in rural and urban settings; it was a clear reflection that migration to urban areas was a challenge for many countries and required a response from civil society. But two years later, in 1950, the fifth international conference in Paris considered a more general conceptual issue—the role of social welfare in society. The participants reviewed the social experiences in the first half of the 20th century, arguing against limiting welfare coverage to exclusively vulnerable groups or emergency relief; the positive role of social services and social welfare for society at large was emphasized (ICSW, 2008).

During the 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of a large group of developing countries facing entirely new social and economic challenges as independent political actors caused ICSW to recast its agenda on socioeconomic development, paying attention to emerging issues. New issues were taken on board for discussion at the ICSW international conferences: namely, social rights, equity, improvement of the lives of those living in poverty, demography and population policy, social cohesion, and urban and community development. These have become a constant feature of the global discourses on social issues, gradually expanding the scope and objectives of social welfare goals, analyzing the interactions of key actors, and presenting analysis of policy instruments across a number of sectors (Gough, 2004).

The ICSW has been following these discourses attentively and provided its own responses to the most acute challenges of the time. The current state and future of social welfare, as well as the significance of social services in raising the standard of living, were recurrent themes.

Expanded Membership

In the 1950s and 1960s, the membership of the ICSW expanded, as the national councils from many developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America became members. The international conferences, originally convened only in the Western countries, began to be held in the developing world as well, including India, Brazil, and the Philippines. In the mid-1950s, the ICSW guidelines for establishing regional offices were prepared; they aimed at establishing more effective relations between the global office and the national committees. More active work at the regional level resulted in respective regional conferences, with discussion of region-specific priorities; the first was convened in Strasbourg, France, in 1959, and several others followed—in Asia (Karachi, Pakistan, in 1962), in Africa (Nairobi, Kenya, in 1967; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1968; and Kampala, Uganda, in 1969) and in Latin America in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil in 1962).

Organizational adjustments reflecting a new vision and increased scope of activities could not help but follow. In 1966, the ICSW changed its constitution to reflect its global activism. The name of the organization was also changed on December 30, 1966, to “International Council on Social Welfare.” Commenting on the name change, Kate Katzki, secretary-general of the ICSW from 1967 to 1978, underscored the fact that the organization could no longer focus on only one single goal, namely serving as an international forum for discussion among social workers (ICSW, 2008, p. 32). The adoption of the new constitution and the name change reflected the profound structural changes in the organization at that time, the growing diversification in its activities, and the higher political profile sought by the ICSW leadership.

Katzki played an important role in the stewardship of ICSW for 10 years. Under her leadership, the international discussions and exchanges on social policy promoted by ICSW were brought to Africa and other low-income regions. She also came up with important initiatives aimed at establishing national and regional committees, promoting them as a base for transnational activism and extending the scope of international partnership to new geographical regions. Later, in recognition of her contributions, she was accepted as a Pioneer in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), based in Washington, DC—honoring people who, according to the NASW, “have explored new territories and built outposts for human services on many frontiers” (

In the wake of her retirement and departure from the ICSW, the level of enthusiasm of the ICSW U.S. National Committee gradually subsided to a point of relative inactivity. Substantial efforts have been undertaken only recently, in mid-2015, to improve the situation in the North American region as a whole and reignite the ICSW activities in both the United States and Canada.

Purpose and Structure

According to the constitution of the International Council on Social Welfare, the council is a “global, non-governmental, non-political, non-sectarian, and non-profit organization which represents a wide range of national and international member organizations that seek to advance social justice, social welfare, social work, and social development” (ICSW, 2014).

The primary objectives of the council, as identified in the constitution, are as follows (Clauses 2.1a–f):

Promote forms of social and economic development which aim to reduce poverty, hardship and vulnerability, especially amongst disadvantaged people; strive for recognition and realization of fundamental rights to employment, income, food, shelter, education, health care and security; promote equality of opportunity, freedom of expression, freedom of association, participation and access to human services and oppose discrimination; promote policies and programmes which strike an appropriate balance between social and economic goals and which respect cultural diversity; strengthen civil society throughout the world to achieve these objectives; seek implementation of these objectives by governments, international organizations and non-governmental agencies in cooperation with its network of Member Organizations.

The main elements of the organization are the General Assembly, Supervisory and Advisory Board, and Management Committee. The General Assembly, as the supreme governing body of the council, adopts its four-year global program and two-year budget framework and elects a president, vice president, treasurer, and two other members of the Management Committee, who serve terms of approximately four years. The Board comprises the regional presidents, the president, the vice president, and the treasurer; it creates and amends the by-laws, and establishes and restructures regions. The Board is also entrusted with supervising and monitoring the Management Committee, which in turn is responsible for all matters not specifically allocated under the constitution to the General Assembly or the Supervisory and Advisory Board (ICSW, 2014, Clauses, 9, 10, and 11).

While the ICSW is a worldwide, nongovernmental membership organization with regional branches, it is not a mass organization, and only one national council from each country can be accepted into membership. According to the constitution, a national member organization shall have a broadly based membership of organizations that seek to enhance social justice, social welfare, and social development in a specific country. As specified in the Tampere Manifesto of the ICSW, adopted in October 1994, the purpose of ICSW is helping its members “to network effectively, to derive fundamental principles from their various endeavours and vigorously to bring these principles to the attention of governments, inter-governmental organizations, and the general public by means of educations and political action,” moving systematically “from vision to policy, from policy to programmes, and from programmes to action” (ICSW, 2008, p. 70).

The regional organizations are indigenous to their regions. The regions play an active role, but membership is assumed directly with the international headquarters, not via regions. The ICSW is a unified organization that could be compared to an amalgam rather than a mosaic so far as its membership is concerned.

ICSW membership is classified into several different categories. Category A covers national committees with a broad-based membership in their respective countries. Category B is reserved for international NGOs trying to achieve the same objectives. Categories C and D are intended for civil society organizations that cannot claim to work on a full range of issues and be the key party representing social welfare issues in their home country, but they seek to enhance social justice, social welfare, social work, and social development anyway (ICSW, 2014, Clauses 5–7). In 2014, ICSW introduced a new category of membership, called distinguished fellows (Category E). This category comprises “eminent experts in social welfare or social development who have made internationally or regionally outstanding and widely recognized contributions to social welfare and social development” (ICSW, 2014, Clause 7).

The regional structure is established under the by-laws, and regions have their own decision-making bodies, as well as their own programs of activities. Each member, with the exception of international member organizations, is allocated to a region by the Board for the purposes of allocating membership fees, and each member is entitled to the same rights in the region as it has globally. At the same time, there is substantial organizational flexibility—any member organization is able to cooperate with any member organization in other regions, as well as, by agreement, participation in other regional meetings, activities, and ICSW structures. Regional general assemblies and other regional organs have been established under global and regional by-laws (ICSW, 2014, Clause 8). Some regional entities have their own legal status separate from the ICSW.

The president of the ICSW is the highest elected official and representative of the council and serves a single four-year term, without the possibility of a second consecutive term. In her or his capacity as the leader of the organization, the president frames problems, setting overall goals and directions and maintaining interaction with other partners and stakeholders at the regional and global levels. The ICSW executive director is responsible for implementing the strategic decisions of the General Assembly, Board, and Management Committee, proposing innovative policy solutions, and alternative approaches. The executive director combines supervision of the day-to-day operations of the Global Office with substantive research and outreach activities; editing the Global Cooperation Newsletter, published by ICSW in English, French, and Spanish; and maintaining links with various partners, including other NGOs and intergovernmental organizations.

Vision and Key Activities

ICSW’s Global Programme is a strategic framework of the organization that is designed to operate at the global, regional, and national levels, setting the goals and framework for action for the council’s operations for four years. As a contemporary umbrella organization, ICSW works to empower its members to participate fully in society as responsible citizens, with a greater civic voice and capacity to achieve meaningful results. Key activities include gathering and disseminating information, undertaking research and analysis, convening seminars and conferences, strengthening organizations of the civil society at the grass roots level and beyond, developing policy proposals, engaging in public advocacy, and working with policymakers and administrators in government and elsewhere.

Upholding the dignity of all—young people, older people, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, indigenous people, etc.—is a paramount driver of ICSW activities. ICSW sees human dignity as instrumental in conceptualization and implementation of social policy. Human dignity is the quintessential core of human rights; many references to human dignity in human rights and constitutional law begin with the intrinsic or inherent dignity of all individuals (Rao, 2011). In its advocacy, the ICSW emphasizes that addressing the issues of inequality and poverty reduction in a comprehensive manner requires linking human rights with social protection of individuals and communities. The organization has a particular focus on promoting social protection, seeing it as a human right, an instrumental investment in people, and a way of upholding human dignity (Zelenev, 2016).

ICSW strives for the recognition and realization of all human rights, including fundamental rights to employment, income, food, shelter, education, healthcare, and security. The organization is intent on promoting gender equality and empowerment of women of all ages, considering it a vital element of its activities. In addition, ICSW and its members are active in a wide range of social development areas, working in partnership with other civil society organizations, governmental structures, the academic community, and international organizations to make its vision a reality.

Having the highest level of consultative status with the United Nations (UN) in relation to the work of the Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC), International Labour Organization (ILO), and other UN agencies, the ICSW uses existing opportunities to leverage the voices of its members into various platforms of international stakeholders. This status enables the ICSW to address UN bodies through broad-based statements and advocacy, participate in intergovernmental discussions, and present recommendations to intergovernmental organizations. ICSW actively participates in the work of the Commission for Social Development, the Commission on the Status of Women, and other intergovernmental bodies.

Shifting Priorities and Expanding the Scope of Work

Through the years, the priorities of the ICSW have been changing, reflecting political changes in the world, the development and refinement of a global perspective in its work, and a growing awareness of the need to reconcile social and economic policy. The new realities engendered by a fundamental transformation in the world economy in the epoch of globalization has changed the relationship between economic development and national boundaries, bringing new concerns related to increased trade and foreign direct investment, expansion of international lending, and significant changes in migration patterns (Baker, Epstein, & Pollin, 1998).

In the face of the developing integration and liberalization of the world economy and the new intensity of international competition—with its profound and not necessarily positive effect on social spending and delivery of social services—the welfare situation has varied significantly from one region to another, with growing uncertainty at the local, national, and regional levels and widespread setbacks in living standards. The development discourse has also not been static. Human development has emerged as one of the central concepts in international development since the early 1990s, supported not only by civil society, but also by many governments and international organizations.

The need to view people as the ends of development as well as its means, the emphasis on both poor people and people living in extreme poverty, the prioritization of capability-enhancing services (such as food security, education, and health), and the multidimensional conceptualization of human well-being and poverty have shifted the focus of many economists and policymakers away from the earlier emphasis on per-capita economic growth as the sole indicator of socioeconomic progress. The 1990s marked a watershed in the evolution of ideas about poverty reduction. (For more details, see Hulme, 2007.)

At the onset of the 1980s, ICSW had three core priorities: convening conferences and ensuring space for discussions, providing support to national committees, and building stronger relations with the United Nations. The situation changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, when a more comprehensive agenda emerged both at ICSW headquarters and in the particular regions, covering such themes as access to the means required for economic independence, strengthening social infrastructures, the issue of violence and social development, and the social dimensions of technological change. Suggestions were made to go further and address on a consistent basis such topics as the significance of aging, HIV/AIDS pandemics, and North–South relations. In the 1980s, a gradual shift in the philosophy of the organization became apparent, including its main thrust from the idea of social work to social welfare, and then to social development (ICSW, 2008).

World Summit for Social Development (WSSD): Preparations and Follow-Up

A deliberate and consistent move was made in the 1970s and 1980s to go beyond social work and enhance the social development dimension in its transnational activism, broadening the scope of ICSW’s activities. The interdisciplinary and holistic nature of the ICSW approach to development thinking formed after World War II and was vividly demonstrated at the ICSW global conferences. But beyond that, the ICSW has been invited to take part in numerous conferences, expert group meetings, research seminars, and other events of international significance; to share its experiences; and to provide substantial inputs. Its global image was strongly reinforced during the preparation of the World Summit for Social Development (WSSD), which convened in Copenhagen in 1995, as well as the follow-up activities.

The preparatory process for such a landmark event as the WSSD provided the ICSW with an opportunity to present its analysis and vision of the global social situation to influential audiences throughout the world. First, ICSW actively participated in the work of the Preparatory Committees for the WSSD, promoting in accordance with its constitution forms of social and economic development that aimed to reduce poverty, hardship, and vulnerability throughout the world, and making specific suggestions regarding ways to ensure the progressive realization of all human rights, including economic and social rights. Apart from discussions at intergovernmental meetings, deliberate efforts were made to link closely the activities of the ICSW with the preparatory process for the summit. For example, the Tampere Manifesto adopted by the 1994 ICSW global conference was conceived with the WSSD agenda in mind; the document advocated “an integrated and integrative approach to social development,” promoted rights to equal opportunities, supported grass-roots initiatives, and strongly condemned violence, intolerance, and xenophobia. It also addressed the priority themes of the WSSD (poverty eradication, employment promotion, and social integration) and was submitted to the Preparatory Committee (ICSW, 2008, pp. 70–71).

Summing up the ICSW’s contributions and addressing the Plenary Session of the World Social Summit in Copenhagen on March 7, 1995, ICSW president Dirk Jarré indicated that the council “has been actively and constructively involved in every phase of the preparatory process leading to the Summit. We have mobilized our global resources—in personal, intellectual, organizational, and financial terms—to inform NGOs about the Summit and to motivate them to participate in the endeavour, to contribute ourselves directly to the Summit’s content, and to give support to the process itself” (Social Priorities of Civil Society. Speeches by Non-Governmental Organizations at the World Summit for Social Development, 1996).

The WSSD represented an important political threshold for the ICSW, not only in terms of opportunities to contribute to the outcome documents, but also for the fact that it became an important benchmark for ICSW-affiliated organizations during the implementation phase. In many ways, ICSW activities in the postsummit period became aligned to the Ten Commitments made in Copenhagen and the recommendations of the Plan of Action adopted at the summit. The principles of social justice, equity, and equitable societies, which were high on the WSSD Agenda, are shared by the ICSW, which has been striving for many years to put these principles into practice on the ground and promote them in high-level international forums.

Creating an environment to enable the achievement of social development, eradicating poverty through decisive national action and international cooperation, promoting full employment as a basic priority, and fostering stable, safe, and just societies to promote social integration—all those commitments that emerged at the summit have been appropriated as guiding principles by the ICSW in its own activities. The global consensus reached at the summit that poverty eradication should remain a key goal for development was a crucial element that gave forward momentum to several new postsummit initiatives, including the Millennium Declaration, approved on September 8, 2000, and the development of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) a year later based on the declaration, where the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger was put on the top of the list of priorities.

The ICSW also actively participated in the preparation of the 24th special session of the General Assembly, convened in Geneva in June 2000, where the commitments of the WSSD were reviewed with respect to further action and initiatives. As a follow-up to the summit, the ICSW has participated in all the annual sessions of the Commission for Social Development (CSocD)—one of the functional commissions of the ECOSOC, which reviews the outcome of the summit every year. The written and verbal statements made by the ICSW representatives highlight the efforts of the ICSW-affiliated organizations in the context of the implementation of the WSSD commitments and the increased priority that social development has assumed vis-a vis other policy objectives.

Priorities for Action

Some key topics and cross-cutting themes raised in the statements could be mentioned at this time. Depending on the context of the discussions and the priority theme of the CSocD, and in line with ICSW objectives, the ICSW statements addressed such issues as the urgent need of an integrated approach to social development and the missing links between strategy and policy and called for more focused policies aimed at the equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Reflecting the spirit of the WSSD, the statements made by ICSW representatives sought to highlight the goal of poverty eradication and draw attention to the role of employment as the nexus between economic and social policy and the plight of the working poor, as well as the need to address growing inequality within and among nations. ICSW consistently speaks for social inclusion and promoting a society for all—a goal identified by the WSSD as one of its core priorities. ICSW supports people-centered policies aimed at preventing and reducing poverty and upholding the dignity of individuals, families, and groups in situations of risk and insecurity. Such policies are seen as tools of empowerment and emancipation.

Focusing on Universal Social Protection

Promoting social protection as one of the pillars of a forward-looking social policy has become one of the key priorities and recurrent themes in ICSW advocacy efforts. The shift away from universal, publicly provided social protection schemes to needs-tested, targeted assistance, which became evident with the spread of neoliberal economic policies encouraged by international financial institutions, has been extremely painful for many societies. As recently admitted by a team of economists with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), instead of delivering growth, some neoliberal politicizes have increased inequality, with negative impacts on level and sustainability of growth (Ostry, Loungani, & Furceri, 2016).

Such features of social protection systems as protecting people against contingencies and risks, along with developmental and social justice functions of social protection, are well known (UN, 2001); in one way or another, these functions have always been underscored by the ICSW in its policy statements during intergovernmental deliberations. ICSW also underscores the productive nature of investment in social protection programs, seeing it as a way to enhance human capital, employability, and productive assets, thus making clear economic sense.

In its approach, ICSW has strongly supported the universalism and recognition of the right to social protection. Since the 2000s, the principles of universalism have been reaffirmed by the United Nations and its specialized agencies; “education for all” and “primary health care for all” have become recognized international goals. The preceding neoliberal sway in policymaking, with its emphasis on selectivity in access to welfare assistance and social services, resulted in numerous hurdles in the administrating of targeted schemes, with higher costs for social services. At the national level, particularly in the case of low-income countries, targeting was mostly ineffective in addressing the issues of rampant poverty and social exclusion. ICSW efforts have sought to draw attention to the existence of positive alternatives to targeting and the detrimental dimensions for well-being of the “race to the bottom” resulting from cuts in social spending; and advocate consistently for the principles of the universal public provision of basic social services and basic income.

The new impetus in the quest for universal social protection systems was provided when Recommendation 202 on national floors of social protection was adopted by the International Labour Conference at its 101st session in 2012. There is increasing recognition of the fact that the implementation of nationally defined social protection floors (SPFs) may be regarded as an important tool in the fight against poverty and inequality (Cichon, 2014).

A rights-based approach aimed at protecting men, women, and children from risks and vulnerabilities helps to sustain their well-being throughout the life cycle, guaranteeing access to healthcare and other basic services, as well as at least a basic level of income security. The ICSW has supported that initiative since its inception by the United Nations in 2009, seeing it as one way to address multiple socioeconomic challenges in the contemporary world (ICSW, n.d.).

At numerous forums, ICSW has consistently advocated for social protection for all and access to social protection schemes guaranteed to anyone who needs such protection, emphasizing that such schemes should be designed to ensure basic income security and essential healthcare support for all people across the life cycle. Moreover, at the national level, ICSW has moved to help some developing countries with design of national systems of social protection, increasing awareness of the positive impact of social protection floors.


Joining forces with more than 80 other NGOs, in the summer of 2012 the ICSW formed a Global Coalition for Social Protection Floors, which has an increasingly important role to play in shaping the debate, raising awareness, achieving a national consensus on policy priorities, and monitoring the progress of SPFs. Based on the principles on inclusiveness, nondiscrimination, and mutual respect, the coalition relies on collective output and solidarity in formulating negotiating positions, seeking to communicate with international organizations such as the United Nations and the ILO, as well as contributing to international and regional forums. Universality in the provision of social protection remains the coalition’s most important goal (Zelenev, 2014a).

But the coalition with NGO partners is not the only joint effort undertaken by ICSW in connection with promoting social protection. Among a limited number of other international NGOs, the ICSW has been invited to take part in the work of the Social Protection Inter-Agency Cooperation Board, chaired jointly by the ILO and the World Bank. The board has been instrumental in considering social protection in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, interagency work at the country level, cooperation in the field of social protection statistics, and other key issues linked to social protection promotion. ICSW used opportunities of its participation in the board to put forward new ideas regarding feasibility of elaborating and adopting a dedicated UN resolution on social protection systems (including SPFs), seeing it as an important political landmark on the way to universal and comprehensive social protection for all.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by the United Nations has been an important political breakthrough in the effort to address numerous challenges to development brought by climate change. The impetus created by its adoption opens a new window of opportunity for all stakeholders in finding innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and complex problems. In addition, it has bolstered the social protection discourse, moving it forward on both the national and international levels. The ICSW’s advocacy campaign for elaborating a draft ECOSOC resolution on social protection systems as a necessary political step toward universal social protection has received a sympathetic hearing by several representatives of governments participating in the board activities, as well as during the discussions of the Commission for Social Development.

Another important partnership was formed by the ICSW at the United Nations with civil society organizations working to promote the rights of older persons. The ICSW has been closely collaborating with the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People, voicing its support for the elaboration of a new legal instrument to protect the rights of the elderly. The role of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Ageing, established by the UN General Assembly in December 2010, is to consider the existing international framework for the human rights of older persons and to identify possible gaps and how best to address them, including by considering the feasibility of further instruments and measures. Its significance as a new and influential international forum on aging and development should be recognized, particularly given the fact that aging presents a challenge not only for the developed countries, but also for the developing world.

Since the inception of the OEWG, the ICSW has actively participated in these discussions, which have covered numerous political and socioeconomic aspects of population aging at the national, regional, and international levels, highlighting both the emerging issues and the opportunities presented by aging, but always dovetailing around its original declared objective—how to protect the rights and interests of older persons (Zelenev, 2014b).

Participating in these deliberations, the ICSW not only has submitted official statements (see for ICSW statements to the OEWG at the third and fourth sessions in 2012 and 2013, respectively), but also has usually provided ad hoc comments during the discussions, making specific suggestions on how to move the process forward. The importance of clarifying the scope and content of human rights norms has been stressed, given the fact that nonimplementation of the existing standards is rampant, even though in many cases (and particularly in developing countries), those standards are themselves quite low, remaining inadequate to provide effective protection to older persons (see, e.g., OHCHR, 2012).

Apart from the OEWG deliberations, the ICSW submitted statements at the 59th and 60th sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2015 and 2016, respectively, drawing attention to the plight of older women and the need for proactive policies for them both globally and nationally. The statements stressed that this important segment of the population is most vulnerable, and often is overlooked in discussions of gender equality, empowerment, and sustainable development, and the stereotypical conflation of old age and dependency has established the basis for harmful policies, as well as traditional practices, that exclude older women from full participation in society. Further, they do not support or recognize older women’s capacity for productive and active aging (

Apart from ties built within the UN environment, the ICSW has built a strong collaboration and partnerships with the IASSW and IFSW. The three sister organizations work together to produce the journal International Social Work, and since the year 2010, they have collaborated in organizing joint world conferences on social work and social development issues every two years. The joint global conferences provide ample opportunities for the stakeholders to discuss issues that the social work and social welfare sectors face on an everyday basis and to ensure a closer link between evidence-based practice, policy objectives, and social development goals. Furthermore, they have revealed how actions geared to accomplishing the priority goals of the joint Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development (2012), adopted by ICSW, IASSW, and IFSW, might affect the conditions of people and demonstrate how actions by the social work and social development communities can contribute to an enduring physical environment, promote compliance with a range of climate–related policies and measures, and help raise awareness and build capacity among practitioners in terms of the imperatives of sustainable development. These aspects have been particularly significant in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement of 2015, which spelled out the commitments on the part of the international community to concrete measures aimed at addressing climate change in the context of inclusive development—probably the most ambitious multilateral goals ever set, given the ongoing climate-related challenges.

Coming together in Paris in mid-November 2012 to consider specific actions in the context of the implementation of the Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development, the three partner organizations decided to establish a Global Agenda Observatory to gather evidence about the activities of social workers, educators, and social development practitioners who support the implementation of the Global Agenda and to give visibility and credibility to their contributions and promote further action. This entity is structured around the four themes of the Global Agenda. To date, the first two reports on implementing Global Agenda commitments have been jointly produced: one promoting social and economic equalities, unveiled at the Joint World Conference on Social Work, Education, and Social Development in Melbourne in 2014; and the second promoting the dignity and worth of peoples, presented at the Joint World conference in Seoul in 2016. The themes to be covered in subsequent years include working toward environmental sustainability and strengthening recognition of the importance of human relationships. A focus on ensuring an appropriate environment for practice and education will be maintained throughout.

Most Recent Regional and National Activities

At the regional level, the ICSW seeks to increase the consideration of social development by regional groups of governments. At the same time, at the national level, it works to strengthen the ability of national councils to influence social policy and programs in their respective countries, taking into account local conditions and priorities of national socioeconomic development.

Activities covered by the national councils are wide-ranging, but all are within the remit of the ICSW Global Programme. Described next are some examples of the most recent advocacy and capacity-building activities initiated by ICSW in various regions. Similar to their activities at the global level, ICSW-affiliated organizations in regions have built up partnerships aimed at strengthening cooperation on key regional social development issues by combining human and financial resources. For example, an ICSW-affiliated organization in Morocco has partnered with the international German-based NGO Friedrich-Ebert Shtiftung in convening several regional conferences.

In June 2013, the ICSW in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region organized a high-level forum on the importance of national civil dialogue, where issues of social inclusion and participation were discussed, along with finding ways and means to ensure that the voices of various groups in society are heard, giving real substance to the concept of citizenship and democracy. The event was extensively covered by the regional press and other mass media (e.g., Zelenev, 2013). In 2014, the MENA conference considered the applicability and affordability of social protection in the region, while in 2015, in light of preparations for the Joint World Conference in Seoul, the priority theme of the regional meeting was human dignity and the value of every human being; these discussions aimed at interpretation of what constitutes a life with dignity in various national contexts.

In Asia, activities of these types of organizations covered issues of applicability and affordability of social protection schemes in specific regions (such as South Asia), highlighted the importance of partnerships and collaboration among governments and NGOs on social welfare matters (in South-East Asia and the Pacific), and explored challenges of aging and long-term care (in North-East Asia). ICSW South Asia Region collaborated with a Head Held High Foundation, in Bengaluru, India, on a global initiative called the Global Action on Poverty (GAP) ( A movement to eradicate poverty globally through thought and action, the GAP 2015 Summit brought together 100 Changemakers (those who are working on the ground in various aspects of poverty eradication) and about 70 Catalysts (people and organizations who support Changemakers through resources, connections, funds and advice). The event was held at Sabarmati Gandhi Ashram and Gujarat Vidyapith in March 2015. ICSW regional president P. K. Shajahan, in his capacity as a Catalyst, aims to set up a GAP Lab at Tata Institute of Social Sciences as an Institutional platform for the Changemakers to translate their ideas into action.

In South East Asia and the Pacific, ICSW works closely with the government and NGO representatives to discuss annually the most pressing social issues in the region, highlighting bottlenecks and exploring trade-offs. The issues of social services and social protection are the recurrent themes. The participants in the 10th ASEAN GO-NGO Forum on the empowerment of older persons in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in September 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, adopted the proposals presented by ICSW on issues of rights, resilience, vulnerability, capacity development, and improving social services within ASEAN. As a follow-up, a national seminar on aging in the context of the Sustainable Development Agenda was organized by the National Council of Welfare and Social Development Malaysia in April 2017.

In the past decade, regional activities of ICSW-affiliated organizations in Latin America concentrated on the affordability of social protection and the feasibility of the SPF initiative, exploring the new tools and policy measures. In the wake of the highly acclaimed December 2014 forum convened in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, by ICSW in cooperation with La Dirección de Información y Defensa de los Afiliados a la Seguridad Social (DIDA) which aimed at exploring ways and means to enhance the visibility and effectiveness of social protection in Latin America, a regional meeting was convened in June–July 2015 in San Paulo, Brazil, by Serviço Social do Comércio (SESC), Centro Brasileiro de Cooperação e Intercâmbio de Serviços Sociais (CBCISS), and DIDA, highlighting the significance of social protection floor initiative in the region (

ICSW Europe is an active participant of the Social Platform—the largest platform of European NGOs working in the social sector and geared at promoting social justice, equality, and participatory democracy. Supporting effective social protection and welfare systems is one of key concerns of the members, and ICSW has a comparative advantage in building or expanding relationships with like-minded organizations. ICSW was actively involved in the task forces focused on important social and political issues like access to Services (TTIP & TISA), human rights strategy, governance, structural funds, social standards, and civil dialogue. ICSW Europe works closely with the group of civil society organizations affiliated to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (France) in the field of social, economic and cultural rights. Apart from that, the ICSW Europe takes part in the pertinent activities of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna (Austria).

ENSACT, the European Network for Social Action, is a network created through cooperation of ICSW Europe, the European Association of Schools of Social Work (EASSW), Formation d’ EducateursSociauxEuropéens/European Social Educator Training (FESET), Federation Internationale des CommunautésEducatives (FICE), International Association of Social Educators (AIEJI), the International Federation of Social Workers European Association (IFSW), PowerUs, Service Users in Social Work Learning Partnership, and Social Work and Health Inequalities Network (SWHIN).

ENSACT seeks to achieve professional quality and to voice the concerns of professional service providers and social professionals. ENSACT hosts the European Observatory which aims at monitoring, reporting and disseminating the contributions of social work and social development in building a “society for all.” The European Observatory is part of the Global Agenda Observatory.

In recent years, ICSW Europe has convened seminars to explore the situation of the working poor—people who have been pushed into the lower end of the job market. Their plight represents a growing concern in countries at all levels of development, including economies in transition and developed-market economies. As migration became a hot political issue with socioeconomic consequences, ICSW organized an international seminar in April 2015 on the topic “Migrants and Social Protection Floors. Facilities and Obstacles to Access to Different Welfare State Services in Time of Crisis,” which charted ways that ILO Recommendation 202 could be applied to migrants in European countries.

Other expert workshops include “Social Investments,” organized in Helsinki in June 2015, in cooperation with the Finnish member. The seminar was conceived as a follow-up to the previous seminar in Madrid and also covered the preparations of the European Observatory. It was attended by speakers representing the European Social Platform, IFSW, and other organizations. “Social Protection Floors as Investment in Central and Eastern Europe,” held in October 2015 in Tbilisi, Georgia, was jointly organized by members from Georgia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. “Minimum Income Schemes—Development, Challenges, and Consequences: A Comparative Perspective,” in Basel, Switzerland in November 2015, was organized by German-speaking members from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. The conference “Human Rights, Social Protection Floors, and Citizenship” was organized by Danish members in Copenhagen in December 2015. The international conference “Human Well-Being, Social Cohesion, and Sustainable Development: The Quest for the Responses to Contemporary Challenges” was convened by ICSW Europe in May 2017 in Moscow, Russia. Focused on the role of civil society in addressing climate change and implementing anti-poverty efforts, the participants also discussed issues of economic and social vulnerability, gaps in social protection coverage in Europe, gender issues, youth, aging and intergenerational concerns.

In the African region, ICSW activities focused on capacity-building, promoting partnerships, and addressing resource mobilization. One of the most innovative projects in the context of promoting North-South partnerships was a joint project between the Tanzanian Council for Social Development (TACOSODE) and the Finnish Federation for Social Welfare and Health (STKL, recently renamed SOSTE), which aimed at regional capacity-building programs to strengthen national councils to be effective advocates for social development and poverty reduction.

The ICSW training program to strength national councils is an integral part of its ongoing work, representing a combination of bottom-up and top down efforts. Apart from capacity development, training sessions organized by ICSW provide opportunities to strengthen existing links with the academic community and to build new knowledge-based networks.


ICSW’s monthly publication, Global Cooperation Newsletter, published in English, French, and Spanish, informs ICSW members and readers in general about important developments in the socioeconomic field, as well as most interesting activities taking place within the organization and beyond. It presents the views of prominent scholars and practitioners. Regional committees bring out Regional Cooperation Newsletters, which highlighting the subjects specific to their particular region.

The Global Cooperation Digest, published by the ICSW in English, reflects a commitment on the part of the organization to social justice, knowledge-building, participation, and empowerment. It captures the essence of the ICSW monthly newsletters in a succinct, user-friendly digest form, so that readers and supporters can use the published material with greater ease. The work presented in this volume is a summary of the feature articles, observations, comments, and other information derived from the 12 issues of the Global Cooperation Newsletter. The materials represent a rich mix of academic and practice inputs regarding contemporary social policies and practices around the world.


As the ICSW looks back over its rich and proud history, the organization recognizes not only its achievements, but also the multiple challenges that it is still facing. The number of NGOs dealing with social development issues has mushroomed during the last 20 years. For the ICSW, retaining its influence and finding a niche in the new international environment require much professionalism and dedication, as well as a constant quest for meaningful, innovative, and cost-effective policies.

ICSW strives to enhance its profile as an organization of top-notch professionals in the social policy field, working at the forefront of conceptual thinking, advocacy, and training. Technical assistance projects have been added to its portfolio recently. Creating a quality space for discussion on the most acute and highly relevant policy issues in every region where ICSW works, as well as at the global level, is seen as one of the organization’s top priorities. In this light, the ICSW’s regional and global publications play a most important role, serving as an organizing and binding medium for members and a platform to inform members of ongoing activities and best practices. With the further development of information technology, the updating of the regional and global websites has become equally important, as it is complimentary with the dissemination of the newsletters that ICSW publishes. And last but not least, ICSW is eager to constantly recalibrate the tools used in its work, particularly regarding monitoring the impact of organizational activities and ensuring its financial sustainability. ICSW sees itself as connector, convener, and knowledge broker, tying together issues and regions and mobilizing partners toward shared priorities that will shape progressive social and economic policies across the global village.


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