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date: 03 December 2022

International Aid, Relief, and Humanitarian Assistancefree

International Aid, Relief, and Humanitarian Assistancefree

  • Carmen Monico, Carmen MonicoHuman Service Studies, Elon 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 research 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 non-governmental (NGO) 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). It is also important to distinguish that foreign aid is referred more specifically to the official assistance of a government to a foreign country and includes aid practices among bilateral, multilateral, and United Nations (U.N.) 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 socio-economic 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 the 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 environment forces to include natural disasters (Beasley, Kaarbo, Lantis, & Snarr, 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 over 80 years ago when concerns were addressed in the 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 (ICSAW), and the International Consortium for Social Development (ICSD) (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 intervention (Gamble & Weil, 2009; Healy & Link; IFSW & IASSW, 2004; 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). 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). Of the latter, micro practice is particularity 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).

Each of these areas of social work practice is applied here, with an emphasis on macro practice; relevant international conventions, guidance, and international private law are also presented. The role of social workers and examples of social work contributions to the practice of humanitarian assistance are provided, emphasizing the public and private organizations typically involved in these forms of global social work practice. Further emphasized are child protection issues and strategies, especially working with orphaned and vulnerable children, given social work’s age old commitment to this practice area (Bailey, 2009). First, we frame the practices in theory, then move 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 (a) human rights perspectives, (b) ecological, (c) feminist, and (d) cultural theories.

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 based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and the rights that follow from this” (IFSW/IASSW, 2004, Paragraph 4.1). 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 under-served 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 to include a series of international agreements and international private law for guidance. Below 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 convention, 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 the implementing the 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. The other 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 contain notions about the use of force, fraud, and coercion. Lastly, it 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 U.N. 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. Prevention approaches are being executed to avoid a child even being placed into an impersonal institution and rather family-based care is the preferred alternative care strategy. The article will speak to this area of social work engagement.

Also relevant to humanitarian assistance and particularly global social work practice is The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, 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, this convention was enacted to address growing allegations of abduction, sale, and trafficking of children around the world, and 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). By enacting The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the Hague Conference on Private International Law (HCCH) responded more firmly to the increase in intercountry adoptions since World War II and during the Vietnam War. The growing problems of illicit and unethical intercountry adoption practices are addressed in the Convention as a way to bridge differences between legal systems across borders and to ultimately synchronize laws developed to control this form of human trafficking (HCCH, 1993b; 2008).

Intercountry adoption is specifically raised here to underscore that the practice is often presented as a humanitarian aid approach due to the notion of “child rescue” (Bergquist, 2009; 2012). However, in social work scholarly literature on social justice and human rights, this conception has been challenged. This is partly because of the very few children served with the many millions of orphaned and vulnerable children globally (Gibbons & Rotabi, 2012; Rotabi & Bunkers, 2011). Fundamentally, less than 0.01% of all orphaned and vulnerable children benefit from intercountry adoption and this fact, overlaid with problems of force, fraud, and coercion and a market-drive system, call the practice into question as a viable and sustainable social intervention (Bartholet & Smolin, 2012; Gibbons & Rotabi, 2012; Young, 2012). As authors, we submit that coupling intercountry adoption with humanitarian assistance, as defined here, is a mistake often made by social workers who present the practice as a humanitarian solution (Engel, Phillips, & Della Cava, 2010; Young, 2012). The framing of intercountry adoption as an act of humanitarian assistance, in the general society, is most often promoted by social workers and others who are employed by adoption agencies rather than development organizations. Of course, this point is contentious for some and it has been debated given the need to serve children languishing in institutional care (Bartholet & Smolin, 2012). And, as authors we do agree that children and families who benefit from ethical intercountry adoptions experience a profound impact on their well-being. However, humanitarian assistance in the “child rescue” discourse does not include 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 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 key strategies for accomplishing the Goal 17, to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.” Multi-stakeholder partnerships, as well as establishing data collection capacity, monitoring progress, and holding governments accountable are considered essential for addressing systemic issues, such as those considered in the other 16 SDGs. These are aimed 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, more sustainable uses of resources, such as water, energy, and the wide range of terrestrial ecosystems, promoting more sustainable consumption, production, combating climate change, and engaging in more equal growth among countries (United Nations).

Although the SDGs are in early implementation, criticisms of the MDGs continue to be valid for the SDGs. 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. Additionally, Hudson and Mosley (2008) noted that poor countries have accepted foreign aid to finance poverty reduction and other development efforts producing highly unstable economics given the unstable expenditures and disbursements generated by the volatile influx of aid. In fact, recipient countries continue to assume a low profile in aid allocation decisions undermining the humanitarian aid impact (Harrigan & Wang, 2011).

Emerging perspectives on the new development goals—from social work researchers, educators, and practitioners—deserve our attention. Soon after the enactment of the SDGs, William Easterly (Foreign Policy, 2015) was quick to criticize the new goals as “senseless,” “dreamy” and “garbled,” driven by “idealistic advocacy.” That foreign aid expert argued for the continuation of humanitarian assistance that is making a difference in development terms, even if not delivering the deep transformation called for in the SDGs. The Economist (2015) characterized the new goals as “worse than useless” for steering policy in the direction of enabling improved development conditions among low-income countries. Researchers at The Heritage Foundation (2014) criticized the language used in the SDGs because it “implicitly endorses a top-down, input-driven development strategy that has not been successful historically.” Even Pope Francis warned about this global platform as a “bureaucratic exercise of drawing up long lists of good proposals” (The Washington Post, 2015). An academic expert featured in E-International Relations (2016) viewed the new platform as a move from the human development approach that characterized the MDGs to a sustainable development perspective inherent in the SDGs. Concerns raised include: the SDG complexity of the promises raised internationally, the level of commitment by individual nations to global equality, and the countries’ and donors’ capacity to implement the action plans universally and in a transformative manner. All these criticisms and concerns point to the many challenges faced by the international community as well as governments, civil society, and business partners in embracing and implementing the SDGs in the coming years (E-International Relations, 2016)

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.

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 like a flood 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 and issues like farming on flood lands and/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 crisis, the problems of hunger, particularly food insecurity, and social problems become acute. In emergency situations requiring humanitarian action, violence against children take “sinister” forms (UNICEF, 2019). The case studies presented below exemplify a practical application of the theory.

Vulnerability Assessments and Community Planning: The Guatemala and Zimbabwe Example

Guatemala illustrates the complexity of the social and natural systems—ecology—of the human and community experience in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. A 5-year evaluation of the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (Berry-Koch, 2011) indicated that 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. The same report documented that drought, storms, and floods directly affected about 4 million people in Guatemala from 1995 to 1999, producing widespread food insecurity and great hardship among the poorest. For example, in 2008, mud slides affected 1.3 million people, displacing 37,142 people and affecting 80% of rice and beans crops in 4 regions of Guatemala (Berry-Koch, 2011). As a result of heavy rains during the hurricane season, sometimes entire villages were lost as a result of mudslides because hillsides collapsed onto communities. Even when communities are not swept away, crops are often lost. An ecological analysis of this problem would include the environmental conditions as well as the social and economic context, which lead Guatemalan peoples to live in such unstable and unsustainable geographic areas.

Although environmental factors ignite the impact of these natural disasters, a deeper analysis indicates other social ecological factors related to the precarious living conditions of poor Guatemalans. Further, an assessment of informal and illegal human settlements, often on steep hillsides in Guatemala City, point to insufficient economic resources, low-paid jobs, lack of land-tenure, poor urban planning, low quality housing, clogging drains, and poor waste disposal as key factors creating a greater impact of natural disasters (Miles, Green, & Svekla, 2012). The authors confirm that in Guatemala “disaster risk is a function of the intersection of hazards and vulnerability” (p. 369).

A World Bank (2013) report about disaster risks found Guatemala ranking fifth among 33 countries with high economic risk for hazards (3 or more). Vulnerability factors include insufficient urban planning, rapid population growth, and poor infrastructure, making Guatemala more prone to higher human costs and negative productivity related to the disasters. A 2015 World Bank Systematic Country Diagnosis confirms that Guatemala is one of the top 10 countries with greater vulnerability worldwide due to its extreme climate changes and geophysical hazards, particularly due to “deforestation, urbanization, and water contamination [which] will be critical for Guatemala’s [future] development“ (World Bank, 2015, p. 132).

When factoring in poverty and centuries of oppression of the Mayan indigenous peoples who live in at-risk villages, it is important to recognize that these communities are often situated on land that many would consider uninhabitable and inadequate for food production. Historically, Mayan Indians have been forced off of the best land in the Guatemala, most notably during that country’s civil war (1966–1996) and genocide of indigenous peoples (Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, 1999). Indigenous peoples often build homes in mountainside areas because they do not have access to the best and most secure farming areas because of inequality and the losses of land during conflict.

These 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). As this Guatemalan example illustrates, 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) 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 above have found to be ineffective and agency performance to be poor; these constitute major concerns in humanitarian assistance practices.

It is helpful to consider these consequences at the community level in those countries most impacted by inefficient use of foreign aid. Zimbabwe is a country with great instability in the post-colonial era with conflict over land usage, political problems, and natural disaster, leading to extreme poverty (Owens, 2004; Rodon, Maria Serrano, & Gimenez, 2012). When considering the impact of and methods of humanitarian assistance in Zimbabwe, Owens (2004) reported on the use of participatory appraisals and related approaches to measure community perceptions of foreign aid. Wealth ranking and semi-structured focus groups, among other methods, were used in 37 villages in Zimbabwe to identify perceptions of foreign aid and its role on reducing poverty. Confirmed was the preference of aid for the development of physical and human capital in both drought and non-drought years (Owens). Another study, also in Zimbabwe (Rodon et al., 2012), focused on the management of conflicts between NGO providers of humanitarian assistance and villagers, considering three dimensions of culture—for example, systems of meaning, norms of behaviors, and power relations. This study concluded that an NGO “reflexively monitored its actions and consequences, creating a basis for adaptation and change in its practices” (p. 366). In other words, communities prefer humanitarian assistance when it is sustained, and the aid delivered over time rather than just in times of crisis. Furthermore, communities must be involved in the development of the interventions, and the related activities must be monitored closely to measure their effectiveness in achieving the goals of sustainability.

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” (Association for Women’s Rights in Development, pp. 2, 5). 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.

Turning back to Guatemala as a case example, the country is one of the most violent in the Western Hemisphere. 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). It is 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 under-development 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).

Civil society reform initiatives in Guatemala challenge 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, like training of police (American Bar Association, n.d.). In Guatemala, Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation) is an example of a local NGO 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). In 2016 alone, this nonprofit organization handled 2,264 new cases related to violence against women and children and assisted an additional 1,033 persons with related concerns, such as labor, land and heritage issues, and provided a total of 11,747 follow-up services (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2016). Focus 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 capture 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, Bromfield, Lee & Sarhan, 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. Much of this work is carried out by the United Nations Humanitarian Crisis Relief (UNHCR) organization as well as Jordanian NGOs that are actively engaged in resettlement efforts (McKirdy, 2016).

From a macro-orientation, social workers have also been involved in policy advocacy, persuading policy makers 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 et al., 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 (for example see, Balsari, Lemery, Williams, & Nelson, 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 twelve or thirteen 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 above 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.

UNICEF and OXFAM: Humanitarian Assistance Organizations

After the Second World War, the need to respond to orphaned and vulnerable children was such that the United Nations Children’s Fund was founded in December 1946. UNICEF later became a permanent part of the United Nation’s system, and today 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 as well as to determine humanitarian aid and development targets and with strategic plans relevant to the local social problems (UNICEF, n.d.).

The UNICEF office in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti exists within that country as an international organization with direct collaboration with the Haitian government to meet priority child rights and development goals. Programming work is developed with guidance from regional offices and the from New York U.N. 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 towards 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 is 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.). While the country has more than adequate financial resourcing to fund their projects and programs, 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. For example, in the fall of 2012, mapping of child protection systems commenced with actors from both the government and NGO sectors to identify assets and opportunities for improvement (Nereim, 2012). From there, strategic planning for systems of care development was improved upon, and a national child abuse and neglect law came into force in 2016 (Sloan, Bromfield, Matthews & Rotabi, 2017).

A variety of initiatives have been coming together to respond to the unique social ecology of the UAE and its current development needs that includes 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 level (Al Bahar, 2011), and beginning in 2013, a master level program has been developed. This degree program builds upon a long standing Bachelor of Social Work program and has graduated thousands of students over the past two decades (Sloan et al., 2017). Also, workforce training initiatives have been taking place in parallel to all of these developments. As a result, the UAE is well poised to implement their child protection legislation and emergent policies when they begin to implement and truly enforce that child protection responders must have social work degrees and training.

Oxfam was founded in 1942, as a result of world hunger during war, and today its focus is global poverty (Oxfam, n.d.). It is a confederation of 19 independent charity organizations in England with roots in Oxford. The organization is known for charity shops in the United Kingdom where second hand clothing and other items are sold, and this is just one local fundraising initiative developed by the founders of the organization. The charity shops are just one of the ways in which this large organization generates funds to disburse for projects around the world. Today the organization, like UNICEF, is based on a rights-based approach to development, identifying the right to sustainable livelihood, the right to social services, the right to life and security, the right to be heard, and the right to an identity (Oxfam, n.d.). For many years, the organization experienced a reputation that enabled it to disburse significant development funds to projects around the world to include large-scale disaster response. Now, 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).

The 2010 earthquake in Haiti was an event in which countless aid organizations engaged in the immediate response (crisis aid) and long-term planning and development for housing, healthcare, social service, and educational systems (Balsari et al., 2010). As aid workers arrived from around the world in crisis response and millions of dollars were expended to meet the needs of the people of Haiti, it became clear that there were significant problems in administering aid without serious and persistent issues related to corruption. Oxfam, like other humanitarian aid organizations put financial safeguards in place along with other policy and procedure to guide their practice. One area that they underestimated was safeguarding vulnerable people in Haiti; that is, ensuring that their aid own workers were not sexually exploiting vulnerable people (Oxfam, 2011).

In 2017–2018, the media began reporting Oxfam and other humanitarian aid worker’s illicit behaviors on the ground in the days and months following the massive earthquake. In this trauma context, it has now been acknowledged that aid workers were acting with impunity and purchasing sex as well as mis-using resources to access pornography in an environment of sexual harassment and bullying (Oxfam, 2011). For Oxfam, the problem was so significant that the organization’s future has been questioned and their base of donations for future work is most certainly threatened. The organization must reconcile how it was, at the very least, complicit in the violation of human rights and work towards becoming an organization that truly honors and earnestly works to not only promote human rights, but also prevent rights abuses (Oxfam, 2011)

For the profession of social work this example of illicit behaviors on the part of humanitarian aid workers is obviously counter to our professional obligation to protect the vulnerable and do no harm. Professionally, sexual assault and exploitation has been an area in which the profession has championed the development of response systems, taking a leadership role in forensic social work. The Haiti case is a reminder that, for the most part aid workers are not trained social workers; rather they are individuals trained in a range of development activities such as physical infrastructure rebuilding, to include engineering to respond to critical functions for clean water and other basic structural needs post-disaster. The behavior of aid workers in the context of crisis raises concerns regarding the lax ethical standards at the institutional level, and the lack of proper personnel training for the prevention of exploitation in the context of disaster. Social workers as capacity builders are challenged in low resource settings.

Social Work Projects as Capacity Building Models: Guatemala, Afghanistan, 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 Afghanistan as a completely different social environment, with many of the same problems due to the shared nature of post-conflict social problems.

In Guatemala, social workers and allied health professionals, both in the government and NGO organizational sectors, have been the focus of capacity building for child protection and alternative care of children (University Rafael Landivar, 2010; University Rafael Landivar & UNICEF, 2010). For example, in 2012, training in family group conferencing (FGC) was provided to a group of social workers and psychologists as an intervention to decrease the institutionalization of children and increase family supports for families (Burford, Pennell, & MacLeod, 1995; Rotabi, Pennell, Roby, & Bunkers, 2012). FGC is a small group intervention, which brings together the family and kin group of a person in need to help find a solution to problems; a care plan is developed by the group with collective agreements made (Pennell & Anderson, 2005). Simply, the family and kin group of a child who is orphaned or vulnerable can meet with the goal to identify alternative care for the child instead of using an institution or “orphanage” to meet the basic needs of the child. This approach is based on the fact that family and kinship care of children is the best and most natural way to intervene when a child needs alternative care. Because this intervention is particularly effective in situations of family violence, it is particularly relevant for the protection of children given the endemic levels of violence in the country (Pennell & Burford, 2000).

The technical training in FGC allowed for social workers and psychologists to become familiar with FGC and the basic methods. At this time, these professionals began to identify how the intervention may be used with Guatemalan families. Training participants quickly identified that FGC as an intervention was consistent with the values and practices of communities in the country, especially Mayan Indian groups. In the time since the training, pilot testing of FGC has begun with reported success (Roby, Pennell, Rotabi, Bunkers, & Ucles, 2014). This is one example of capacity building, with a focus on social work intervention. A variety of actors came together to deliver this training opportunity, including US-based social work academics, Guatemala-based social work academics, local social workers, and UNICEF (Rotabi, Mandayam, Manohran, & Mehendale, 2018). There are countless 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, Diaz, & Dasgupta, 2011).

Turn now to Afghanistan, another example of capacity building for child protection in an entirely different region of the world; a country with different religious practices, culture, and social forces. The children of Afghanistan are at high risk are exposed to physical and psychological vulnerability due to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, depending on their “age, ethnicity, religion, gender and socio-economic status. . . further exacerbated by poverty, insecurity, conflict and natural disasters, in addition to the low capacity and knowledge of immediate care givers and duty bearers” (Sayara Research, 2017, p. 7). This war-torn country is recognized to have some of the most profound social problems in the region, and social work has been identified as a profession for which capacity building is important, with an emphasis on child protection (Rotabi, 2012).

In 2003, the government of Afghanistan began to prioritize child protection at the community level through the Child Protection Action Networks (CPANs), which are supported with technical assistance by UNICEF and other NGOs like Save the Children. Progress has been made, and as of November 2017, CPANs were reported to function in 100 districts in 33 provinces in Afghanistan (Sayara Research, 2017). CPANs reinforce the role of both family and community in protecting children through case management committees responsible for the systematic child protection planning with evidence that the cases have been monitored and followed, and included planned exit strategies (Sayara Research, 2017). Private and public partnerships have been developed as well as formal training programs for social workers on child protection, and the establishment of juvenile justice programs emphasizing rehabilitation of children in conflict (UNICEF, 2011). However, key challenges remain: insecurity that makes it difficult the access to villages, lack of training among specialized professionals, and cultural barriers undermining the human rights of children and women; in addition, there is not enough evidence to assess properly the effectiveness of CPAN in supporting children at risk (UNICEF, 2011, Sayara Research, 2017).

The “Orphans Reunification Project,” which was instituted in 2006 as a pilot program in Afghanistan. It aimed at the child and family reunification of approximately 400 children residing in two government residential care institutions over a 1-year period (Kang, 2008). A small team of social workers identified children appropriate for family reintegration. These social workers then acted as case managers focused on child de-institutionalization and family support. Social workers were trained in the requisite skills, and while the project enjoyed success, process evaluation research indicated that the work was difficult to systematize given a variety of barriers. Also, the timeline for change was far more protracted than the original one-year plan (Kang, 2008), potentially indicating a limitation in the initial program design. However, there were successful family-child reunifications, and this deinstitutionalization project is one of many worldwide that focus on reintegrating children back into family and community life (Williamson & Greenberg, 2010), drawing upon the Guidelines for Alternative Care of Children (United Nations, 2010). Deinstitutionalization projects continue in Afghanistan today with social workers taking more and more leadership in developing programs and services. This is made possible, in part, by a relatively recent opening of a bachelor’s program in social work there as well as an array of training initiatives being carried out today, including emergent initiatives in counseling education and training (Bragin, 2014).

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. This work, along with partner NGOs, has been providing training for all gender-oriented and child protection services, and they continue today.

These initiatives sprang from a base of education as the first Jordanian program of social work education was started in the year 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 masters of social work due to the needs 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. Critically important is the fact that 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” (Art. 19, United Nations, 1989). To meet this end, it is essential to build capacity of the social services workforce, including not only program and intervention development in Guatemala and Afghanistan, but also the development of social work education and training as has been 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 currently strengthening social work as a profession, with significant assistance from the development sector, include new initiatives in countries like Somalia and Cambodia, and ongoing work in India (Rotabi et al., 2018).


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). We have presented a snap shot 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, most 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 in conflict and post-conflict reconstruction (Cox & Pawar, 2012) Whether it be relief during crisis or more sustained strategies for change, social workers have contributed to humanitarian assistance efforts that make a difference in the lives of millions of people around the world. However, 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), indicating opportunities for growth and further development of the practice.

The examples provided have focused specifically on 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 such as those in the Arab Gulf. This assertion recognizes that, while the national and international associations of social workers mentioned here have identified global social work and humanitarian assistance as priority areas, far more must be accomplished as related to capacity building among humanitarian assistance organizations so that the principles and practice strategies of social work are institutionalized. This is necessary for greater social, economic, and environmental impact to protect vulnerable populations, particularly those living in conditions of extreme poverty.