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date: 29 January 2020

International Aid, Relief, and Humanitarian Assistance

Abstract and Keywords

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 (1) human rights perspectives, and (2) 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 and post-conflict community practice in Afghanistan. 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.

Keywords: humanitarian aid, international development, international social work, macro and micro practice, capacity building

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 longterm (Bess & Link, 2011; Estes, 1993; Fink & Redaelli, 2011). Fundamentally, humanitarian assistance is a general term and 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).

Development assistance and humanitarian aid 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) defines international social work “as international professional action and the capacity for international action by the social work profession and its members” (p. 7). 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 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, 2007; Midgley, 1999).

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). The IFSW in particular 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, 2007; Reichert, 2003; 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 social work of practice are applied here, with an emphasis on macro practice, and 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 and then move to applied examples, focused on problems and projects that are particularly relevant to the theories presented and global social work practice in general.

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 (1) human rights perspectives and (2) ecological, feminist, and (3) 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 International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) and the International Federation of Social Workers (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” (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, 2007; Reichert, 2003; 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—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 a major international initiative, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were 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, 2003) are defining international agreements. Both the UDR and the CRC defined a set of rights for all people, particularly children (Reichert), 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 not to move children from one country to another for alternative care “except temporarily for compelling health, medical or safety reasons” (United Nations, 2010, p. 22).

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 the 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 one percent 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 this discourse does not include intercountry adoption as a practice area.

International development goals.

Turning from international private law, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were agreed upon in 2000 by 189 countries and exemplify core priority development areas for most countries in the world with a target date, a deadline, of 2015 (United Nations, 2013). The goals adopted are:

  1. 1. Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger,

  2. 2. Achieving universal primary education,

  3. 3. Promoting gender equality and empowering women,

  4. 4. Reducing child mortality rates,

  5. 5. Improving maternal health,

  6. 6. Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases,

  7. 7. Ensuring environmental sustainability, and

  8. 8. Developing a global partnership for development (United Nations, 2013).

MDGs are target outcomes that involve signatory governments, U.N. partner organizations, as well as NGOs and civil society organizations around the world, and emphasize the most impoverished and vulnerable peoples—women and children (Khan, 2009). U.N. funding for humanitarian assistance is anchored to these goals and this international body reports significant progress, such as “halving the number of people living in extreme poverty and the proportion of people without sustainable access to improved sources of drinking water. The proportion of urban slum dwellers declined significantly. Remarkable gains have been made in the fight against malaria and tuberculosis. There have been visible improvements in all health areas as well as primary education” (United Nations, 2013, p. 3).

However, 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) point out that poor countries have accepted foreign aid to finance poverty reduction and other development efforts producing highly volatile economics given the unstable expenditures and disbursements generated by the volatile influx of aid. Without regard if the MDGs are achieved or not by 2015, the authors conclude that “These problems may get worse if, as has been advocated, aid to Africa and other poorer countries is doubled over the next five years in an attempt to reach the Millennium Development Goals” (p. 2083). Furthermore, if recipient countries do not assume a high profile in aid allocation decisions, “it is likely that the impact of [humanitarian] aid in promoting growth and development will be reduced” (Harrigan & Wang, 2011, p. 1281).

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, 2008). 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 which lead to social injustice and ultimately the need for humanitarian assistance on a global scale.

For example, 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 both related to weather patterns as well as other infrastructure issues such as the community’s water management systems (for example, civil engineering) and other issues like farming on flood lands and/or in areas of deforestation. All of these factors come together, in an interactive manner, and the emergent property is a community disaster. During disaster crisis, problems of hunger (food insecurity) and other social problems—which were already present in the community or were created by the disaster itself—often become acute including family and societal violence.

Floods and Landslides in Guatemala: A Case Example

As a case example Guatemala is provided to illustrate 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 have 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). In other words, as a result of heavy rains during the hurricane season, sometimes entire villages have been lost as a result of mudslides because hillsides collapse 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 the 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).

These findings are reinforced by a 2013 World Bank study of disaster risks in which Guatemala was found ranking fifth among 33 countries with high economic risk for hazards (3 or more). Besides geological hazards and the environmental factors mentioned earlier, other vulnerability factors include increased urbanization and insufficient planning, rapid population growth, and poor infrastructure, making Guatemala more prone to higher human costs and negative productivity related to the disasters (World Bank, 2013).

When factoring in poverty and centuries of oppression of the Mayan Indians 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). Often indigenous peoples built homes in mountainside areas because they do not have access to the best and most secure farming areas as a result of inequality and the losses of land during conflict.

All of 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 strategies of empowerment and sustainable solutions for the long-term development of communities are 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 was discussed previously in our overview of the MDGs (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) reports 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.), focused on the management of conflicts between NGO providers of humanitarian assistance and the villagers, considering three dimensions of culture, for example, systems of meaning, norms of behaviors, and power relations. This study concluded that NGOs “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 have to be involved in the development of the interventions, and the related activities must be monitored closely in order to measure their effectiveness.

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). On one hand, this analytical approach “exposes the ways that different systems, such as patriarchy, racism and economic advantage, create and perpetuate layers of inequality. In these systems, women are marginalized because they are women but also because they are members of an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority or as a result of multiple identities” (Central American Women’s Network, 2010, p. 1). 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, 2008). Muñoz Cabrera (2010) has 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 die a day in the country 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 and this creates 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. There are approaches to change in Guatemala and elsewhere to address immediate problems of violence and long-term development, often based on community practice strategies that are common in social work (Gamble & Weil, 2009).

For example, in Guatemala there has been a concerted effort to promote women in development projects; empowerment models that typically focus on economic opportunity such as small business enterprise (Rights Action, n.d.). There are also civil society reform initiatives—focused on the larger systems of inequality and impunity—which are institutional in approach and typically focused on professional development (for example, training of lawyers and judges) as well community-based strategies like training of police (American Bar Association, n.d.).

Advocacy and service organizations, such as Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivor’s Foundation), are dedicated to providing services to women and families who are victims of gender violence.

The Survivor’s Foundation: Breaking the Silence of Violence Against Women in Guatemala

The Fundación Sobrevivientes (2009) is committed to “break the silence” about the violation of women’s rights in Guatemala. In 2011 alone, 43,000 cases of violence against women were reported within the judicial system; of those 4,089 experienced sexual violence, 710 were killed as a result of the reported violence, and 13 of the cases of feminicide involved the dismembering of their body parts (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2011). The Survivor’s Foundation provides legal representation services and psychosocial support to women whose rights have been violated while achieving supportive services to those who decide to confront the violence they suffered, start a new life plan, and fight for an end to corruption and impunity (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2011). In 2011 alone, this NGO, nonprofit organization provided services to 3,008 persons, most of them women, adolescents and children, including some men who obtained counseling services (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2011).

The Survivor’s Foundation is an example of a local NGO that receives funding from a variety of sources to include private donations and humanitarian assistance organizations. It exemplifies both micro and macro approaches to change with a strong human services component. The organization is one of many highly respected and effective NGOs in Guatemala with employees ranging from social workers and psychologists to lawyers who provide services at the office and shelters the organization manages (Fundación Sobrevivientes, 2011). A range of services include home and school visits, legal representation and “accompaniment” to legal processes in the Guatemalan courts, and the development of special outreach and media campaigns to address family and societal violence and ultimately confront the pervasive institutional impunity prevailing in Guatemala. Survivor’s Foundation is offered as an example of an NGO actively carrying out social work services, funded in part by humanitarian assistance organizations. Survivor’s Foundation is particularly important as an exemplar here because it underscores the fact that NGOs—typically small organizations in comparison to the large humanitarian assistance funding bodies—are known to carry out some of the most progressive human rights advocacy work and social planning. In the case of Survivor’s Foundation, this organization is effective in these macro practice areas in addition to the provision of direct social work services. Now we turn more broadly to the concept of international social work.

Role of the Social Worker in Organizations Dedicated to Humanitarian Assistance

Healy 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” (p. 13). 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, during the massive earthquake of 2010 in Haiti, some social workers in the United States raised funds to help devastated communities. This response was particularly relevant as Haiti is a small island nation within 681 miles of Miami, United States (BBC News, 2010).

Others were involved in family tracing activities, helping Haitians in the United States find their surviving families back in Haiti with communication technology; often providing grief counseling support in the case of death of loved ones. Much of this work was carried out by the American Red Cross and the Global Red Cross Network, which has reached 3.2 million people with disaster aid activities as of December, 2011, including 100,000 people who were provided with transitional homes and building materials to rebuild their homes in Haiti (American Red Cross, 2012).

From a macro-orientation, social workers were also 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 was a major concern for U.S.-based social workers (see, for example, Rotabi et al., 2010). Advocacy work on behalf of these children 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).

Of course, there were other social workers who actively responded to the disaster itself, often making assessments of the scope and scale of the catastrophe in the early days after the event (for example, Balsari, Lemery, Williams, & Nelson, 2010). Others were involved in direct services, including a wide array of social work activities and interventions on the ground in Haiti ranging from crisis counseling to public health social work, such as health education, to mitigate any further human consequences related to poor sanitation and other problems.

In sum, all of these initiatives came together as humanitarian assistance. These examples are outlined to illustrate Healy’s four areas of international social work practice and the dynamic nature of humanitarian aid response. Now, we will further illustrate the complexity of humanitarian assistance, including part of the financial foreign aid structure, as well as examples of capacity building projects that have been embarked upon by social workers in the child protection sector in countries where there is not an acute crisis related to recent and wide-scale disaster. Highlighted are the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the previously explored Convention on the Rights of the Child.

UNICEF: A Humanitarian Assistance Organization

As a result of 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 1954, UNICEF 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 and territories. Today, more than 200 country offices carry out the organization’s child rights mission in accordance with host governments. The mission is carried out in accordance with the UN CRC and is predicated on the best interests of the child principle for guidance. 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. For example, 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 both with guidance from regional offices and the New York UN office with oversight at the local level, including critical local government input in each national office.

It is a somewhat complicated power structure that must balance between the international child rights agenda as defined in the UN CRC and the needs as well as the 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.

Thus far, we have focused on impoverished nations. However, the CRC and UNICEF bring together all but two countries in the world, the United Stated and Somalia, to develop locally appropriate child protection systems. As a result even high-resource countries integrate plans as per the CRC. For example, United Arab Emirates (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. In fact, the UAE is an exceptionally generous humanitarian assistance donor country (UAE Interact, n.d.).

However, the UAE along with all Persian Gulf countries have signed the CRC and it has a clear social development plan dedicated to improving the lives of all citizens, including vulnerable peoples. 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. For example, in the fall of 2012, mapping of child protection systems commenced with actors from both the government and NGO sectors in order to identify assets and opportunities for improvement (Nereim, 2012). From there, strategic planning for systems of care development has commenced. Parallel to this process, and in tandem, is a national initiative to develop a comprehensive child protection law with an emphasis on intervention in the cases of child abuse and neglect (Nereim). All of these initiatives come together to respond to the unique social ecology of the UAE and its current development needs; all while staying within a child rights framework as per the CRC. Much of the work is focused on “capacity building”; that is, the capacity of communities to respond to child protection needs.

Social Work Projects as Capacity Building Models: Guatemala and Afghanistan 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. We again turn to a case example in Guatemala to illustrate this approach to humanitarian aid and then we consider Afghanistan as a completely different social environment with many of the same problems due to the shared nature of post-conflict social problems.

Guatemalan social workers and allied health professionals, both in the government and non-government organizational sectors, have been the focus of capacity building for child protection and the alternative care of children (University Rafael Landivar, 2010; University Rafael Landivar & UNICEF, 2010). For example in 2012, a 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 natural way to intervene when a child needs alternative care. Because this intervention is particularly effective in intervening 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, in press). 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 (Roby et al., in in press). 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).

Afghanistan is a country that we now turn to as 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 for a variety of human rights abuses ranging from child labor, early marriage for girls, child soldiering, child trafficking, landmine injuries, children in conflict with the law/juvenile justice, and being deprived of parental care (Muhmad, 2010). This war torn country is recognized to have some of the most profound social problems in the region and social workers have been identified as a professional area in 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. Local committees, called Child Protection Action Networks (CPANs), were formed and social work training commenced (CPANs, n.d.). Progress has been made and as of 2010, CPANs were reported to function in 28 of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. Supported by UNICEF with funds and technical assistance, CPANs were organized in a manner that reinforces the role of both family and community in protecting children (Muhmad, 2010). Monthly meetings are held by the CPAN at the community level, in oversight of child protection cases. Also, committees document activities for local and national use in systematic child protection planning.

CPANs and other child protection initiatives in Afghanistan emerged after a national strategy for children “at risk” identified the need to strengthen child protection systems to “guide the process of institutional transformation, reform management and new community-based services development” (Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled [MoLSAMD], 2004, p. 23). General capacity building and program development were targets with a strong emphasis on community-level care. Included was the aforementioned training that required curriculum design among other strategies for institutionalized implementation. In addition, legal and policy development were identified, as well as the need for trained staff who could engage in proposal writing for program development for humanitarian assistance fundraising. All of these areas fall under capacity building and emphasized the role and functions of social workers. Just as was the case in Guatemala, UNICEF was a critical partner with the government of Afghanistan for the development and execution of child protection programming oriented to social work capacity building.

For example, one initiative included the “Orphans Reunification Project” which was instituted in 2006, as a pilot program (Kang, 2008). The goal was the child and family reunification of approximately 400 children residing in two government residential care institutions over a 1-year period. 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), 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).


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 a key intervention role, 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 humanitarism” 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 making 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.

We specifically focused on capacity building in terms of professional development of social workers in the child protection sector. The two examples provided are a sample and they show promise for further funding to develop the profession of social work in low resource countries. Making this assertion, we recognize 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.


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