Cross Border Collaboration in International Social Work


International collaborations in social work and social development have increased significantly all over the world. This is due to an increased number of global issues such as natural disasters, environmental concerns and armed conflicts that have taken prominence in the civil life of many states.

Collaboration framework has been a necessary paradigm for advancing information technologies and solving global problems. For example, international collaboration has accelerated the use of environmentally sound and cost-competitive bio-energy on a sustainable basis. A number of social enterprises working towards social change and development have developed as a result of collaboration of NGOS with businesses.

In 2005, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and Commonwealth Organization for Social Work (COSW) launched a special project to support the recovery program from the Indian Ocean disaster of December 2004. The plans were to develop, in consultation with social work organizations and governments in the countries most affected and with other NGOs and projects which assist families, children and vulnerable people attributed to the earthquake and tsunami (Rowlands & Tan, 2004).

Families and Survivors of Tsunami Project (FAST), as an international social work project, was supported in principle, and collaborates with international and national organizations such as COSW, Singapore International Foundation, AASW, JASW, JAPSW, NASW, SLAPSW, Indonesian Association of Professional Social Workers (IPSPI), as well as other schools of social work, etc, as a professional response to the crisis (Rowlands & Tan, 2004). Principles for cross national social work such as active engagement and partnership are evident in the FAST project and can be applied to other cross border collaboration projects.

Domain of Collaboration in Social Work

Multidisciplinary Perspective of Collaboration

Collaboration may be defined as: 'working together with one or more in order to achieve a common goal,' or joint-work on an activity or project (Oxford, 2007). The study of collaboration belongs not only to the sociological, psychological, economic and political field, but the domain of social work as well.

Theory of Collaboration in Social Work

Theory provides a framework for understanding human behavior and relationships. Collaboration is a specific interpersonal or interagency experience and calls on a “body of knowledge on which the parties develop collaborative ‘software’. Collaboration may also be viewed as a process of aligning a person, group or organizational interest and resources with one or more parties. It is the nature of social work to direct purposeful social change.

Collaborative approach is not new to social work. As in social work processes, the nature of the collaborative effort depends on not just the parties but also on the complex interface with the social physical environment. Social workers serve clients by collaborating with them. First, we need to know the clients, their context and problems, then to work with them at problem solving. In the international social work context it depends on just on the geographical boundaries but also the social cultural as well as economic situations.

Values in Collaboration

The core values and ethics of social work necessitate social work collaboration with clients. The values are that of respect and cooperation. Our ethical responsibility, not only to clients but also to colleagues demands a respectful, consultative and collaborative approach. In the international realm, local, national and international organizations interact in a way as peers working towards common goals for human betterment.

Collaboration in social work is thus an equal partnership between two or more parties based on mutual goals and interests and professional values and ethics. Participation is the key to successful collaboration. Collaboration is thus empowering and builds capacity, as decisions are made jointly and resources shared.

International Social Work Intervention and Collaboration

Social workers can intervene at various levels including the family, community and policy levels. Intervention and consultation are guided by the values and code of ethics of social work as well as by community recovery principles derived from research on the global experience such as that of disaster management.

A number of national associations and social work colleagues around the world pledged support for the FAST project. Funds raised and the primary idea was that small amount of funding were provided as seed money to pilot innovative programs, allow them to operate for a limited period and in that time seek ongoing funding from major donors after demonstrating efficacy. FAST project submissions were preferred to be under the auspice of a Social Work National Association from within the affected tsunami area. Favored projects were those where FAST seed-funds could act as catalyst in the development of long-term and sustained capacity-building. The FAST project was successfully concluded and reported at the 2007 Asia Pacific Social Work Conference in K.L. Malaysia.

Problems and Challenges in Collaboration

The problems and challenges in the collaborative intervention highlighted through the FAST Project. These include information exchanges, goal setting and monitoring of progress.

Since the project spans 4 countries, it is anticipated that there would be difficulties in communication. There were initial phone-calls to discuss the projects and follow up by emails. Non response to email and lack of timeliness in project updates can be frustrating and a concern. The development of trust and respect are called for in such situations.

The key to successful cross national intervention is the determination and adoption of appropriate goals. Accurate assessment is necessary in order to set legitimate and measurable goals. Long distant collaboration makes assessment and goal development a difficult task. Again reliance on information provided by local counterparts and questions focusing on measurable targets provide guidelines for realistic goal adoption.

Finally, the evaluation of international projects relies often on local reports. Collaboration requires monitoring of progress and regular updates. A visit to the site would also be useful in understanding the context and gathering evidence of progress and goal fulfillment.

Principles for International Social Work Collaboration

There are a few guidelines in terms of principles of collaboration. Collaboration, theoretically, should enrich both parties. It is vital for effective working together if both parties have interests which are mutually reinforcing. Further, there should be equal partnership in the exchange as well as opportunity for international service.

Collaboration should be active and developmental approach that benefits both parties as well as contributes to the global community. When there are tangible benefits there is also greater motivation for working together. Principles for international social work collaboration include capacity building, consultation, empowerment, networking and catalytic effect.

Proposed Framework for Cross Border Social Work

International social work collaboration is the domain of international organizations such as IFSW, IASSW and COSW. Rather than having individual organizations or the national associations set up an international social work entity, or a separate international organization (like Doctors Without Border) it is proposed that international social work organizations work together and set up a taskforce for cross border social work.

A convening task force, comprising of representatives from IFSW, IASSW and COSW, is proposed. Another 2 to 3 members, interested and experienced in cross-border social work (such as President of Social Workers without Border in HK) may be co-opted.


Rowlands, A. & Tan, N.T. Social Re-development following the Indian Ocean Tsunami - An international Social Work response through the FAST Project, Social Development Issues. Fall 2007.

Oxford. Oxford Dictionary, Oxford Press, 2007.

Paper Submitted by:

Dr Ngoh Tiong Tan

Professor of Social Work, SIM University, Singapore; Board, Commonwealth Organization for Social Work; Chair, FAST Project; Past Regional President, IFSW Asia Pacific