David N Jones on the role of the International Federation of Social Workers

As more people cross borders for a better life, the unique role of the International Federation of Social Workers is expanding. Natalie Valios talks to David N Jones, the man likely to be its next president

 David N Jones (pictured left) is soon to have the world of social work quite literally in his hands. He is currently senior vice president and European president of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). But, so far, he is the only contender to become the new president at the IFSW’s biennial conference at the end of the month in Munich. He’s quick to point out that it is not necessarily a foregone conclusion – new nominations could be put forward at the meeting, but this is unlikely.

The title sounds grand, but we meet on London’s Victoria Street and head for a restaurant because there is no office attached to the post. IFSW headquarters are in Switzerland and there is no such luxury for representatives from the other 80 or so member countries. Jones’s family jokes that their front room is the international office.

IFSW links professional social workers around the globe and is celebrating its 50th jubilee. Aims include promoting social work as a profession through international co-operation and action; and supporting national associations in promoting social workers’ participation in the formulation of social policies and planning, nationally and internationally.

Only one professional body in each country can be a member and in the UK this is the British Association of Social Workers. So are BASW members aware of IFSW? “I hope so,” says Jones, smiling wryly. “But I have no illusions that it is on everyone’s minds as they get up in the mornings.”

An IFSW initiative that BASW members – and other social workers in the UK – might be aware of is the European Social Work Action Day in Europe. It has taken place for the past six years in November, when up to 22 countries have synchronised organising conferences, meeting with MPs and various other activities to build an international identity for social work.

“Social work is seen as being very parochial and it is difficult for social workers to link to what is going on nationally, let alone linking it at an international level. They might think ‘what is the relevance of an international meeting to my care management decisions, my child protection visit?’.”

But Jones points out that in the past few years, up to 30 per cent of new social work entrants in England have come from overseas while UK workers are going abroad to work. “A significant number are working in central and eastern Europe and Africa through aid organisations. So we have a global workforce in a way that we didn’t 10 years ago and that is making [the work of the IFSW] more relevant.

“Also we are increasingly dealing with global issues affecting cases, such as adoption, people coming here from eastern Europe, ex-pats in Spain having health problems. So international issues are having an impact on day-to-day care management decisions.”

And it is not just practice that is affected. Debates in the UK about the structure of health and social care, commissioning, and relationships with the private and third sector are happening all round the world from China to Kenya, the US to Latin America, he says.

“If the social work profession wants to influence these decisions we have to engage at an international level. That is a huge challenge to us because it is difficult enough to engage at a national level sometimes. We have a mountain to climb, but not to have a vision of the peak is to betray the future of the profession.”

And have no doubt that the IFSW is influential and is ensuring that the voice of social work is being heard in international institutions: it has a representative at the Council of Europe; links with the European Union; a representative in Geneva at the United Nations and Unicef. In fact, there is a Social Work Day every year at the UN organised by the IFSW. And an IFSW member in Nairobi is a representative to UN-Habitat, the UN’s human settlements programme that promotes socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities.

The strings to its bow don’t end there. IFSW has recently been invited by the World Health Organisation to nominate someone to sit on its review of the definition of mental illness. “This will be a very influential review and WHO doesn’t usually think of social work so we are very pleased that they have invited us,” says Jones. An IFSW specialist working in mental health in Switzerland will take this on.

IFSW promotes human rights as a core element of social work. “We need to connect social work with that basic humanitarian concern with helping and supporting people in need, and doing that globally is important for the national as well as the international agenda.”

And they help their own. It is dangerous to be a social worker in some parts of the world and if IFSW hears that workers have been imprisoned or had their human rights undermined, it supports them through its international human rights commission.

It produced the international definition of social work that is now used around the world. “Reaching agreement about this at a global level was difficult,” he says, suggesting this is something of an understatement.

Jones is coming to the end of a secondment to the Department of Health, carrying on some of the work he was doing at the Department for Education and Skills looking at policy developments, among other things, around Every Child Matters. And after many years in social work, Jones’s enthusiasm is undiminished. As president he wants to make sure that social workers “can see that their concerns are articulated at a global level and that someone is batting for them and their values”.

Before going into social work he decided there were too many David Jones, so to stand out he started using “N” for Noel, his father’s name, in the middle. Identity is just as key to him today: “It is important if you are qualified as a social worker, whatever level you are, to show identification with the profession.”

Jones was BASW general secretary for nine years, moving on to the then social work training council CCETSW as director of operations for six years.

“I am disappointed that so many senior managers have chosen not to be active in their profession. Now that we are reshaping the future it highlights even more how important it is that there is a professional voice that is strong and credible. That is why I have been active in my association. It’s about the importance of identity.”

Read Jones’s replies to readers’ questions

IFSW: The facts

  • The IFSW is a successor to the International Permanent Secretariat of Social Workers, founded in Paris in 1928 and active until the outbreak of the second world war.
  • It has one full-time paid general secretary.
  • It is divided into five geographical regions: Africa, Asia & Pacific, Europe, Latin America & Caribbean, North America. Each region has one vice president.
  • The IFSW is governed by its national organisations. They meet every two years at a global level.
  • It aims to promote social work as a profession through international co-operation, especially regarding professional values, standards, ethics, human rights, recognition, training and working conditions.
  • It develops and publishes policy statements to guide social work practice worldwide; advocates for the protection of human rights of practising social workers; publishes principles and standards for the ethics of social work; pairs social work organisations in economically developed and developing countries for an exchange of social work practice experience; provides consultation to the United Nations on issues of human development and human rights.

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