Social Work History Essay

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Since the ideas of the Enlightenment and human rights as well as the negative social consequences of industrialization have given rise to a public discussion on the social question,” many different social activities could be noted.

The first international welfare conference as such took place in Paris in 1856, called “Congres internationale de Bienfaisance.” Nearly 300 participants from 20 countries came to the conclusion that there should be regular meetings in the future to create common standards of poor relief and charity. In the following proceedings until the end of the association in 1863, the discussion was dominated by questions about social insurance and social security as well as the principles of self help.

But national as well as international political conflicts hindered the development of international social welfare over several years. Not long before 1889, a new international association could be founded: The ”Congres d’Assistance publique et privee,” which turned out to be the most important precursor of the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW).

The last conference of the ”Congres” (held in Copenhagen in 1910) discussed the challenges of a modern welfare system based on three main principles: a balance between social insurance and social work, coordination of state and private welfare structures, and vocational training.

Although World War I furthered these challenges of welfare modernization, because all countries had to cope with an enormous amount of welfare needs, the international cooperation was severely disrupted again – until 1928. In this period the American welfare organizations became a larger influence in the field of social work. Therefore, the main starting signal for the great” International Conference of Social Welfare (held in Paris in 1928), came from the USA. Besides these incentives, it was the merit of the International League of the Red Cross, that the by then largest welfare conference could take place.

The most important result of the conference was the foundation of the International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW) as a world wide platform for professional development and exchange.

The next conference of the ICSW was held in Frankfurt in 1932, focusing on The Consequences of Unemployment for the Family,” and the third conference on Social Work and the Community” took place in London, in 1936. The most significant characteristic of this last pre-war meeting was the attempt of the fascist countries like Germany and Italy to functionalize the term Community” for their idea of the ”Volk.”

The plans for next conferences were foiled by World War II – and it was not until August 1946 that the former presidents of the ICSW tried to reconstruct the organization. They had to take into account however, that a couple of social organizations had been established during the war, in order to give help to refugees and other needy persons: The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration”  (UNRRA),  the International Relief Organization” (IRO), the UNICEF and the WHO, all of them being – in contrast to the ICSW -well equipped with financial means and an enormous amount of helpers.

At the proceedings of the ICSW in Atlantic City (1948) two items turned out to be of greatest importance for the future: Firstly, it became obvious that international” meant more than Europe” and the United States.” The second item was related to the already mentioned increase of international social organizations and required an efficient way of labor division among them: The ICSW had to exclude the political mandate for social work (held by the UN), the representation of the profession (held by the International Association of Social Workers), and all items of vocational training (covered by the International Association of Schools of Social Work). Therefore the ICSW defined itself in relation to the multitude of international organizations in the field of welfare as a partner for theoretical and methodical discourses and as a coordinator for common incentives.


  1. Friedlaender,    A.    (1975)   International Social Welfare. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  2. Lorenz, W. (1994) Social Work in a Changing Europe. Routledge, London.
  3. Macdonald, J. (1975) The International Council of Social Welfare: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. International Council of Social Welfare, New York.
  4. Premiere Conference international du Service Social (1928) July 3-13, Paris.

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