Global Social Work: Paths to Service in Africa

February 23, 2017 @ 9:41 pm

In an online event held on February 15, alumnus Jarret Schecter (MSW’14) and Columbia School of Social Work Professor Lynn Michalopoulos talked about the growing trend for social workers to serve overseas as well their own choice to work in Africa. Schecter has created an organization for helping lives and communities in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ethiopia; and Prof. Michalopoulos is leading research related to trauma, mental health and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa.

You can watch the event here:

Related resources:


As our world becomes more inter-connected thanks to revolutions in transportation and communication, social work has joined other helping professions with more practitioners heading overseas and particularly to the world’s poorest countries. But can a social worker who is trained in the United States help vulnerable people and drive social change in a very different part of the world? The speakers at our 2/15/17 online event agreed that it can be done, but navigating the path to service can be challenging.

CSSW professor Lynn Michalopoulos spoke about the transformation process she underwent when committing to a research project on women in Zambia, while Jarret Schecter (MSW’14) addressed the concerns he has about setting up his own nonprofit to fund medical treatment, schools, and microloans initially in Burkina Faso, Senegal and Ethiopia. His new organization is called TEEEM, and the three “e”s stand for empathic, entrepreneur, and equality.

Interestingly enough, Schecter got his start in international work and social work through documentary photography, a story he shared in a conversation with Communications Director Mary-Lea Cox Awanohara at the beginning of the event. A video made by CSSW’s communications office was screened highlighting several of Schecter’s projects documenting developing-world problems, including, for his most recent client, the prevalence of cataracts in young people. Schecter said that he eventually grew tired of being a passive observer and decided he wanted to participate more actively in finding solutions, which is why he enrolled in social work school at Columbia.

In response to a question about why he hadn’t chosen to work in the United States, Schecter pointed out that he had done some work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as well as on a Native American reservation, but then he decided to focus his efforts in Africa because the dollar will buy more for people in need. He went on to say he does not feel held back by the fact that he is a white American male, noting that in Africa the black-white division isn’t regarded in the same way as it is in the United States. Also, his focus is on empowering African women, since they are the have-nots in African society.

During her solo portion of the event, Prof. Michalopoulos explained that she had gotten her start in global social work after being tasked with evaluating a social service agency in Zambia. By staying in touch with folks on the ground—from Ministry of Health workers and NGOs to community members—she was able to develop strong ties to the area and is now doing her own research in that part of the world. She also mentioned that people in Africa do not see her as African American but as white.

The event culminated in a discussion between Schecter and Prof. Michalopoulos on a range of topics, beginning with the advice they would give to social workers who haven’t yet practiced abroad but are looking for opportunities to do so. Along with many in the audience, they agreed that the two most important initial steps are 1) understanding your motivations for doing this sort of work; and 2) developing cultural humility. Both speakers emphasized the importance of avoiding savior complexes and focusing on the needs of the community—not what you, the outsider, have decided their needs are. Developing cultural humility involves taking a respectful stance with people of different cultures, challenging one’s cultural biases, being comfortable with “not knowing”, and learning directly from others.

Both speakers agreed that volunteer work is a great way to get started, as it allows you to practice in many different settings and for short periods of time, before making a bigger commitment. You can also learn if this kind of work is actually a good fit for you.

In the Q&A that ensued between audience and speakers, topics included:

  • the sacrifices social workers must make if they want to work abroad but have families;
  • the social work degree that is most useful for practicing overseas; and
  • ideas for Jarret Schecter to get TEEEM off the ground.

Of the 360 people who signed up, over a third attended, and several audience members shared their own experiences and resources via the chat, e.g.:

Several mentioned that the Peace Corps provides an opportunity to practice international social work for an extended period (in fact, many students at CSSW are former Peace Corps volunteers).

We offer thanks to the presenters, the online team, and the lively audience for making this such a successful event.

The event was sponsored by CSSW’s Online Campus. The next deadline for applications is April 1, 2017. Get information here.

Check out the other events in the Columbia School of Social Work’s Online Event Series: