Creating SPACE

A Conceptual Framework for Rights-Based International Social Work and Social Development


  • Marciana L. Popescu Fordham University
  • Dana Alonzo Fordham University



Capacity building; empowerment; international social work; human rights; international social development; training of trainers.


Escalating conflicts, climate change, rising inequality, a global pandemic: Complex emergencies are leading to a reconfiguration of the world as we know it. Rapid flow of information allows increased visibility and understanding of the impact of these crises on the most vulnerable. Yet at the same time, marginalized communities are rendered invisible, and their fundamental human rights are being erased. In such contexts, providing a framework that engages communities and ensures that they are at the core of any capacity building endeavor is an important professional mandate for international social work and social development. This paper introduces the Strengths and Participation to Accomplish Capacity and Empowerment (SPACE) conceptual framework for capacity building and community engagement in international social work practice. This conceptual framework builds on both the strengths perspective and empowerment theories, and promotes a rights-based approach for international social work and social development. SPACE was first used to design and implement a training-of-trainers program in two communities in Guatemala. The training’s effectiveness in building capacity was evidenced by the impactful networks strengthened or developed as a result of the training in developing COVID-related responses. Further applications of this framework can improve international social work practice and advance rights-based approaches to sustainable development.

Author Biography

Marciana L. Popescu, Fordham University

Currently working as an associate professor at Fordham University, Graduate School of Social Service, New York (2006 to present), Dr. Marciana Popescu is actively involved in internationalizing the curriculum and promoting a human rights framework of international development. For the past three years she served as a member of the Global Service committee at Fordham University. Dr. Popescu’s international expertise includes integrating a study abroad component to the International Development course curriculum – with four study abroad tours to the Dominican Republic and Haiti (2008-2010); 5 years as the director of the MSA program in Community and International Development, at Andrews University, Michigan (2001-2006), 5 years serving as a UNICEF consultant in Romania; as well as active involvement and collaboration with international agencies (World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF) and the Romanian government in evaluation social services in post-Communist Romania (1998-200). Holding a PhD in Sociology/Comparative Policy from the University of Bucharest, an MSW from Tulane University and an MA in Social Policy from the University of Bucharest, Dr. Popescu's academic career includes research and teaching in Romania (University of Bucharest, 1995-2000), England, Sweden, Holland, the United States, Ukraine, and Japan. She also served as the academic site advisor for the Italy site/MSA-IDP program, Andrews University (2001-2006). Her research interests include international social development and capacity building; human rights and international development; faith-based organizations and the impact of federal funding on capacity building; intimate partner violence in faith communities; and immigrant women and intimate partner violence.


Action Against Hunger. (2020). Statement on the state of food insecurity and nutrition in the world, 2020.,already%20affected%20by%20humanitarian%20crises.

Adams, R. (2008). Empowerment, participation, and social work (4th ed). Palgrave MacMillan.

Alexander, J. A., Weiner, B. J., Metzger, M. E., Shortell, S. M., Bazzoli, G. J., Hasnain-Wynia, R., Sofaer, S., & Conrad, D. A. (2003). Sustainability of collaborative capacity in community health partnerships. Medical Care Research Review, 60(4), 130s-160s.

Alonzo, D., Popescu, M., & Zubaroglu, P. (2020). Training non-mental health professionals to assess and manage suicide risks: Community-level intervention for suicide prevention in Guatemala. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Online edition, 1-8.

Alonzo, D., Popescu, M., & Zubaroglu, P. (2021). Back to ‘normal’? Mental health functioning after extended lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience, 23(8), 129-137.

Alvarado, S. E., & Massey, D. S. (2010). Search of peace: Structural adjustment, violence, and international migration. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 630(1), 137-161.

Androff, D. (2015). Practicing rights: Human rights-based approaches to social work practice. Routledge.

Black Beans & Bitterballen. (2017). Zona 18.

Borgen Project. (2020). Poverty in Guatemala.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). Greenwood.

Branas, C. C., Dinardo, A. R., Puac Polanco, V. D., Harvey, M. J., Vassy, J. L., & Bream, K. (2013). An exploration of violence, mental health and substance abuse in post-conflict Guatemala. Health, 5(5), 825-833.

Carter, J. A. (2012). Beyond PRONADE: NGOs and the formal education sector in Guatemala. Center for International Education. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]. (2018). About underlying causes of death, 1999-2018. National Vital Statistics System – Mortality Data. CDC Wonder.

Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]. (2019). The world factbook.

Cheatham, A. (2021). Central America’s turbulent northern triangle. Council on Foreign Relations.

Coleman, J. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95-S120.

Davidson, C. (2017). The new education: How to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux. Hachette Book Group.

Engelken-Jorge, M. (2017, March). The upsurge of xenophobic nationalism: Threat or opportunity. Open Democracy.

Fieser, E. (2010). Guatemalan gangs: Swagger, tattoos, but no roles. Global Post.

GBD Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators. (2018). Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 354 diseases and injuries for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2017: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Lancet, 392 (10159), 1789-1858.

Gerkin, K. (2020). Migration and violence against women in Guatemala. The Circle.

Gragnolati, M., & Marini, A. (2013). Health and poverty in Guatemala. Policy research working paper 2966. World Bank.

Guatemala Literacy Project. (2020). Why Guatemala?

Hacker, K., Tendulkar, S. A., Rideout, C., Bhuiya, N., Trinh-Shevrin, C., Savage, C. P., Grullon, M., Strelnick, H., Leung, C., & DiGirolamo, A. (2012). Community capacity building and sustainability: Outcomes of community-based participatory research. Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action, 6(3), 349-360.

Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research. (2020). Conflict barometer 2019: Disputes, nonviolent crises, violent crises, limited wars, wars.

Human Rights Watch [HRW]. (2020). Guatemala: Events of 2019.

International Federation of Social Workers [IFSW]. (2018). Global social work statement of principles.

International Organization for Migration [IOM]. (2019). The global compact for migration.

International Rescue Committee [IRC]. (2021). How are global systems failing? Behind this year’s emergency watchlist.

Kam, P. K. (2020). Strengthening the empowerment approach in social work practice: An EPS model. Journal of Social Work, 21(3), 329-352.

Lennox, L., Maher, L., & Reed, J. (2018). Navigating the sustainability landscape: A systematic review of sustainability approaches in healthcare. Implementation Science, 13(27), 1-17.

Mapp, S., McPherson, J., Androff, D., & Gatenio Gabel, S. (2019). Social work is a human rights profession. Social Work, 64(3), 259-269.

Mercier, N. (2020). Guatemala: Violence against women. Latin America Bureau

Merriman, J. (2020). Humanitarian dentistry amid the Pandemic: The Open Wide Foundation in Guatemala. SPEAR Education.

Mormina, M., & Pinder, S. (2018). A conceptual framework for training of trainers (TOT) interventions in global health. Globalization and Health, 14(1), 1-11.

Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and human development: The capabilities approach. Cambridge University Press.

Ogrodnik, C., & Borzutzky, S. (2011). Women under attack: Violence and poverty in Guatemala. Journal of International Women's Studies, 12(1), 55-67.

Overseas Security Advisory Council [OSAC]. (2020). Guatemala 2020: Crime and safety report.

Pan American Health Organization [PAHO]. (2017). Health in the Americas.

Parks, R.M., & Thalheimer, L. (2020). The hidden burden of pandemics, climate change, and migration on mental health. UN International Organization on Migration [IOM] thematic series on health.

Pengpid, S., & Peltzer, K. (2019). Prevalence and correlates of past 12-month suicide attempt among in-school adolescents in Guatemala. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 12, 523-529.

Puac-Polanco, V. D., Lopez-Soto, V. A., Kohn, R., Xie, D., Richmond, T. S., & Branas, C. C. (2015). Previous violent events and mental health outcomes in Guatemala. American Journal of Public Health, 105(4), 764-771.

Rissman, Y. Z., Khan, C. T., Isaac, S. K., Paiz, J. A., & DeGolia, S. G. (2016). Developing a mental health curriculum to build capacity and improve access to mental health care in rural Guatemala. Academy of Psychiatry, 40(4), 692-694.

Robeyns, I. (2020). The capability approach. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

Roser, M., & Ritchie, H. (2013). Hunger and undernourishment. Our World in Data.

Saleebey, D. (2013). The Strengths Perspective in social work practice. Pearson.

Sanford, V. (2003). Violencia y genocidio en Guatemala. F & G Editores.

Schwartz, P. (2020). Guatemala’s teen mothers: Behind the shocking statistics. Entremundos.

Sen, A. (1985). Well‐being, agency and freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984. Journal of Philosophy, 82, 169-221.

Sen, A. (2005). Human rights and capabilities. Journal of Human Development, 6(2), 151-166.

Smith, H. (2020). Addressing the sex and gender-based violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fueling the US border crisis: Corruption, impunity and violence against women and girls. Pulte Institute for Global Development.

Speizer, I. S., Goodwin, M., Whittle, L., Clyde, M., & Rogers, J. (2008). Dimensions of child sexual abuse before age 15 in three Central American countries: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(4), 455-462.

United Nations Sustainable Development Group [UNSDG]. (n.d.). Human rights based approach.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2020). Guatemala: Education and Literacy.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR]. (2018). The global compact on refugees.

UNHCR. (2021). Figures at a glance.

UN News. (2021). Only ‘real equality’ can end vicious cycles of poverty.

Willetts, J., Asker, S., Carrard, N., & Winterford, K. (2014). The practice of a strengths-based approach to community development in Solomon Islands, Development Studies Research. An Open Access Journal, 1(1), 354-367.

Wilson, L. (2020, January 21). Why are we hopeful for ending violence against women in Latin America. Global Rights for Women.

Winton, A. (2004). Young people’s views on how to tackle gang violence in “post-conflict” Guatemala. Environment and Urbanization, 16(2), 83-99.

World Bank. (2019). Gender-based violence (Violence against women and girls).

World Bank. (2020). Guatemala: Poverty and equity brief. Latin America & the Caribbean.

World Economic Forum. (2020). The global risks report 2020.

World Health Organization [WHO]. (2020a). Youth violence.

WHO. (2020b). Suicide data. Mental health and substance abuse.

WHO. (2022). WHO Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Dashboard.

Wulfhorst, E. (2017). Teenage pregnancies rise in Guatemala as girls are deprived of basic sex education, warn healthcare campaigners. Independent, UK. May 3, 2017.