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New Center on Global Justice Seeks to Take a Practical Path

Laura Margoni | March 28, 2011

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Fonna Forman-Barzilai, associate professor of political science and one of the founders of the new center

Turning on a water tap. Flushing a toilet. Chances are you don't think twice about doing these things, yet for more than a billion people around the world, these simple acts are unheard of luxuries. For others, here in San Diego and beyond, adequate food, basic health care, harmful social practices and political corruption are challenges they must face on a daily basis. The new Center on Global Justice in the Division of Social Sciences will address these types of issues when it launches this fall.

And as with many endeavors at the entrepreneurial-minded university, UC San Diego plans a different approach than what is usually taken by existing centers focusing on global justice.

"We have a different orientation to global justice, which is typically a high-brow, academic concept," explains Fonna Forman-Barzilai, associate professor of political science and one of the founders of the new center. "Discussions on the subject are often highly abstract and ethereal. They tend to focus on questions of moral responsibility and schemes of wealth redistribution on a global scale, and really provide little practical guidance on how to reduce real injustices that so severely plague our world. Our goals are ultimately practical and problem-oriented."

The center will connect moral theory and social science to real human problems. "We want to develop and apply knowledge that can help people, locally and globally, to pursue better lives," says Forman-Barzilai. She quickly emphasizes, however, that this does not mean telling people how they ought to live.

"Communities need to steward their own development," she insists. "The center is committed to developing dynamic partnerships and learning environments in the field, not only because this demonstrates genuine respect for the agency and preferences of the communities engaged, but because reciprocal learning between researcher and community produces more responsive strategies and ultimately more effective and sustainable results."

UCSD Center on Global Justice founding co-director Gerry Mackie, in Kolda, Senegal, in 2004 at a mass public declaration of the abandonment of female genital cutting

As an example of what the center hopes to accomplish, Forman-Barzilai points to the work of her colleague, Gerry Mackie, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, and her collaborator on the center. It was his innovative research on the practice of female genital cutting in Africa which helped lead to the creation of policies and programs for its successful abandonment.

"What Gerry realized is that you needed first to understand how marriageability works within the culture, and until you did that nothing was ever going to change," says Forman-Barzilai. "Throwing information, money or even threat of criminal punishment at a harmful social practice isn't going to get you very far if you don't understand the underlying causes."

While Mackie's work serves as an inspiration for the center, Forman-Barzilai cites various other campus projects where good social science research has been essential to effective and meaningful change on the ground. Clark Gibson, chair of the political science department, does rigorous cross-country measurement and field experiments in Africa to explain the origins of fraud by public officials. "One of Clark's most important projects is reducing electoral fraud through public monitoring, using innovative cell-phone technology," she explains. "There are countless examples of good social science in action, here and elsewhere, and this is the kind of research we want to cultivate at UCSD through our center's activities."

Projects on the horizon include an initiative on social justice with a university in earthquake-torn Haiti, and a collaboration on "food justice" with the UC San Diego urban studies and planning program.

"Social science matters," Forman-Barzilai insists, pointing to the division's impact on education, health, environment, public policy and society. "As social scientists we have an arsenal of theories and methodological skills that can really make a difference. The challenge is to bring that knowledge effectively into the world."

Forman-Barzilai and Mackie are currently gathering input from colleagues across campus, which will help shape the center and the work that it will do. "Although the center will be housed in the social sciences, this is really a campus-wide initiative, so we want colleagues from all appropriate areas to be invested right from the start," she says.

New Frontiers in Global Justice:
A Conference with Amartya Sen

March 31-April 2 An event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of UCSD and to launch a new Center on Global Justice in the UCSD Division of Social Sciences. Sponsored by the Division of Social Sciences; Institute for International, Comparative and Area Studies (IICAS); and Extended Studies and Public Programs.
Photo of DrEricson


Sen on “Justice: Local and Global”
7 p.m. , March 31,
Price Center

Nobel Prize winner and a beloved public intellectual, Amartya Sen gives a free, public talk. Sen's lecture is sponsored by the Helen Edison Lecture Series. No tickets or reservations required; seating will be on a first-come basis. More about Sen and the event:

April 1-2, 2011
Estancia, La Jolla
To register:

The seeds for the new center were first planted when Forman-Barzilai and Mackie began discussing Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen's latest book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard University Press, 2009). Sen—a professor at Harvard and Cambridge Universities—is one of the world's leading social thinkers.

"Sen's impact has been huge," Forman-Barzilai says. "He has been extraordinarily successful in merging social science and moral theory with action. He figured out why famines happen and how to prevent them. He literally changed the way we all now think about global development."

Progress was once measured by increases in gross national product, an inadequate and often misleading measure of the quality of real lives on the ground. "Sen devised an alternative approach that emphasizes actual human capabilities — health, education, nutrition, security, longevity," she says. "And these indices are now central to the design and measurement of world development goals."

Forman-Barzilai and Mackie wanted to host a conference at UC San Diego on Sen's work. Once they received his approval, Forman-Barzilai began approaching various colleagues around campus, gauging interest and gathering support for the conference. The response was overwhelming.

"Everyone I talked to was really excited about the idea of hosting a conference on global justice with Sen, and was uniformly generous in their support" she recalls. "Not just within the social sciences, but in the humanities, the applied sciences, engineering, the medical school and many other units as well as the greater San Diego community. I don't think I heard the word 'no' once."

Called New Frontiers in Global Justice: A Conference with Amartya Sen, the event features 25 leading scholars from the finest universities on four continents working on global justice and related themes, as well as practitioners from such international organizations as UNICEF and the World Bank. Also participating is Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for her pioneering work on common pool resource management, primarily in Africa and South Asia. The conference, which convenes March 31-April 2 is part of UC San Diego's 50th Anniversary celebration and will announce the formation of the Center on Global Justice.

"The idea for a center emerged in the course of conference planning," says Forman-Barzilai. "The division is committed to cultivating research that has social impact, and our dean was the first to pose the idea of a longer-term project on global justice."

Forman-Barzilai was intrigued by the possibility and decided to pursue the project. As with the conference, the enthusiasm for the idea was astounding.

"People all across campus were excited to get involved and to share their ideas," she recalls. "I was impressed that UCSD really does aspire to live up to its tagline — Local Impact, National Influence, Global Reach. The idea of a new center immediately tapped into that sensibility."

"I think it was something everyone could get behind," says Forman-Barzilai, who also sits on the steering committee of the UCSD Global Health Initiative, an interdisciplinary body dedicated to issues of migration and health. "We have such impressive strengths on this campus in global health, environmental sustainability, humanitarian engineering, political and economic development, urban planning, human rights and immigration studies. But there's never been a collective sense of identity that we're more or less driven by an underlying commitment to global justice. That's what the center seeks to cultivate."

In addition to supporting the university's diverse global initiatives, the center will also provide a structure across disciplines to exchange ideas, collaborate on research, mentor and advise graduate and undergraduate students, and raise funds to support research and outreach.

"There are many things we want the center to do," says Forman-Barzilai. "But one point we really want to drive home, especially for our students, is that global is not a place. It's not 'out there somewhere.' It's a way of thinking beyond one's own nose. You can think globally but act right here in your own backyard. Each one of us can have an impact."

For more information on the New Frontiers in Global Justice conference, and to reserve seats, please visit

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