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Chowa planning interdisciplinary global research center

UNC School of Social Work Associate Professor Gina Chowa is proposing to launch a global research center. The center, known as Global Social Development Innovations (GSDI), will focus on enhancing the lives of marginalized populations around the world by creating innovative social development interventions, building knowledge, generating new evidence, and impacting policies that ensure economic justice for the poor.

The UNC Board of Trustees has approved plans for the new center and is expected to vote on its establishment this fall. The center will be housed at UNC’s School of Social Work and will bring together a team of interdisciplinary scholars focused on social change in communities with limited economic, social and health resources, said Chowa, GSDI director. The center also will work with researchers and partners from across the globe to collaborate and leverage local expertise, while also offering an environment for junior scholars to learn the techniques and skills of impactful research.

“At its core, the GSDI team will focus on training the next generation of researchers and practitioners so that we’re building the research capacity needed for rigorous scientific inquiry into social development practices,” said Chowa, whose scholarship centers around creating holistic interventions that positively affect the root causes of poverty and health disparities around the globe.

Chowa and her team — Assistant Professors Rainier Masa, Latoya Small and David Ansong — will use GSDI’s new data hub as a primary source for strengthening research and for networking with social development scholars from around the world. The data hub, which is being developed in collaboration with UNC’s Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), will serve as a one-stop resource site for storing and sharing “information relevant to tackling the challenges that marginalized and disenfranchised populations living in resource-limited settings face,” Chowa said. Such challenges can include a lack of access to higher education, inadequate opportunities for employment or for generating income, and barriers to financial inclusion, among other issues.

“If you think about resource-limited countries, there is limited rigorous, and impactful research that currently exists,” Chowa said. “And most of what is there is observational research rather than interventional research that would begin to provide solutions to economic security issues that our target populations face. So we’re excited because this really will be an innovative, first-of-its-kind center.”

GSDI will focus on the following core research areas, each of which Chowa and her team members have been exploring for years: economic security, workforce development, financial inclusion, social protection, health and mental health, and education. The team also intends to collaborate with national and international partners that members have worked closely with, including the UNC Center for AIDS Research Social and Behavioral Science Research Core; the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg; the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana; the Center for Studies in Rural Development, University of Pune, Ahmednegar; and the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We’re not just bringing all of these people together to collect data and research for the sake of it,” Chowa said. “We want to bring about social change. Our mission is to collaborate and build capacity for our partners and for scholars so that we’re improving opportunities for rolling out services, based on evidence, to ultra poor people who need them.”

Such a center also enables the School of Social Work to continue to build upon its work globally, said Dean Jack M. Richman, who praised Chowa’s efforts in launching the venture.

“It really is a feather in the cap for the School,” he said.