Social work researchers, economic, nonprofit, and policy leaders and practitioners from around the globe gathered Oct. 11-13 for a three-day symposium to officially launch the opening of Global Social Development Innovations (GSDI) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The new research center is based within the School of Social Work and aims to improve the lives of marginalized populations around the world.
Founded and directed by social work associate professor Gina Chowa, GSDI brings together a team of interdisciplinary scholars focused on social change in communities with limited economic, social, and health resources. In addition, the center focuses on collaborations with university, state, national and international researchers and partners to leverage expertise and to train the next generation of scholars so that they are better prepared to seek solutions to challenging problems in their countries and communities.
“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.”
GSDI kicked off its celebratory events on Oct. 11 with a dinner for nearly 100 guests at the Rizzo Center in Chapel Hill. The dinner included performances from two UNC student dance groups and a special video presentation highlighting GSDI’s work.
Dean Gary L. Bowen praised Chowa and her School of Social Work team–assistant professors Rainer Masa and David Ansong, and research project manager Sara Mitra–as well as the center’s “tremendous vision,” which he said reflects the School’s commitment to social justice.
“The cutting edge work of the center is designed to bring tangible changes in the well-being of marginalized and vulnerable populations globally,” Bowen said. “In other words, to make a real difference in the lives of individuals.”
In addition, GSDI is expected to strengthen Carolina’s efforts as a global university. Chancellor Carol L. Folt, who attended the launch dinner, said she is especially impressed with the center’s collaborative strategy for tackling critical social and economic issues around the world. GSDI models the university’s innovative ideals, she said.
“I know this center will be successful because I know Gina, and she is a game-changer,” Folt said. “And (the center) couldn’t be in a better place than in the School of Social Work.”
As part of the launch events, GSDI hosted its inaugural lecture featuring Michael Sherraden, George Warren Brown (GWB) Distinguished University Professor and founding director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis. Sherraden was a mentor to Chowa, who earned her doctorate from GWB. Named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2010, Sherraden is known for his pioneering work on asset building for low-income people. He has helped to influence policy development in the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Canada, Indonesia and other countries.
For his presentation, Sherraden noted that social work researchers who are focused on testing innovations “for positive actions,” are often doing the most difficult work and getting very little credit for it.
“It really is oriented toward trying to figure out what works in the world,” he said. “Doing applied scholarship is way harder work than trying to figure out how many people are poor or not poor. It’s 100 times harder, and it takes years to do a good project, and you will seldom see that in the front pages of the newspaper. But I want to acknowledge this kind of work because… it’s hard work, and we should be proud of it.”
The GSDI symposium included two days of panel discussions where public policy leaders, researchers, nonprofit practitioners and others shared new discoveries and ideas in global social development work and explored research-informed practice and innovation. A variety of topics were covered including food security and its impact on family health and economic security; measuring financial resilience around the world and integrated approaches in healthcare and policy. Sessions also focused on innovative interventions and programs around the globe, including those addressing HIV medication adherence in South Africa; adolescent boys’ and girls’ programming in rural India and women’s savings and credit groups in rural Zambia.
School of Social Work faculty members participated in many of the sessions, including Distinguished Professor Rebecca Macy, who along with Rani Deshpande, director of financial services and employment with Save the Children, led a discussion on how practice informs research and how research informs practice.
“The people (practitioners) who do this work everyday really understand what’s happening on the ground,” said Macy, whose research focuses on intimate partner violence, sexual violence and human trafficking. “They understand the challenges of the communities and the people we are working with in ways that I never could in my office.”
Ultimately, GSDI, its partners and others in the social development field are all working toward the same goal: to identify the most effective programs and the most effective approaches that will have the biggest impact, noted Dennis Haraszko of the MasterCard Foundation, which has supported GSDI’s work and helped sponsor the launch.
“We’re all social creatures, and we must work together to integrate our ideas and integrate our innovations into this broader system that includes communities, governments, practitioners and researchers,” Haraszko said. “We all need to be working together to identify the ideas and practices that will change the world and build the evidence needed to demonstrate to policymakers, officials and the business community what it will take to ensure opportunities for all.”