The Intersection of Global Health and Justice

November 13, 2018

Even as public health knowledge advances at warp speed, progress on human rights around the world has largely stalled or regressed, which limits our ability to improve the health and wellbeing of people everywhere. A new program at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health aims to overcome this impasse by integrating public health, scientific, and legal expertise to promote, protect, and fulfill the right to health.


The recent launch of the Global Health Justice and Governance (GHJG) program examined the transformative potential to improve health and well-being by advancing justice with a distinguished panel, including Cecile Richards, the author of the bestselling book Make Trouble and the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Chelsea Clinton, vice-chair of the Clinton Foundation and adjunct professor at the Columbia Mailman School; Hilary Pennington, executive vice president, Ford Foundation; and Lopa Banerjee, UN Women’s director for Civil Society. They were joined by Columbia Mailman leadership, including Dean Linda P. Fried; Terry McGovern, chair of Population and Family Health and GHJG director; and Jeffrey Shaman, associate professor, Environmental Health Sciences, and director of the Climate and Health Program. (Watch a video of the full discussion below.)

“It’s important not just to have advances in science,” said Richards, “but that we create a public space and public support to make a big change.”

The Global Health Justice and Governance Program addresses complex public health challenges in the areas of gender, environment, and food through an interdisciplinary approach that brings together research scientists, legal scholars, and policy experts across the University to address human rights violations faced by children and adolescents, women, forced migrants, and those disproportionately affected by violence and trauma.  


“More than ever we need health leaders and scientists who expand the boundaries of their work to take on the need for governance justice—and prevention of injustice—in all its forms to protect human health and well-being,” said Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Columbia Mailman School.

In the Program’s ongoing work with local partners in Kenya, Madagascar, and Nepal, faculty are evaluating the impact of the Global Gag Rule, a U.S. policy that limits women’s access to abortion in low-income countries. The research is carried out not just to measure the harms, but with the intention of effecting a change in policy.

The panel discussed factors that impede progress on global justice. Jeffrey Shaman said governments have been slow to respond to climate change, in part because of the size of the problem and its long time horizon. Lopa Banerjee noted that global governance systems often prioritize laws and security over justice and rights. Hilary Pennington said philanthropy had been part of the problem by aiming for quick results when progress in social justice often takes many years.

“It isn’t just about evidence—it is also about politics and power,” said McGovern. “We want to put justice front and center in global health.”

In her closing remarks, Clinton, who is also a member of Columbia Mailman’s Board of Overseers, said she was excited to be part of a program that brings together people across disciplines, geographies, and generations, adding that it was especially important to engage young people in new ways.

“We need to engage, educate, and enfranchise young people, informing and empowering them in ways that they are part of this public space,” said Clinton, “but we have to do that in ways that are native to them.”

Over the past year, the Department of Population and Family Health has doubled its enrollment of students in its Sexual and Reproductive Health track. As part of their studies, they will learn about ways to improve global governance.