At Google, a focus on global justice

L.A. Cicero Cohen

Political ethicist and Professor Joshua Cohen is moderating a 10-week survey course on poverty and development created by Google’s philanthropic arm—Google.org—and held at the Internet company’s Mountain View headquarters.

In a large yellow room at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, about 150 "Googlers" sitting at desks covered in laptops listen intently to Stanford Professor Joshua Cohen discuss the intricacies of creating equitable financial markets for the world's poor. It's the fifth session of an innovative course on poverty and development created by Google.org—the philanthropic arm of the famed Internet company—to teach Google engineers and other staff about global issues so they can use the knowledge to inform new solutions that might chip away at seemingly intractable problems in the developing world.

"Imagine somebody saying, 'You know, our greatest asset is our employees,'" said Cohen, a political theorist and professor of political science, philosophy and law. "Imagine, number one, that it's true; and number two, that they take it seriously. It's as if that's what's going on at Google. I don't think any company has done this. This isn't executive education. It's real education. It's been very fluid and chaotic—Google is not a university—so it's hard to put on a course like this. But they did it."

Cohen, who directs Stanford's Program on Global Justice, said Google asked him to moderate the 10-week survey course, which is held Wednesday afternoons at the Mountain View offices, known as the Googleplex. A live video of the lectures is broadcast to company offices offsite, with participants able to join the discussions remotely. The course also is recorded for internal distribution. This fall, classes have focused on defining poverty, education and health, equity and gender, water and agriculture, globalization, migration and urbanization, and economic growth.

Kirsten Oleson, a teaching fellow in Stanford's Public Policy Program who has attended the Google course, gave it high marks. "It's been a unique experience to figure out how a company like Google could make a difference," she said. As a former World Bank employee, Oleson said examining issues through Google's business and technological lens has given her new perspectives on chronic roadblocks.

"Development can seem like such an insurmountable problem," she said. "We think about [solutions] in the abstract. Google can make it happen." For example, she said, a colleague at Google is working with the United Nations Environmental Program to investigate how its Google Earth mapping application could be used by poor farmers to predict rainfall.

Cohen and Oleson have been in discussions about Google's next course on climate change, to be followed by a third one on global health. Alongside economic development and poverty, the three areas form the core of Google.org's focus, said Mayumi Matsuno, a project manager charged with promoting staff involvement in the philanthropy. The company encourages its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on work-related projects they really care about.

"We want Googlers to understand the issues," she said. "A lot of times we probe speakers about how Google can help. Googlers are always coming up with solutions."

Seema Jayachandran, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford, and Rosamond Naylor, director of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment, have lectured at Google this fall, along with faculty from institutions such as Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley. Heads of leading foundations, including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Oxfam America, also have participated in discussions that ask what Googlers can do. This week's final class reinforces that theme with the title, "Think Globally, Act Googley."

On Oct. 10, the class featured Asim Khwaja, a young, fast-talking associate professor of public policy at Harvard, and Stanford alumna Nancy Barry, former president of Women's World Banking, who in 2004 and 2005 was ranked in Forbes' list of 100 most influential women worldwide. Oleson and Nicolas Rouleau, a student in the Stanford Program in International Legal Studies (SPILS), also attended the two-hour session, which was followed by a working supper with the speakers. It was a fast-paced, high-energy environment filled with intense mostly 20-somethings.

"The conclusion from this is not cynicism or a sense of hopelessness—those are not options," Cohen said at the start of the class. "The point is, if the aim is to solve problems … then we need to be giving serious thought to the institutional context in which the problems are addressed. If your aim is to solve a problem and not implement a theory, then you do need to do different things in different places."

Barry, a former senior executive at the World Bank, stressed that point as a banker. "We talk a lot about health, education and welfare when we talk about tackling poverty," she said. "In reality, the biggest single problem of poor people is that they don't have enough money." With regard to creating access to credit in poor countries, she said, "There is a tendency to look for a magic bullet. In our estimation, the key is that you need a range of institutions—banks, cooperatives, regulated and unregulated microfinance institutions. The key is not legal structure, the key is performance." With this in mind, Barry discussed how Google's technological heft might help. "You actually need databases, delivery systems and platforms that allow you to provide multi-product offerings and build your data around the customer," she said. "That means something radically important for techies. I think Google has a role to play in cutting costs. This is a low-risk business if done right."

Program on Global Justice and revamped Stanford Ethics Center

The Google course dovetails with Cohen's efforts to build Stanford's Program on Global Justice at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Cohen set up the program when he moved to Stanford last year after teaching at MIT for three decades.

This spring, postdoctoral students Avia Pasternak and Helena de Bres will teach a new course on global justice in international relations and political science through the program. Cohen also is leading a project titled "Just Supply Chains" with MIT Professor Richard Locke. The effort, which includes meetings at MIT and Stanford next year, focuses on understanding employment in a changing globalized economy as it relates to fair compensation, decent and healthy working conditions and rights of association. If the project is successful, Cohen said he wants to generate a research agenda with normative, empirical and practical aims. Rouleau, the SPILS student, said Cohen's work typically links theory with practice. "There's no point in sitting in an office thinking up these ideas if they're not ever going to be implemented," he said. "Josh really thrives on promoting debates on these issues."

Expansion of the Program on Global Justice coincides with efforts to develop the Stanford Ethics Center, which philosophy Professor Debra Satz will lead next fall. In 2005, she launched a global justice seminar through the Stanford Humanities Center. Currently, she directs the undergraduate Program in Ethics in Society, which supports research, teaching and public lectures. The revamped ethics center, Satz said, will incorporate that program's activities but also have more lofty goals for Stanford as a whole. "It should be—if successful—a place that nurtures and sustains a campus ethos of ethical inquiry, provides a focus for considering a range of moral judgments on important social questions, and underscores the need to make such judgments," she said in a statement about the center. Practical discussions surrounding such themes are beginning to emerge through the course at Google, Cohen said. "I think they will do some interesting stuff, but I'm not sure what it will look like," he said. "The course has been a total blast. You learn a lot, meet a bunch of interesting people and maybe something good will come out of it. What more could you ask for?"