Tackling Complex Public Policy Concerns: The Need for Interdisciplinary, Problem-Solving Clinical Education

The Avon Global Center for Women and Justice (“The Center”) was established in 2009 at Cornell Law School with $1.5 million grant from the Avon Foundation for Women. The Center works with judges, legal professionals, governmental and non-governmental organizations to improve access to justice in an effort to eliminate violence against women and girls. A team of highly motivated legal professionals work towards developing the Center’s four major initiatives, that include: undertaking clinical projects, providing legal research support for judges, maintaining an archive of online legal resources, and hosting conferences and events. Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum was the 2008–2010 Women and Justice Fellow at the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice. While at the Avon Global Center, Kestenbaum co-supervised projects and co-authored reports on issues of gender-based violence and access to justice, including a comparative study on acid violence, Combating Acid Violence in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. Kestenbaum received a J.D. from Cornell Law School and a Masters of Public Health from John Hopkins University in 2007. Kestenbaum is the Program Director of Virtue Foundation, a non-profit with charitable status in the United States, the United Kingdom and Ghana, and special consultative status at the United Nations. There, Jocelyn directs innovative sustainable development projects in health, education, justice, and women’s empowerment in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Below Kestenbaum discusses the impact of complex and highly specialized areas of study on public policy problems, and offers a solution through interdisciplinary collaboration.

Public policy problems are often complex and require collaborative research, analysis, and action from professionals across multiple disciplines. Additionally, as more and more professionals continue to specialize within their respective fields—and even sub-fields of expertise—there is a need to reach across disciplines in order to find effective solutions to public policy concerns. For example, the problem of acid attack violence—intentional acts of violence in which perpetrators throw, spray, or pour acid onto faces and bodies of victims—crosses many fields of study and practice, including: human rights, public health, medical, legal, business, social, cultural, and gender.

Surgeons, as providers of critical care to victim-survivors of acid violence, have a particular perspective on the medical problem and the devastating health consequences of severe chemical burns. In working towards toward effective solutions at the policy level, these professionals can offer important insight as to the particular needs of survivors. However, surgeons cannot tackle the problem of acid violence alone given the existence of multiple underlying social determinants and the need for developing policies of prevention and punishment. The low cost and easy availability of acid demands the involvement of the business community, as well as public health policymakers that can work towards the regulation of public access to such harmful products. The gender discrimination and stereotypes underlying many attackers’ motives invokes normative rights-based frameworks that address gender inequality and discrimination against women. As a result, teams of professionals—including, human rights lawyers, public health practitioners, development specialists, doctors, and business leaders—can come together to offer additional frameworks and collaborate toward effective, holistic policy solutions.

Given the critical need for the collaboration of various disciplines, why aren’t professional educational institutions devoting more time to training and educational efforts that build collaborative, interdisciplinary problem-solving skills and expertise? Institutions of higher learning should begin to adapt and incorporate new models that train professionals and experts to collaborate and to resist becoming too “siloed” in their respective sub-specialties. Through these reforms, professional fields of study can learn and exponentially build upon one another toward holistic, effective, and accelerated solutions to the complex problems of today and tomorrow.

Innovations in clinical education could serve as one potential model solution to build necessary interdisciplinary, problem-solving skills. For example, establishing “problem-solving clinics” that encourage and even require enrollment of professional students from various disciplines relevant to the particular clinic’s focus would ensure dialogue across the fields and foster collaborative solutions to complex public policy issues, such as climate change, maternal mortality, human trafficking, and access to essential medicines. Such innovations will require open-minded leadership and will undoubtedly cause institutional growing pains; however, the rewards to all professions and to society of innovative policy solutions will make these changes worthwhile. In the end, the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts when experts combine the best of their individual fields of expertise to devise an optimal solution to some of the pressing public policy challenges of our time.

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