Global Social Challenges

How do we find our way in the COVID-19 pandemic? How do we sensibly tackle international climate change and energy transition? And how do we find answers to questions about the global financial crisis? In other words: how can we best address global societal challenges?

Answers to the world's biggest problems

Global Social Challenges is one of the strategic pillars of ESSB. The goal is to find socially relevant answers to the biggest problems we face in the world. We want to achieve this by conducting interdisciplinary research into the most important international questions for our generation.

Research projects on major challenges

Together with researchers and partners from different disciplines and fields, we are working on several major challenges:

  1. The climate and energy transition
  2. The global financial crisis
  3. Governing future security
  4. Population and society
  5. The legitimacy crisis of international political systems
  6. Forced migration

Next to the above projects, we've started a seventh research project called BEYONDGIVING. Click on the title of the project below for more information.

Private philanthropic foundations increasingly shape what global justice means and how it is translated into practical action. Despite sitting outside of the transitional accountability mechanisms applied to the sustainable development programs, with what consequences in the global environmental governance.

The BEYONDGIVING project is bringing together the leading experts studying the influence of philanthropic foundations to develop crucial new knowledge about how these increasingly important actors are shaping global justice. The project will advance our understanding of philanthropy as an act of organised political activity, rather than simply individual giving.

This project is funded for four and a half years (2023-2028) through an Open Competition Grant from the Dutch Research Council (NWO).

Why this research?

Despite their growing political prominence, major foundations have escaped systematic scholarly attention. Private philanthropic foundations – nongovernmental, non-profit organizations with assets provided by donors for socially useful purposes – increasingly frame their interventions to achieve justice. Foundations describe their objectives in language that is deeply rooted in concepts of justice.

For example, Gates Foundation aims to “reduce inequity,” Rockefeller Foundation seeks to advance “equity and inclusive growth” and the Foundation for a Just Society tries to foster “a world without discrimination.” However, we do not understand how the leaders of foundations understand justice and institutionalize those ideas through their organizations and decision-making.

Philanthropic foundations play a largely undetected part in shaping the meaning and practice of justice in global sustainability governance. The BEYONDGIVING Project is designed to bring light to these processes – enabling those seeking to advance global justice to identify common and conflicting norms with the foundations operating in their domains.

The BEYONDGIVING project will fill this research gap by:

  • exploring agency within philanthropic foundations by focusing on norms and institutionalization of theories of justice (rather than resources and administrative structures); and
  • developing and applying a pluralistic justice framework built on existing theories of justice research.

Empirically, the BEYONDGIVING Project is structured around the role philanthropic foundations are playing in the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda and the influence that ideas of justice are having on those activities. The Project will include a diversity of private foundation types – including cooperate, family, private and public foundations of different sizes and structures. A multifaceted research methodology is beaning utilized which combines interpretative, discursive, and quasi-quantitative methods.

The BEYONDGIVING Project will ultimately advance our understanding of global sustainability governance by providing a framework to insert normative questions of justice at the core of sustainability government research, bringing justice to the core of sustainability science, and demonstrating the important role played by philanthropy in both.


  • Agni Kalfagianni | The BEYONDGIVING project is led by prof. dr. Agni Kalfagianni, Professor of Management of International Social Challenges in the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences,
  • Mark Dehlsen | PhD Candidate | Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences | Department of Public Administration and Sociology | Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
  • Femke Salverda | PhD Candidate | Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences | Department of Public Administration and Sociology | Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Project Collaborators

  • Michele Betsill | Professor of Global Environmental Politics | Department of Political Science | University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • David Schlosberg | Professor of Environmental Politics and Director of the Sydney Environment Institute | Department of Government and International Relations | University of Sydney, Australia
  • Dimitris Stevis | Professor and Director of Center for Environmental Justice | Department of Political Science | Colorado State University, United States of America
  • Joost de Laat | Professor and Director of Utrecht Center for Global Challenges | School of Economics | Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance | Utrecht University, The Netherlands
  • Rebecca Gruby | Associate Professor of the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources | Warner College of Natural Resources | Colorado State University, United States of America
  • Anne Monier | Research Fellow | Philanthropy Chair | École Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales, France
  • Edouard Morena | Senior Lecturer in French Studies and International Politics | University of London Institute in Paris, France
  • Carole-Anne Sénit | Assistant Professor of Inclusive Sustainability Governance | Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development | Faculty of Geosciences | Utrecht University, The Netherlands


  • Kalfagianni, A. (2023). How Philanthropic Foundations Fuel Transformations and With What Consequences for Sustainable Food Systems. In P. Dauvergne, & L. Shipton (Eds.), Global Environmental Politics in a Turbulent Era (Edward Elgar Publishing).
  • Pedersen, S., Stevis, D., & Kalfagianni, A. (2022). The Earth System, Justice, and Governance in a Planetary Age: Engaging a Social Turn. Environmental Philosophy, 19(2), 221-240.
  • Kalfagianni, A. (2022). Philanthropic foundations as agents of justice in global sustainability governance. Global Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 1-7.

Socio-economic resilience

These challenges have a major impact on our society. It requires long-term socio-economic resilience. That is why we critically examine trajectories in the past, in the present, and for the future. We do this using state-of-the-art research techniques.

New solutions for complex problems

Many of today's social challenges are complex: they transcend city boundaries, regional cultures, and national borders. The global COVID-19 pandemic, the climate transition, and the fourth industrial revolution call for new solutions that do not yet exist. We therefore explore these problems across borders and from different disciplines, theories, and methods. 

"This research pillar aims to mobilise collaborative research on key global challenges and explore innovative political solutions towards achieving global sustainability and justice."

Click on one of the banners to read more about our ongoing research projects

The Climate and Energy Transition

How can old and new powers unite to meet the climate challenges of our time?

The Global Financial Crisis

Governance reform of global financial systems

Governing Future Security

Investigating the relationship between technology, security, and transforming societies

Population and Society

Using research data to gain insight into how the population is developing

The Legitimacy Crisis of International Political Systems

What is the impact of supranational organizations on the functioning of contemporary democracies

Forced Migration

Investigating the economic, political, social and environmental aspects of forced migration

Collaboration between science and policy

Academic research is only part of the puzzle. We collaborate with government policy makers and other partners in the field. By using their input, we cooperatively arrive at practical solutions. By working together, we bring science and policy together.

Would you also like to work with us or participate in a research study? Get involved in our research!

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