Dis·​par·​i·​ty: The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a noticeable and usually significant difference or dissimilarity”; first used in 1571, the word, borrowed from Latin, combines dis­- with the concept of parity, implying that some things are not equal. Disparity: a thin line that divides human realities, and the theme of the 2023 Pearson Global Forum, the flagship annual event put on by The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Sheila Kohanteb

“We see issues of disparity in all global conflicts,” said Sheila Kohanteb, the Forum’s Executive Director. “Often people are not aware of how disparities play out on a day-to-day level in their own communities, let alone on a global scale. At the Forum, we want to call attention to specific global disparities, and perhaps this will encourage people to reflect on how this relates to their local communities.”

“Inequality of income is but one aspect of disparity and is part of an intersecting set of differences in society which relate to power and status,” said James A. Robinson, the Reverend Dr. Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflicts and Institute Director for The Pearson Institute. “We thought that the larger topic of disparity might be sociologically very rich and would perhaps suggest new ideas and connections.”

The Pearson Global Forum, held on October 20, will bring together academics, political leaders, policymakers, journalists, and members of the general public – and will examine the ripple effects at the intersection of disparity and global conflict, and ways to find resolution, peace, and stability for those affected. Participants at this year’s Global Forum will discuss not just disparities in economics and power, but also disparities in gender, justice, religion, technology, housing, and distribution of natural resources.

Professor James Robinson

The topic of disparity has consumed Professor Robinson’s scholarly work for years. “Most of my work for 30 years has been about the disparity between poor and rich nations,” he said. “Why is it that some societies are capable of generating such better living standards and life chances than others?”

The question of why some nations succeed and others fail at providing stable societies is a central question behind Robinson’s books Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Property (2012) and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019), both written with Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The 2012 book, Why Nations Fail, begins with a tale of disparity: the difference between what is essentially one city divided into two. “While the residents of Nogales, Sonora, live in a relatively prosperous part of Mexico, the income of the average household there is about one-third that of Nogales, Arizona,” the authors write, describing a vast dichotomy between quality of life, education, and more between the two. “How could the two halves of what is essentially the same city be so different? There is no difference in geography, climate, or the types of diseases prevalent in the area, since germs do not face any restrictions crossing back and forth between the United States and Mexico.” Yet health, economics, and the like remain startlingly different.

Disparities are not always so stark as those divided by a border like that between the United States and Mexico. Sometimes disparities can exist along gendered lines, as is clear when one looks to the example of recent turmoil in Iran.

“One year after the uprising in Iran, I am very eager to hear from the experts on this subject,” Kohanteb said. “The Iranian people have made their voices heard more profoundly than any time since the 1979 revolution, and there is no turning back.”

Last year, a young woman named Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for improperly wearing her headscarf.

“People are rising up and risking their lives and that of their families by protesting and walking around with their hair uncovered,” Kohanteb said. “The sessions on Iran will discuss existing disparities with a look toward the future and how/if the country will progress and move forward.”

Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo

The Pearson Global Forum, an annual conference that began in 2018, was designed to convene academics, policymakers, practitioners, and the general public for the purpose of developing new strategies to prevent, resolve, and recover from conflict. Since the second annual forum in 2019, the Forum’s organizers have focused on one issue every year, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the political impact of climate change, and the use of misinformation to manipulate conflict.

“At this Global Forum, we will cover a range of global disparities from economic and social, to gender and power,” Kohanteb said. “The reality is, everything is tied together. One cannot look at human disparity in a vacuum; it is the cumulation of disparities that has protracted conflicts. “We’re not only discussing disparities – but also how they can be decreased.”

There will be considerations of disparity at the global level: a panel discussion between public policy and economics scholars about social mobility and a flash talk about restorative justice in schools. There will also be examinations of specific case studies around the world: how disparities are impacting Mexico’s development, the disparity in access to water between Israel and the Palestinian territories, and how disparities have grown in Afghanistan since the Taliban reoccupied the country.

The topic of disparity is too large to for one conference to fully address, but the organizers hope it will yield fruitful conversation, with distinguished discussants including Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico, who earlier delivered the 2022 Pearson Annual Lecture.

Any “noticeable and usually significant difference or dissimilarity” (as Merriam-Webster puts it) can have great repercussions – for residents, for refugees, for those struggling for recognition or dignity. While disparities may seem ubiquitous, the Pearson Global Forum aims to draw in the most influential thinkers to combat this pernicious reality that causes and exacerbates conflict across the globe.

Want to learn more about the Pearson Global Forum?

The 2023 Pearson Global Forum will take place October 20, 2023, at the David Rubenstein Forum. Register here.