Pandemic Underscores Importance of Effective Political Leadership

African government Ministers gathered in-person at Harvard for this first time since 2019 last September, more acutely aware than ever that their leadership skills are on the line as they strive to balance their response to the public health, social and economic repercussions of the pandemic, while still keeping focus on their main political goals.

“The ongoing pandemic crisis has graphically demonstrated the central importance of good government and effective government leadership around the world. I was honored to accept the invitation to be here because I believe that the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program is more important now than ever. I urge Ministers to pursue your mission with even greater vigor and passion.” This was the advice given by His Excellency Julius Maada Bio, President of Sierra Leone. President Bio was joined in leading the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Forum by former Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and former Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete. In addition, a stellar adjunct faculty of distinguished former and long serving Ministers provided practical perspectives and advice from experience helping ensure that Ministers left Harvard with a clearer sense of purpose, as well as better understanding of how to set and manage both professional and political priorities.

Although the logistics of organizing an in-person Forum for high-level government officials in the midst of a pandemic required rigorous observance of COVID-safety protocols, after such a long period of sustained crisis, Ministers used the Forum as a cathartic opportunity to share how they had endured both the pressures of helping lead their governments’ response, as well as ensuring the safety of their families. One result was a high degree of bonding among participants. Another was greater urgency and determination to pursue priorities that can make a tangible difference in the lives of the most needy among their populations.

The central purpose of the Harvard Ministerial Forums is to enhance leadership among a pivotal clusters of human development related government Ministers, facilitating ambitious goal setting and encouraging cross-government collaboration. While the ongoing pandemic was an unavoidable backdrop to the Forum, the curriculum centered on human development as an engine for economic recovery and future growth prospects. There is a lot of evidence supporting the fact that countries that have a higher level of investment in human capital experience a correlated increase in economic growth. The challenge for many is deciding what human development investments are likely to produce the best return and how to prioritize amongst them in resource constrained environments. This is even more challenging in the new era of COVID-reality. Reflecting these challenges, Ministers were supported in identifying achievable goals given available resources and capacity, that could benefit regular citizens in tangible ways in a relatively short time. Each Minister was guided through developing an initial high-level implementation plan identifying the systems strengthening and related interventions that could enable realization of the Minister’s priority goal. Cross-cutting themes of legacy, political navigation, and cross-government collaboration underpinned discussions among participants as they mapped out on their strategic goals for their time in office. Guided by applied knowledge sharing on leadership, priority setting, and implementation, Ministers left equipped with individual action plans to inform their next steps at home.

Reflecting on the experience, one of the participating Ministers said that “…fruitful discussions [at the Forum] allowed them to take a step back from their daily tasks and supported more effective ministerial decision making.” Another found the Forum fundamentally “changed their approach to issues.”

The Harvard Ministerial Leadership Forums are the flagship component of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program, a joint initiative of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Kennedy School and the School of Graduate Education. The Forum is an invitation-only intensive four-day program engaging a select number of serving ministers from Africa, South East Asia and Latin America at Harvard each year. Finance and planning ministers come to Harvard annually in April and a similar number of education and health ministers come to Harvard each June. The overall goal is to enhance ministerial leadership effectiveness across these key ministries encouraging more far-thinking and better-informed human development policies and investment to optimize economic prospects.

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