Current and former finance and economic planning ministers from 20 countries participated in the seventh annual Harvard Ministerial Forum at Harvard last week. A key focus of the Forum was groundbreaking new research from David Bloom, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, correlating economic returns from human development investments. [link to David’s paper] Bloom found that highest returns result from reductions in fertility; increased life span resulting from better health care and more healthy living; and increased educational attainment.

Participating ministers were challenged to consider whether their current budget spending is building a foundation for sustainable economic growth. For example, health and education account for the largest part of most countries’ budgets, but in many developing countries health and education outcomes are poor. One result is substantial and growing numbers of unemployed young people. Another is population increase continuing to outpace GDP growth. Ministers mapped a human development pathway for each of their countries focusing on the key human development building blocks with highest long-term economic benefits such as early childhood nutrition and educational development, better quality primary school education, access to comprehensive reproductive health services, and strengthening primary health care.

Michael Sinclair, Executive Director of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program, noted that, “operationalizing their investment strategies is a key part of the Forum focusing finance and planning ministers on their pivotal position within government to lead cross-government collaboration to help achieve alignment of program and investment goals.” One of the participating ministers said the Forum gave him “a much clearer idea of how I can bring my cabinet colleagues on board.” Another said that his country would “benefit enormously from the experience” now that he had a clear vision for “what to do” and “how to get it done.”

Former Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, told ministers, “Go to bed everyday with your conscience clear that you’ve done what is correct, not what is popular.” Finance ministers are often under pressure to finance politically popular projects. Returns on human capital investment are much longer term. Former Mozambican Prime Minister, Luisa Diogo, urged ministers to build a strong political coalition in government to ensure support for longer term investment strategies. “By the time you get to the Cabinet” she said, “there should be no surprises….you will have done your homework and you will get the support.”

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.