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SPA Collaborates with RAND on African First Ladies Fellowship Program

By April Thompson

Africa map

This September, emerging leaders from eight African nations will convene for a pioneering course co-hosted by the School of Public Affairs and the nonprofit RAND Corporation. While these leaders serve in a capacity that has no official authority or mandate, they have tremendous power and influence: They are the mothers, the First Ladies, of their nations.

“I’ve seen firsthand how effective First Ladies can be in furthering national policy goals,” said Anita McBride, an executive in residence at SPA’s Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies. McBride served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush and has served in the White House under three administrations.

“Every problem in the nation comes to the President’s desk, but First Ladies can pick and choose issues they want to work on. They have a tremendous amount of visibility and can be a leading voice on a particular issue.”

The First Ladies of eight nations – to include Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania and Sierra Leone – are sending senior advisors to participate as fellows in the intensive, five-day course, held at RAND’s offices in Arlington, Va. Participants will learn a variety of strategies to establish and manage an effective First Lady’s Office, including defining the First Lady’s role, structuring an executive office, engaging stakeholders and conducting policy analysis.

The seed for the program was planted during the African First Ladies Health Summit held in Los Angeles last spring, where McBride was an invited panelist.

“First Ladies were being engaged to champion programs to help tackle the health and education challenges affecting their countries,” said McBride, yet often lacked “the structures, tactics and tools to maximize their impact.”

SPA has contributed its expertise as a center of public policy education to the new fellowship program developed by RAND. Robert Tobias, Director of SPA’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation; Alison Jacknowitz, Director of SPA’s Masters of Public Policy Program; and McBride have helped shape the curriculum and are among the course’s presenters.

A host of other private and public partners, multilateral agencies, volunteer service organizations and NGOs are also contributing to the program, said McBride.

“It’s a real recognition of the role that First Ladies can play. They can not only advocate for important issues in the country, but they can also be effective leaders and catalysts for change.”

Each First Lady’s office will come out of the workshop with a concrete plan for a particular public policy project. In phase two of the fellowship, one of the participating countries will host a follow-up workshop in which the fellows will discuss the implementation of strategies in conjunction with both local and US-based mentors. Long-term, the program seeks to set up institutional structures that can be transferred from administration to administration, not just to develop the capacities of the First Ladies currently in place.

“These are poor countries with multiple issues that need attention – there is no question about it – but the role of their First Ladies in addressing these challenges is real, and it’s not on the sidelines,” said McBride. “Given they are working with very limited resources, they just have to stay very focused and not let themselves get pulled in too many directions.”