Some of the participants in the 2015 program

Supporting ministers to be transformational leaders: Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program

Big Win Philanthropy is expanding an initiative that enables government ministers to develop as transformational leaders. In partnership with Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Kennedy School of Government and Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program is built around an intensive week of sessions addressing issues such as envisioning big wins, navigating the political environment, implementation planning and effective execution. A key theme is the game-changing, one-off economic opportunity of the demographic dividend – which depends on urgent and intensive human capital investment for children and young people in areas such as health and education.

Originally focused on health ministers, the program expanded to include finance ministers in 2013, and from 2017 will also incorporate education ministers. This expansion will elevate health and education out of their respective sector silos and more centrally engage Ministers in the major strategic challenges related to developing the human capital of burgeoning youth populations to realize a full demographic dividend.

94 health and finance ministers participated since 2012
53 national governments represented
121% boost to health ministers’ confidence to meet key challenges
55% boost to finance ministers’ confidence to meet health challenges
2/3 of health ministers later reported progress on ‘legacy goals’

The Need

Many developing countries are facing enormous long-term challenges from megatrends such as massive growth in their youth populations. Many are also seeing an enormous opportunity to generate potentially gigantic economic benefits from a demographic dividend – but only if they invest intensively in human capital during a unique thirty-year window to turn their youth populations into skilled and productive workers.

Urgent action is required on a grand scale – investing in children and young people in areas such as health, family support and education – to realize the demographic dividend. This can only be achieved with ambitious and effective action from political leaders.

Ministers face many challenges in this respect. The daily demands of high office – including political pressures, crisis management and the running of large bureaucracies – make it hard for ministers to rise to bold new levels of ambition, bring about change and focus on major “legacy goals” that are beyond normal political time horizons. Amongst the many hurdles they face is the need to build support amongst their peers in other government departments and secure sustainable funding. The need has never been greater for political leaders who can:

  • Think big.
  • Take action for the long term.
  • Act collaboratively across ministries and sectors.

The Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program aims to encourage these qualities.

What the program does

The Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program annually invites a select number of ministers from emerging economies to the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Forums to develop the visions, strategies and leadership skills they need to deliver major social and economic gains for their countries. It gives them the time and space they need, learning from each other, to develop the capability to achieve these big wins. In particular, it focuses on:

  • Defining leadership and injecting it with vision and purpose.
  • Translating vision and purpose into actionable priorities.
  • Organizing to get priorities implemented.
  • Allocation of resources for maximum impact.
  • Efficient service delivery.

The Ministerial Forums at Harvard are supplemented with in-country follow-up engaging senior ministry officials to improve delivery and outcomes for the Ministers’ legacy and vision.

History of the program

Dr Julio Frenk, then Dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Jamie Cooper, President and Chair of Big Win Philanthropy, co-conceived of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program in 2010, with Harvard convening the first class of health ministers in June 2012. In 2013, with initial support from the African Development Bank, finance ministers were included in the program. To begin with, the program aimed to boost the ambition, hone the political acumen and enhance the planning of health ministers to execute on their nation’s health MDG goals. In 2017, building on the leadership development concepts of the initial effort, the program was expanded to include education ministers. The purpose is to position these leaders to pursue bold investments in children and youth that align with the economic aspirations of their countries.

To see the remarks given in 2016 by Jamie Cooper, Chair of Big Win Philanthropy, in which she talks about the genesis of the program, please click here.

The program has run since 2012 and during its first three years, 94 ministers participated. They have been from 53 countries – around two thirds from Africa (see map, below) and the rest from central America, Eastern Europe and Asia.

African participation in the Harvard Ministerial Leadership in Health Program, 2012-2014

The Next Phase

In June 2017 the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program, in collaboration with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will welcome education ministers and their leadership teams in addition to those from health and finance ministries. The program will be able to support these pivotal ministries in national governments to work together to achieve their shared goals.

A key aim will be to encourage ministers to work together to ensure that human capital investment becomes a national priority in countries where the demographic dividend has the potential to lift whole generations out of poverty.

The new mission statement is:

The Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program is designed to stimulate transformative vision, enhance leadership effectiveness and political acumen, and develop planning and execution capacity among Ministers.  It supports them to pursue ambitious human capital goals, particularly where these leaders represent geographies that are experiencing large growth in their child and adolescent populations.

The Ministerial Program provides an environment of constructive challenge and peer interaction. It supports leaders to reap the full benefits of a healthy and productive population to better realize their country’s prospects for a demographic dividend.

The Impact

Health and Finance ministers who attended the program assessed themselves as having developed substantially higher levels of capability in crucial leadership areas than before they went through it. Some of these improvements are shown in the charts below:


Before and after the program: the number of health ministers who feel well-equipped to...
Before and after the program: the number of finance ministers who feel well-equipped to...

After attending the Program, 30 health ministers and 22 finance ministers assessed how well-equipped they felt to strengthen their health systems. When compared with their self-assessments at the start of the Program, the results (set out in the bar charts above) show that:

  • The confidence levels of the health ministers increased by 121% to tackle five health system challenges
  • The confidence levels of the finance ministers increased by 55% to support the strengthening of the health system in five important ways.

In 2014 all health ministers who had participated since 2012 were surveyed (the length of time between their attendance and the survey ranged from a few weeks to two years). Two thirds of those responding said that they had made progress on their ‘legacy goals’. Beginning in 2016, impact data will be collected to assess the benefits of the program, with results available from 2017.

After participating in the intensive four-day program, ministers had applied their enhanced capability in a wide range of areas such as maternal and child health, Ebola, HIV, TB, health insurance, reproductive health, mobile clinics and long term care.

“This forum has given me a new perspective on leadership and how to exercise it.” – Health Minister

“This Forum has given me a new way of thinking in both priority setting and implementation.” – Health Minister

“With the progress and results achieved, the Prime Minister… is showing an interest in health. Today, at least he speaks about it; before this was not the case.” – Health Minister

“It is a challenge to think about what I want to do to have a lasting impact and leave a legacy. I had trouble grappling [with] the line between staying within my ‘scope of authority’ and being a transformational leader.” – Finance Minister

“Professional value was brilliant.” – Health Minister

The figures used in the bar charts above are from personal communication with the program team. A range of evaluation reports on the program can be downloaded here.