For government ministers, new resources for leading during a pandemic


Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program offers an online dashboard and other tools to guide ministers in developing countries on health, education, economic planning, and finance policy

November 12, 2020 – Decision-making dashboards, videos and briefs on leadership and policymaking, and virtual research collaborations among graduate students and government ministers are just some of the ways the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program (HMLP) is helping support ministers in developing nations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Since its inception in 2012, the HMLP has brought dozens of government ministers from developing countries to Boston to participate in a series of hands-on forums. This year, in-person gatherings have been off the table because of the pandemic. But the program is still firing on all cylinders, according to executive director Michael Sinclair.

A joint initiative of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the HMLP is continuing its work of boosting leadership capabilities among ministers of finance, health, and education, and helping them work together to support human development in their respective countries. The program’s efforts this year are focused on practical solutions to problems—some related to the pandemic, some ongoing, Sinclair said.

Of the nearly 200 ministers who have participated in HMLP programs since it began, 80 ministers in Africa, Southeast Asia and Central America are currently in office. Many of these alumni told HMLP leaders that they were suffering from information overload and would benefit from concise, data-based decision-making guides to help them navigate challenges resulting from the pandemic, Sinclair said. So the HMLP team, with the help of two Harvard Chan student researchers—Seemi Qaiser and LeAnna Cates, both SM ’20—and the guidance of a group of former ministers and senior government officials, created the Human Development for Economic Recovery dashboard to help ministers deal with the social and economic consequences of the pandemic while sustaining essential programs and services.

“They wanted to know, ‘What on earth should I be focusing on right now?’” Sinclair said. “For example, ‘I’m the minister of education, all the students are out of school, and I’ve got no money. What do I do?’ The ministers asked for practical, specific advice.”

Sinclair noted that most developing countries “threw literally every penny they had at the initial response to the pandemic. Their budgets now are very constrained. So it becomes a question of what do you do in this new reality in order to ensure that you don’t lose the progress, particularly in areas of health and education, that has been made over the past 15 or 20 years. And at the same time, how do you invest what resources you do have in areas that are likely to spur economic recovery?”

The dashboard offers data and tools that demonstrate the impact of potential interventions. For example, it can help an education minister decide if it makes more sense, in terms of both human development goals and potential economic returns, to invest in preschool education versus investing in high school education for girls.

The HMLP has also produced a series of briefs on its website on leadership in times of crisis featuring insights from current and former ministers on a range of topics, such as preventing the collapse of the public health system and alleviating the impact of COVID-19 on young people.

Students are also playing a key role in providing support to government ministers. As part of the Harvard Ministerial Student Policy Research Fellowship, now in its fourth year, 44 students from across the HMLP’s three graduate schools, working in teams of four, are delving into a variety of research topics requested by ministers. For example, one student team is helping analyze the impact of education reform efforts in Ghana. Another team is looking at factors that contribute to children living on the streets in Sierra Leone.

Given the fact that the fellowship had to scrap its January 2021 field research component because of the pandemic, Sinclair was worried that students might be less interested in applying. But scores expressed interest after the call for applications went out in August—a surprising and heartening development, he said. He’s also pleased that, for the first time, each research team includes students from each of the three graduate schools.

“We think that’s going to add a fresh learning dimension to the whole experience for the students,” he said. “And we hope it will also add value to the research.”

Karen Feldscher

photo: AP/Donwilson Odhiambo