Former Minister of Health of Ethiopia to lead Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program

Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin
Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin

Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin, who led Ethiopia through the COVID-19 pandemic and other significant public health challenges, looks forward to supporting leaders working to “make the world a better place for everyone, everywhere.”

March 6, 2024—Lia Tadesse Gebremedhin was sworn in as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health on March 12, 2020—the day after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. That night, Ethiopia detected its first case of the virus.

“It was a very difficult time,” Gebremedhin said. Ethiopia, like many countries in Africa, was both well-positioned and unprepared to respond to COVID-19. In the years prior, the country had invested heavily in its primary health care system and, because of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, its public health emergency response structures. But intensive care units across Ethiopia—and across the continent—were short on essential resources such as oxygen, personal protective equipment, and staff trained in critical care.

Gebremedhin is quick to add that COVID wasn’t the only difficulty she and her country faced during her four-year tenure as Minister. Civil conflicts and the ongoing impacts of climate change, including droughts, were displacing people, damaging health facilities, and causing additional infectious outbreaks across Ethiopia.

“We were responding to all of these issues at the same time, having to constantly adjust and be agile to try to mitigate the pandemic and make sure there was continuity of essential health care services,” Gebremedhin said. “And we were trying to continue to improve and build the health system as well.”

The challenge of balancing immediate public health needs with long-term vision is one that “all leaders face today—especially in countries with fewer resources,” Gebremedhin said. And it’s one that will remain on the forefront of her mind as she takes on her new role as executive director of the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program. Gebremedhin succeeds Michael Sinclair, who will stay on as a special advisor through the end of the year.

Sharing lessons, building camaraderie

Launched in 2012, the Ministerial Program is a joint initiative of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Kennedy School, and Harvard Graduate School of Education, in collaboration with Big Win Philanthropy. It provides support to health, finance, education, and other ministers from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America who focus on advancing human development. Participants attend one of the annual Harvard Ministerial Forums, in-person intensive workshops focused on leadership and political strategy, priority setting, budgeting and system building, cross-sectoral collaboration, and policy implementation.

Thereafter, ministers have access to a menu of technical support options, including continuing education, virtual mentoring, policy research support, and data tracking tools. They also enjoy the camaraderie and support of their fellow participants, as well as program alumni.

To date, 262 ministers from 66 countries have participated in the program.

Bringing leadership experience to the table

Gebremedhin, who began her new role on March 1, is an OB/GYN who, before serving as minister, was Ethiopia’s Deputy Minister of Health, a provost at St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College in Addis Ababa, and a program director for various international maternal and child health projects.

“Having been in many leadership roles, I know that the ability to make positive change is related to how strong a leader is,” Gebremedhin said. “Anything I can contribute to improving leadership around the world truly excites me.”

As minister, Gebremedhin proved herself to be an adept leader, viewing the pandemic as more than just a challenge. “We tried to respond not just in the short-term, but also for the long-term. It was an opportunity to strengthen the whole health system,” she said. By the time the WHO declared the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Ethiopia had significantly expanded its public health workforce and improved access to critical care and oxygen. These new capacities not only helped limit the virus’s toll, but also left the health system well-positioned to care for other sick and injured patients well into the future.

These accomplishments, Gebremedhin said, were the result of “building strong teams, multisector coordination, and partnership with a diverse set of stakeholders, including volunteers, community health workers, donors, professional associations, and  the private sector”—all strategies discussed in the ministerial program.

Still, she said, “dealing with a lot of emergencies as well as a lot of strategic priorities, if I’d had this program while I was minister, I know I would have benefited from the continued support to drill down on fewer areas for more impact.”

To deliver the best possible support to future cohorts of ministers, Gebremedhin says she’ll begin her directorship by prioritizing learning and listening. One thing she knows she’ll emphasize going forward, however, is the idea of bidirectional learning. As much as participants get from the program, Gebremedhin believes they can also give back.

“The great privilege this program has is to be seated within three great schools, where ministers can tap into the expertise of the Harvard community while also sharing what’s happening in their parts of the world, their challenges and their learnings,” Gebremedhin said. “Because there are different ways of doing things, and there’s a lot to be learned from developing countries. Instilling that principle is essential as we grow as a global community and work to make the world a better place for everyone, everywhere.”

– Maya Brownstein

Photo: Kent Dayton