First Ladies Advance Public Health Leadership
A four-day executive leadership education academy at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health was attended by the first ladies of eight African nations.
First ladies from eight African nations and their senior staff participated in the first-ever multi-day executive education program designed specifically for leaders in their position. Held at Columbia Mailman School, in partnership with the Global First Ladies Alliance, the Global First Ladies Academy highlighted the unique position of first ladies to make a difference on public health challenges in their countries and beyond.
Over four days, Columbia Mailman faculty and Alliance experts led interactive sessions with first ladies from Botswana, Burundi, The Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, covering topics from effective leadership and strategic policymaking to public health system-strengthening. The program was organized by the Alliance in partnership with the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) and Columbia Mailman.
The week’s highlight was a roundtable discussion between participating first ladies from African nations and U.S. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden—a meeting that underlined the partnerships between first ladies globally. (Read more about Dr. Biden’s visit here.)
The Global First Ladies Academy builds on the Columbia Mailman School’s decades-long work in Africa and globally. Based at the School, ICAP at Columbia has trained more than 400,000 health workers across Africa and Columbia Mailman-affiliated CAPRISA in South Africa trained 600 research scientists (read a story about the recent CAPRISA 20th anniversary symposium). Other ongoing capacity-building programs include those through the School’s Department of Biostatistics and GAPP (Global Alliance for Preventing Pandemics).
Cora Neumann, a member of the Columbia Mailman Board of Advisors and an alumna, founded the Global First Ladies Alliance in 2009. Since then, her organization has worked with more than 45 first ladies and trained 150 senior advisors. The Global First Ladies Academy is geared to realize Alliance members’ desire to build their collective capacities, adding to their considerable skills and accomplishments. Participating first ladies bring backgrounds in accounting, disaster relief, economics, education, finance, hospitality, human resource management, and the law. They advocate on behalf of issues such as the early childhood development and advancement of girls, gender-based violence, peace and democracy, poverty, and women’s economic empowerment.
In welcoming remarks, Dean Linda P. Fried said, “We know that your leadership is of great significance for your countries and the world,” adding her hope that the training would support their individual priorities while “creating community, enhancing your already immense capabilities, offering the basis for collaboration and coordination and hopefully an additional set of foundations to prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead in creating ever improving health and wellbeing both nationally and globally.”
In her own remarks, Her Excellency Mrs. Monica Geingos, First Lady of Namibia and President of OAFLAD, spoke to the evolution of the organization from a focus on HIV/AIDS to a broader interest in development. She called OAFLAD a “powerful sisterhood” where members can “find confidants, collaborators, fundraisers, and marketplace of ideas on how to expand their effectiveness.” First Lady Geingos said the Global First Ladies Academy was “perfectly timed,” aligning with OAFLAD’s commitment to capacity-building and leveraging its members’ wide-ranging perspectives and professional backgrounds. “As much as first ladies aren’t elected, we come with social capital. People listen to first ladies,” she said.
Neumann elaborated in her introductory address, saying the position of the First Lady comes with elevated access, credibility, and prestige, allowing those in the position to create partnerships across sectors and engage on all levels, from local to international. “You have a very unique and powerful platform,” she told them. These advantages are critical because First ladies are often asked to solve problems in public health and development, which she added are often “the most intractable, most difficult problems.” Neumann said the goal of the Academy is to equip first ladies with the tools to define their priorities, develop a strategy, build their team, implement their plan, then monitor, evaluate, and report its impact.
Offered with simultaneous translation in French and Portuguese, the week’s program of workshops and roundtable discussions focused on interdisciplinary strategies to improve health, facilitated by government insiders, including the Hon. Anita McBride, former Senior Advisor to George W. Bush and Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush, and Columbia Mailman scholars, including Wafaa El-Sadr, director of the global health center ICAP at Columbia; Rachel Moresky, associate professor of Population and Family Health and Emergency Medicine and Public Health, and director of the sidHARTe - Strengthening Emergency Systems and the Columbia University Global Emergency Medicine Fellowship; and Michael Sparer, chair of the department of Health Policy and Management.
Special sessions drilled down on specific public health challenges and successful strategies to address them. El-Sadr presented on ICAP’s partnerships with African nations in the fight against HIV/AIDS, including through capacity-building programs. Sparer discussed the politics of the COVID-19 response and led a breakout session in which participants collaborated on a group project which had them develop a mock proposal for the World Health Organization aimed at addressing infant and maternal mortality. Ophira Ginsburg, a senior advisor for clinical research in global health at the National Cancer Institute, and Ephrem T. Lemango, associate director of Immunization at UNICEF, presented a case study on women’s cancers.
Other sessions focused on evidence-based techniques for leadership and mobilization; storytelling to lead with courage and inspire others; and strategic communications to educate and advocate for health issues.
At the conclusion of the Academy, Dean Fried presented the first ladies with certificates, in recognition of their successful participation in the Academy, followed by a recitation of the Public Health Oath. In remarks on behalf of the first ladies, Her Excellency Mrs. Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow, First Lady of the Gambia, said, the Academy “gave us the opportunity to reflect on our work and also to share experiences amongst ourselves with the single objective to be able to serve our people better.” She continued, saying, “Individually we are strong, but together we are more powerful.”
Reflecting on her experience in the Global First Ladies Academy, Her Excellency Mrs. Auxillia Mnangagwa, First Lady of Zimbabwe, said the Academy has provided helpful guidance on how to be effective in her office—including on promoting the HPV vaccine, one of her priority areas. She said the Academy also served as a powerful platform for first ladies to exchange ideas on common health challenges that have no borders. “It has sharpened and opened my eyes,” she said. “When I go back [to Zimbabwe], I will be able to strategize and see how to do my work effectively.”
Photos courtesy Eileen M. Barroso, Michael Divito, and April Renae.