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The Hopes of a Continent

February 12, 2018

From Maxwell Perspective...

The Hopes of a Continent

By training the next generation of government leaders, the Maxwell School builds a stronger future for Africa.

Mandela Washington Fellows posing in front of the Lincoln statue on the quad 
Mandela Washington Fellows at the Maxwell School this past summer

In the impoverished, pastoral county of Turkana in Kenya, many residents are victims of cattle rustling: women, who are widowed in the violence and, often, kidnapped and raped themselves; and young people who have been orphaned. Bernard Ekuwam was one such victim. His mother was kidnapped when he was 12. He was raised by his grandmother and later moved to a nearby town to work as a houseboy and go to school.

Despite overwhelming circumstances and poverty, Ekuwam earned a college degree in integrated community development and has held a government position as ward administrator for his county since 2010, when Kenya instituted a new county government system. “Now when we have a water problem, we can actually try to solve it,” says Ekuwam, who works with his community to address needs through planning, initiating, and implementing government plans and policies.

Ekuwam spent six weeks at the Maxwell School this summer learning to be a better public manager as a Mandela Washington Fellow, the signature component of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). “This is a lifetime opportunity that I never dreamed of,” says Ekuwam, who had not ever before traveled outside of Kenya. “This program is giving me the tools to better manage my projects, and leadership skills to mobilize people to attain my vision.”

President Obama launched YALI in 2010 to support young African leaders to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa. The Mandela fellowship component of the program, begun in 2014, brings 500 young leaders from across sub-Saharan Africa to the United States for a six-week, fully-funded program that includes leadership training, academic coursework, and mentoring in one of three tracks: business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, or public management. 

“There is a frustration among citizens across Africa with the leadership they are experiencing,” says John McPeak, a Maxwell School professor of public administration and international affairs who co-directs Maxwell’s YALI program, and who has research projects in Kenya, Senegal, and Mali. “They would like to have better transparency and accountability. There is a feeling that quality leadership and quality institutions are the only things that are going to help things move forward.”

The program, which concludes with a three-day Presidential Summit in Washington, DC, is intended to hone participants’ skills in strategic areas while developing networks among them and with Americans. The goal is that participants, such as Ekuwam, use their enhanced skills to propel economic growth and strengthen democratic institutions in their home countries.

Syracuse is one of 20 top universities selected to participate, developing and running the curriculum for 25 students in the public management track. “It’s an important program,” says William Sullivan, Maxwell assistant dean for external relations and advisor to the program.  “Many of our participants are in fairly advanced positions. It’s a way of getting them to think differently and benefit from the kinds of things we do here all the time at Maxwell.”

“There is a feeling that quality leadership and quality institutions are the only things that are going to help things move forward.”
— John McPeak, program co-director

It’s Day One of the Mandela program at Maxwell. The 25 fellows, representing 15 African nations, have been tasked with presenting an “essential question” to the group, a problem they would be interested in tackling when they return to their home country. One is outlining her plans to educate citizenry about the dangers of electronic waste and responsible disposal of electronic devices. Another tells of the energy deficit in his country and his plan to promote renewable energy development. Yet another describes his nation’s high rate of infant and maternal mortality.

The diversity of the projects represents the broad backgrounds of participants, who include state and local government officers in disciplines ranging from health and education to land use and food safety, plus two medical doctors, a veterinarian, and a business entrepreneur. They hail from locales so rural they rely on solar power for electricity and have no Internet or mobile network, and from cosmopolitan capital cities.

Addressing an “essential question” was part of the State Department’s loose framework for a Mandela program. The Maxwell program was developed largely by co-directors McPeak and Stuart Bretschneider, the latter a Maxwell professor of public administration and international affairs who has since left to join the faculty of Arizona State University. Sullivan, who has developed numerous executive education programs for international students at Maxwell, also contributed. They framed the “essential questions” to generate projects that students could ultimately find grant money to implement. Over the next six weeks Maxwell would offer coursework providing skills to support that process.

“They come in with very lofty ideas that they think someone should fund, but we give them actual tools to see how that happens,” said McPeak amid the Mandela sessions. “Tomorrow, we’re going to go over a 10-page, single-spaced grant proposal for $10,000. . . . For a lot of these people, they’ve got to understand they may have a big idea, but they need to build some skills and capacity, doing a few small pieces that move them there. There’s a learning curve.”

Mandela Fellows talking to Anne Wadsworth, executive director of the Girls Education Collaborative 
Mandela Fellows chatting with guest lecturer Anne Wadsworth ’09 EMPA (left), executive director of the Girls Education Collaborative

Indeed, the opportunity to impact a generation of leaders across an entire continent is a lofty task. The Maxwell School was one of the first partners selected to train Mandela Fellows, chosen both for its reputation as the top-ranked U.S. school of public administration and a long track record of training mid-career professionals, many of them international.

Drawing from that expertise, Sullivan, Bretschneider, and McPeak have developed a curriculum that includes equal components of classroom lectures, project development, and field trips. Classroom lectures draw on signature MPA topics such as public budgeting, tax policy, conflict resolution, and education funding, as well as a healthy dose of leadership issues, all delivered by top experts from across the Maxwell School and Syracuse University. “We put together topics we think would be most interesting, as well as most useful,” says Bretschneider.

On one day, for example, Ken Harper, from the faculty of SU’s Newhouse School, presented on “Managing Your Communications Ecosystem,” explaining how to tailor messages to reach specific audiences. Next came a presentation on public health from former Onondaga County public health commissioner Cynthia Morrow, now the Lerner Professor of Public Health at the Maxwell School. 

“You come to realize that it’s not necessarily professional aspirations that connect us, but what we want to accomplish in our communities.”
— Norah Ngatjizeko, Mandela Fellow

In between would be a day spent in the nearby resort town of Skaneateles, New York. The program included off-site visits that were both recreational — New York City and Niagara Falls, for example — and educational, including a trip to Albany to meet with state lawmakers, and visits with community service organizations including the Salvation Army and the Central New York Community Foundation.

A trip to Cortland, New York,  combined tours of municipal services — the fire department and local jail — with a local band concert and fireworks display. “We’re trying to expose them to different aspects of American life,” says Bretschneider.

It seemed to be working. “The experience is providing tremendous insight into how things are actually done in the United States,” says Angela Kirabo, a research scientist in food product development at the Uganda Industrial Research Institute. “When you’re in the system, it’s easy to think that’s just the way it is because that’s the system you know. Coming to a different place, you see the way they do things and how successful they are. It opens up your mind to the possibilities of how you can change things back home.”

Mandela Fellows posing for a picture together   
Mandela Fellows getting acquainted at the opening reception

For Ekuwam, that means finding funding to open a community center that will mobilize services in his county, ranging from literacy education and vocational training to a dispensary, and someday, a library. “This program has opened up a whole new platform for partners,” he says.

He may find some of those within his Mandela cohort.

As the fellows listened to each other make initial presentations about their intended projects, they were asked to rate each one as to whether it was closely related to their own project, somewhat related, or not at all related. Bretschneider and McPeak used that information to create a social network diagram illustrating how the participants were linked, both to help them develop collaborations and to form five-person working teams to assist each other on the projects.

That kind of interaction with people of different backgrounds but similar interests is a highlight of the program, says Norah Ngatjizeko, an economist with the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Namibia. “You come to realize that it’s not necessarily professional aspirations that connect us, but what we want to accomplish in our communities,” she says. “There’s a profound sense of pride and responsibility being among the chosen 500. We feel we can go back and actually make a difference.”

President Obama is counting on that, increasing the number of Mandela Fellows from 500 to 1,000 for 2016.  Although confronting many challenges, “Africa is on the move,” he told this year’s group at a town hall meeting. “Our hope is that years from now, when you’ve all gone on to be ministers in government, or leaders in business, or pioneers of social change, that you’ll still be connecting with each other . . . and that together, you’ll be reaching back and helping the next generation -— that you’ll not only be making a difference in your own countries, but you’ll be the foundation of a new generation of global leadership.”

Bretschneider calls the program an investment in soft power.  “It’s an attempt to influence a generation at an early stage, so that over their lifetime they will have more network connections to people in the United States, better understanding of how things are done here, and hopefully a greater affinity to the U.S. when it comes to issues of collaboration and cooperation,” he says.

And, in the meantime, the program will impact a group of young leaders on an individual level by helping them build their own professional skills to enhance their career development. “I don’t think the girl that left Namibia is the same girl that’s going back,” says Ngatjizeko. “It’s been that transformative.”

Mandela Fellow Portraits

“We have a vision of what we want to do”

Bernard EkuwamBernard Ekuwam
Country: Kenya
Title: Ward Administrator, County Government of Turkana
Challenge: Extreme poverty, illiteracy, and lack of infrastructure
Project: Create a community center to provide literacy education and vocational training to youth
Something He Admires About the U.S.: The warmth of the people, particularly the Maxwell faculty. “It has been a joy to learn from them. I admire the way they try to understand our backgrounds, try to make us learn and realize where our weaknesses are, to help us be better.”
Takeaway Message:  “We tend to be comfortable in what we have, but coming here has ignited a fire in me. With the right tools, I can accomplish so much more.”

Angela KiraboAngela Kirabo
Country: Uganda
Title: Research Scientist, Food Products, Uganda Industrial Research Institute
Challenge: Getting anything accomplished. “Things take so long because there is so much bureaucracy.”
Project: Raising the profile of agriculture as a means to improve the economy
Something She Admires About the U.S.: Public officers are held accountable for the job they’re supposed to be doing. “There is so much transparency. At home, public officials do all kinds of crazy things and the public just lets them slide.”
Takeaway Message: “Sometimes I feel I’m a very small person trying to do all these big things and I lose motivation. But coming here and seeing other people so passionate about what they want to do makes me feel I can keep pushing.” 

Kampamba MubangaKampamba Mubanga
Country: Zambia
Title: Senior Legal Assistant, Ministry of Local Government and Housing
Biggest Challenge: Bureaucracy. “Solutions to problems are pretty obvious to me but getting anything done requires the authority of my boss, who has to get the consent of his boss, and so on and so on. We have a vision of what we want to do but can’t get anything done.”
Project: Fast track the transfer of title deeds to small-scale farmers, both to lower poverty and increase productivity and sustainable development 
Something He Admires About the U.S.: “The American government system is more receptive to criticism. When you criticize a policy or politician, it is not taken as a personal attack.”
Takeaway Message: “Without a doubt this program will contribute to Africa’s success. The capacity of young leaders to influence and shape Africa for the next few years is limitless.” 

Norah NgatjizekoNorah Ngatjizeko
Country: Namibia
Title: Economist, Ministry of Trade and Industry
Biggest Challenge: Making government accessible to the people. “We struggle with getting services down to the people. We tend to have everything at the head office and need to decentralize.”
Project: Establish mentorship centers in rural areas for people who want to start businesses 
Something She Admires about the U.S.: “There’s a sense of patriotism and ownership. People are engaged with what their rights are, where they go to demand service. Back home, we take it for granted that it will eventually get done whereas, here in America, people demand it gets done.”
Takeaway Message: “I feel more confident and comfortable talking about my country and I think my role matters. I matter.”

— Renée Gearhart Levy

This article appeared in the fall 2015 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2015 Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

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