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UNICEF Visits HGSE for Custom Leadership Institute

Maida PasicThe list of personal leadership challenges was daunting, ranging from figuring out how to support teachers who barely graduated from high school to finding ways to educate refugees in crisis. But for the 55 UNICEF education specialists who spent a week at the Ed School this summer in a custom-designed leadership development program, there were also two broader challenges: helping Harvard figure out how it can be of use to them, and helping UNICEF, as a major development organization, shift its thinking.

“This is a new era for UNICEF and our staff, so we thought, Let’s help the staff,” said Maida Pasic, an education specialist for UNICEF who helped organize the event after participating in two other institutes offered by the Ed School’s Programs in Professional Education (PPE).

Pasic explained that much of what UNICEF has done with education since it was founded in 1946, and has done successfully, has been project-focused: A region lacks textbooks, so they get textbooks. Potential students aren’t going to school because fees are too high, so they work to eliminate the economic barriers. Recently, however, they’ve started doing more “upstream” work — work that is policy- and strategy-based.

“We sit with governments and partners and debate reforms and try to influence policy, but we started to wonder, do we really know how to advocate for UNICEF?” she said, explaining that many of the education staff working in 134 field offices are not trained in statistics or data analysis. “How do we continue to push our human rights agenda when we’re sitting at the table? We’re not the World Bank. We decided to give our staff tools to help them support governments in developing these policies and education-sector plans.”

As Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M.’84, Ed.D.’88, said to participants on the first day, “We’re not here to impress one another, but to figure out how we can help one another help UNICEF achieve its goals.” Reimers designed the program with UNICEF and PPE and was the lead faculty member.

He also acknowledged another huge challenge faced by participants. Over the years, he said, there has been an increase in the number of other international development organizations doing similar work — groups like UNESCO and the World Bank, but also nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.

“This has meant more competition for funding, especially from donors who now expect to see hard data and tangible results,” he said. “While it may be easier now, in some ways, for groups like UNICEF and an NGO to work together to improve education, the bar for what you are expected to achieve has also gone up.”

To help fill the gaps for participants, sessions included exploring what leadership really means, understanding the process of policy analysis, figuring out how to get others to see all sides of an issue, figuring out how to effectively use research-based evidence, strategizing how to get quality teaching even without resources, and learning how to use the media to communicate a vision.

During a session led by Assistant Professor Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell focused on how organizations can change, Francisco Benavides Martinez, an education advisor for UNICEF in Panama, suggested that instead of focusing just on how those who were attending the institute could make changes in their regional offices, “we should be looking at what UNICEF is currently doing that can be sold in another way.”

Deema Jarrar, an education specialist in Jordan, agreed, and used an example from her experience — the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Jordan, including 180,000 school-age children — of how this would work.

“Instead of going to a government official and saying all students deserve to be in school, what we normally say at UNICEF and what is true, we should also say that if we don’t get refugee children in schools, those children (especially adolescents) will be competing for jobs with the Jordanian youth, who are suffering from unemployment, and so will negatively affect the country's economy.”

Another suggestion from Spica Utoyo, an education specialist from UNICEF’s Jakarta office in Indonesia, was for Harvard to offer more targeted training. During an informal discussion on how the school could help between incoming HGSE Dean James Ryan and the participants, Utoyo suggested the Ed School groom and train potential leaders in the ministries of education around the world — the main partner for most UNICEF education offices — so that, eventually, everyone is speaking the same language and understating the same concerns.

This would help program specialists like Zulfikur Ali Khan who said his biggest challenge in Afghanistan is the “capacity of the government responsible for the implementation, monitoring, and reporting of the project in a qualitative and systematic manner.”

For many participants who work in offices spread across nearly 50 countries, the week of all-day classes and shared meals allowed them the rare opportunity to network with peers.

“Learning from one another is critical,” said Jarrar.

During lunch breaks, for example, participants were encouraged to keep the classroom conversations going. On the second day, Iman Abdullah, an education officer in Baghdad, Iraq, used the time to form a small network of peers who shared similar experiences and challenges.

“We have vowed to stay in touch and continue supporting one another,” she said. “That is power.”

Reimers told her, “This will become your true north group.”

Unique about the program is that it’s not just limited to the week on campus. Prior, participants spent three weeks reading materials. When they go back to their countries, they will continue working on something called a personal leadership challenge, which they started on campus. Although Reimers acknowledged that they face many issues, he asked them to each analyze one major challenge with the goal of creating a plan for figuring it out. To do this back in their countries, participants will be able to get help with an online tool called the Harvard Management Mentor, as well as the research skills of master’s students in the International Education Policy Program in the fall. As a final component, participants will share their leadership plans with one another and the Ed School.

That collaboration, said, Reimers, is what will allow for real change — at one school, across a region, or throughout an entire organization.

“Great things can happen when people like yourselves decide to lead,” he said. But, he stressed, “No one achieves alone. I am excited to work with you because I know how much power you have, not just as individuals, but together.”