Training our future humanitarian leaders

December 15, 2016
Photo by Kieran McConville

From conflict in South Sudan to drought in Ethiopia, effective humanitarian aid has never been more essential. Here are the stories of two newly minted graduates of the Program on Humanitarian Leadership — now calling for applications.

Bonaventure Mulama and Dr. Lillian Nyamuda are well on the road to becoming future humanitarian leaders, thanks to an innovative pilot project launched by a unique partnership between government, academia, and leading humanitarian organizations.

Last April, humanitarian professionals — including Bonaventure and Lillian — representing non-governmental organizations from all over the world joined graduate students at Harvard University for an intensive in-person leadership training course held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were there to take part in the remarkably popular pilot of the Program on Humanitarian Leadership (PHL) — a rigorous, innovative program designed to train the next generation of humanitarian leaders.

“PHL allowed me to develop into a better humanitarian leader. It addressed gaps in my knowledge and provided me better ways of tackling certain situations.” — Lillian

Applications for the program opened in December 2015, and within weeks more than 700 applications from humanitarian staff and graduate students around the globe had been received. These applicants were all competing for just twelve spots in the first year of the PHL program, which is led by Concern Worldwide in partnership with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and International Medical Corps, and funded by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Brainstorming discussion among participants from PHL's kickoff year.

Dr. Lillian Nyamuda (center) with fellow PHL participants — brainstorming solutions to real-world challenges on Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, MA. Photo: Concern Worldwide

When the enthusiastic participants arrived at Harvard in April, they tackled the subjects of humanitarian financing, international humanitarian law, humanitarian coordination, media and journalism, and adaptive leadership. They also combined their own work experiences with their newly-acquired knowledge to collectively brainstorm ways to address critical day-to-day challenges that they face in their existing positions.

Following the in-person portion of the program, PHL participants were assigned mentors and continued the course through distance learning. They also stayed in regular contact with their PHL colleagues to share learnings and support each other. Many had the opportunity to engage in new roles and immediately put the skills they gained into practice.

Road-testing new skills

Participants also had the opportunity to complete a field placement, and Kenyan-born Bonaventure Mulama carried out his placement with Concern in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region. Following the experience, he explained that, “Concern’s approach is noteworthy for its emphasis on helping beneficiaries get back on their feet economically, as opposed to just giving them regular food handouts to address pangs of hunger.”

“It is uplifting seeing sustainable progress from very humble beginnings… Programs like this restore economic stability and the belief that we human beings can substantially improve our status.” — Bonaventure

Bonaventure’s work with Concern exposed him to new development models, such as a small-scale lending program that organized local farmers into groups that had a shared vision, clear objectives, a leadership structure, and rules. Each farmer in the group received 110 pounds of an enhanced variety of potato seeds, three sheep, and one ram — which together comprised a small startup loan, or “microloan.” Each farmer was required to pay back the loan into a revolving fund within the year, and that fund would then support new beneficiaries.

PHL participant Bonaventure Mulama in Ethiopia

Bonaventure Mulama during his PHL field placement in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region. Photo: Absra Anawete

“It is uplifting seeing sustainable progress from very humble beginnings,” said Bonaventure. “Programs like this one restore not just economic stability but also the belief that, in the right environment, we human beings can, with a little help and lots of discipline, substantially improve our status.”

For Bonaventure, the PHL experience was not just rewarding but also humbling. When speaking about the mentorship component of the program, Bonaventure noted that what he appreciated the most was, “hearing from someone who has seen it all before. I liked the fact that my mentor had experience in diverse humanitarian contexts and had even worked in Ethiopia. It was also humbling to have someone so senior put aside some of their pressing tasks to listen to how I was faring on and offer advice.”

A leader in the making

For Zimbabwean Dr. Lillian Nyamuda, the impact of the PHL experience is clear: she has embraced her own potential as a humanitarian leader in the making. After participating in the in-person PHL leadership training course, Lillian returned to her job as a project manager at an international non-governmental organization, where she was overseeing a program to strengthen healthcare services in a county of South Sudan. She found that the PHL experience had equipped her with a host of new skills:

“PHL has been a fantastic platform that allowed me to develop into a better humanitarian leader. It addressed some gaps in my knowledge and provided me better ways of tackling certain situations to improve programming. For example, during project assessments, it was typical for me to research how much the community was utilizing our services, and how good they were. Now, because of my PHL training, I want to design a study to find out what the community actually wants from their healthcare providers, not just their utilization behavior!

“PHL allowed me create invaluable networks with other humanitarians — learning from their experiences, and adapting what I’ve learned to my context.” — Lillian

“PHL also allowed me create invaluable networks with other humanitarians — learning from their experiences and adapting what I’ve learned to my context. For instance, one of the main leadership challenges I face is keeping my team motivated despite the difficult and challenging situations that they face on a daily basis. To approach this, I try to utilize what I learned about motivating teams. I speak words of encouragement to them regularly, and make them feel appreciated and assure them that their work is valued. I try to create a positive internal working environment, to combat the negative external environment.”

PHL participant Farman Ullah and South Sudanese children

PHL participant Farman Ullah in South Sudan. Photo: Farman Ullah

Lillian and Bonaventure’s experiences are just two examples from an extremely successful pilot. When asked how the program benefitted their work, participants felt it was “a remarkable experience,” that enabled them to “identify areas of strength that [they] have, as well as ones that [they] would like to further improve.”

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