The school for Africa’s first ladies

Bess Truman once famously quipped that her job as first lady entailed little more than sitting “quietly on the podium next to her husband” and making sure “her hat was on straight”.

Times are different, of course, and while the position of first lady comes with no pay and no official responsibilities in most countries, a new fellowship programme developed by the Rand Corporation, the non-for-profit research organisation, is trying to change that. The programme, which is held at Rand’s office in Arlington, Virginia, aims to help African first ladies and their staff develop analysis skills that will enable them to exert a bigger role in health and social policy across the continent.

I spoke recently to Gery Ryan, a member of the Pardee Rand Graduate School faculty and Rand senior social scientist, who helps lead the fellowship. He told me:

“In most countries, if you asked ‘who is the woman at the top?’ the answer is ‘the first lady’. The first lady sits at the pinnacle of society. She can pick up the phone and talk to just about anyone she wants. Her favorability ratings are often higher than her husband’s. So why aren’t first ladies more powerful and influential entities? Because they are leaders without authority. We want to help them lead.”

“In the US the first lady role has moved beyond just the social secretary of the White House. Today first ladies here [and in other countries] take on issues and causes where they can really make a difference. It is an evolutionary process that has already started, and we want to put that process on steroids.”

Seminars aim to help first ladies understand how to deal effectively with constituents and donors, how to start an NGO, and how to foster good press relationships.

Over a two-year period, first ladies and fellows – mostly chiefs of staff and other advisers to first ladies – will develop and implement a plan to address one of their country’s top challenges, such as maternal and child health or education.

“To be influential, they have to be apolitical,” he says. “The goal is to treat first ladies as agents of change. I believe that if you put $200,000 into the first lady’s office in [a given country in] Africa, the return would be massive. I want to see the world to recognise that the role of first lady is a real profession.”

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