A Lasting COVID-19 Legacy: Investing in Leadership for Global Health Equity
I started my career in the private sector, with a firm that prioritized investing in talent early and often. My main motivation for joining Global Health Corps (GHC), an organization committed to building the next generation of health equity leaders, was a growing understanding that bringing a leadership approach to global health could unlock immense progress. Eight+ years later, the unwavering belief in the power of the right kind of leadership to advance health equity still motivates me and the team I lead as GHC’s CEO.
Since 2009, the GHC community has grown to 1,000+ young professionals working at 400+ organizations, companies, and government agencies — the majority of whom identify as women and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Hailing primarily from East and Southern Africa and the U.S., they have launched or deepened their careers as GHC fellows and then joined our thriving alumni network. Our partners continue to seek GHC fellows year after year, while our tight-knit group of alumni are rising in their careers, making an outsized impact in their communities, and sought out by top global health organizations.
Currently, investment in leadership development programs like GHC comprises a small percentage of total global health funding. With the world navigating the global health crisis of our lifetimes, we are at a crossroads. I believe the global health sector must increase investment in leadership development now to 1) advance diversity and inclusion, 2) prioritize resiliency throughout COVID-19 recovery, and 3) accelerate systems change in the months and years ahead.
Closing the Gender & Race Gaps in Global Health Leadership at All Levels
Global health continues to have a serious representation problem, which hinders improved health outcomes. As Kaamil Ahmed put it for The Guardian “A small group of privileged [white] men based in Europe and the U.S. preside over a global health system which is 70% male.” To date, the response to a growing awareness of this lack of diversity has focused on hiring and retaining more diverse talent and investing more in women-led and BIPOC-led organizations in the U.S. and around the world. Both are critical interventions, but they’re not enough to create a sea change because they focus disproportionately on top leadership.
The missing link is investing in the leadership development of women and BIPOC leaders over the long term, starting during their early careers and continuing as they rise through the ranks. Managing funds, building and leading strong teams, and making strategic decisions are key to driving change. While many young professionals have bold visions, a deep understanding of their communities, lived experience with inequities, and strong technical expertise, their ability to make a meaningful impact hinges on the intentional development of these skills.
Protecting Global Health Leaders from Burnout
In the wake of COVID-19, a decade of progress in global health and development may be reversed. In global health, leaders at all levels face a serious risk of burnout following a year of trauma and exhaustion that spanned the personal and the professional realms. The risks are even higher for women and BIPOC leaders, given the added pressures and stress that white supremacy and patriarchy daily inflicts on them.
Robust leadership development opportunities that provide access to networks, resources, and mentorship are strong antidotes. Targeted investments can shore up their adaptability, resilience, and other traits required to lead and manage through the ongoing crisis and recovery period. Research from the private sector underscores this. An MIT Sloan study, for example, found that “To become more resilient in the face of sudden change…it was just as important to improve the way people work and to update their skills as it was to introduce new technologies.”
Accelerating Systems Change
In highlighting deep inequities, the pandemic has made systems change a common refrain. Yet systems don’t have agency — people do. An investment in the leaders who design and shape systems is an investment in systems change, which is by nature complex, long-term work.
Investing in global health leaders can accelerate systems change over time by ensuring implementers across organizations, not just top leadership, can engage through a systems lens. As a 2016 SSIR piece on systems change posits: “In addition to developing a systems mindset, it is important to strengthen people’s self-awareness and relationships, create space for dialogue and inquiry, ensure honest and transparent communication, and develop a shared understanding and practice of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This requires dedicating resources to building authentic leaders and systems thinkers who can hone and practice these skills throughout their careers.
The immense disruption of the past year has brought its share of pain, loss, and tragedy. At the same time, it’s created an opening to change outdated practices and mindsets that hinder progress. These shifts won’t happen without intention and investment. Those of us who lead global health organizations must continue to have honest, brave conversations with ourselves, with our teams, and with funders. Making the shift now will drive ongoing efforts to advance diversity and inclusion, prevent burnout and foster a stronger pandemic recovery, and accelerate systems change.
For foundations seeking guidance for integrating talent-investing across all grant types, Fund the People’s toolkit and The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s piece on how five of the wealthiest U.S. foundations pledged to shift more funds to cover their grantees’ operating costs are great resources.
Heather Anderson brings a deep understanding of systems change, a belief in the power of people, and a cross-sectoral approach to her role as CEO of Global Health Corps (GHC). She leads and manages a global team to drive GHC’s mission to mobilize a diverse community of effective health equity leaders.
Global Health Corps (GHC) is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. There is a role for everyone in the movement for health equity. To learn more, visit our website and connect with us on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.