Leadership Forum Empowers First Ladies Around the World


Nov 4, 2021

Attendees of the RAND African First Ladies Fellowship forum on September 26, 2012, photo by Diane Bondareff/AP Images

Attendees of the RAND African First Ladies Fellowship forum on September 26, 2012, from right: second lady Hajiya Amina Namadi Sambo of Nigeria, first lady Chantal Yayi of Benin, former first lady Callista Mutharika of Malawi, and former UK first lady Cherie Blair

Photo by Diane Bondareff/AP Images

In many countries, the role of first lady doesn't come with a job description or even a staff. The Global First Ladies Alliance—born at the Pardee RAND Graduate School as the RAND African First Ladies Fellowship—has spent more than a decade helping first ladies lead, often with the assistance of America's own first ladies.

Researchers Cora Neumann and Gery Ryan established the fellowship initiative at RAND and in 2009 held the largest meeting of African first ladies outside the continent. The researchers eventually established GFLA as a nonprofit with two partners, Nicole Brzeski and Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. Ryan, a faculty member at Pardee RAND, still serves on GFLA's advisory board.

GFLA works with primarily African first ladies to advance the causes they care about, such as gender equality, women's economic empowerment, and maternal and child health. Because first ladies may have only a few assistants, GFLA acts as a back office, helps advocate for a formal office, and continues to operate the fellowship program to develop existing staff because “the higher you go as a leader, you're only as good as your best advisor,” Brzeski said. GFLA has worked with 45 first ladies and 150 fellows. Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama have participated, and GFLA helped Laura Bush establish a first ladies initiative at the Bush Institute.

Neumann and Brzeski point to a few favorite success stories: Sierra Leone's Sia Nyama Koroma partnered with religious leaders and even hip-hop artists to promote hospital deliveries to keep women from dying during childbirth. Namibia's Penehupifo Pohamba established a first lady's office, which has helped her successor, Monica Geingos, become one of Africa's most visible first ladies.

Neumann, in her post-RAND career, has worked at, among other institutions, the U.S. Department of State and the World Health Organization; chairs GFLA; and is running for Congress. “There is a direct link,” she said, “between us helping formalize the office and the next first lady hitting the ground running and becoming incredibly successful. This is the model we want for all first ladies.”

—Melissa Bauman

Sources: GFLA.org, interview with Cora Neumann and Nicole Brzeski, RAND archives