There is growing visibility on the global stage of the role of first lady—an intriguing position that has no job description, yet has enormous potential to champion important causes and motivate change.

For example, first ladies of Africa are often called the “mamas” of their country. They occupy a unique position in their society and they recognize the opportunity—and challenge—they have to use their platform to help improve the lives of people in their country.

Despite this increased visibility, the role of first lady is often misunderstood and underestimated. In Africa, first ladies are particularly scrutinized. Speculation about shopping sprees undermines their valuable work and distorts the path these women work hard to forge.

Through our respective work in various international development programs as well as first-hand experience with a number of African first ladies, we knew these women were champions for change both individually and as a collective force.

We brought these women together in 2009 for the African First Ladies Health Summit in Los Angeles, the largest international gathering of African first ladies to-date. Significant investments in Africa had been made by the United States and other donor nations and the global dialogue was shifting even more heavily toward empowering women and girls in order to deliver measurable results on the Millennium Development Goals.

At a time when the world needed as much leadership as possible mobilized around these issues, the African first ladies were eager to share some of their work and shine a light on their potential to address issues as complex as HIV/AIDS, maternal survival, and education across the continent, and ultimately they sought to play a more pivotal role.

Although the summit brought together nearly 300 global health and education experts from around the world, as McBride noted in a follow-up article, the first ladies proceeded to ‘school’ the experts on the needs and realities in their countries. "The experts came to tell the first ladies what they needed to do, but instead the first ladies gave them a lesson in the on-the-ground realities—and the support they needed to deliver even the most basic services to their people."

We were stunned. With such clarity of purpose and force of will behind their work, the only question left seemed to be: ‘how can we help you leverage your role more powerfully?’

In the case of first ladies, influence and goodwill at the national level are not matched by authority and the requisite infrastructure at an operational level. Instead, the majority of the world’s first ladies operate on little-to-no budget, volunteer staff, and part-time advisors—despite expectations that they should play notable, active roles in advancing key national causes.

In a series of closed roundtable sessions with the first ladies following the Summit, our work became clear. Over the next five years our African First Ladies Initiative, developed with the RAND Corporation, worked closely with participating first ladies to co-develop a program aimed at leveraging their unique positions as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Drawing on shared best practices from the offices of 24 African first ladies, as well as the offices of U.S. and UK first ladies Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Sarah Brown, and Cherie Blair, we co-designed a first of its kind leadership series and fellowship training for first ladies and their senior staff.

Since 2009, 24 first ladies and 36 of their senior advisors have consistently and actively participated in this annual leadership dialogue and fellowship training.

The most remarkable outcome has been the standardization-by-consensus of the office of first lady. Together, these women are setting standards for themselves and for each other to define their missions, implement their strategies, secure effective partnerships, measure outcomes, and meticulously choose the roles they play on a select but powerful set of issues.

They understand that in operating without elected authority—and under harsh scruples of the public eye—their influence stems from the prestige and goodwill they foster by acting with authenticity, dedication, and in abiding by high standards.

In 2011, one of our most active first ladies, Mrs. Penehupifo Pohamba of Namibia, became the Chair of the African Union’s Organization of African First Ladies (OAFLA). Under Mrs. Pohamba’s tenure, OAFLA has made important headway on policies and programs related to prevention of mother-to-child-transmission of HIV/AIDS (PMTCT) across Africa. At the same time in Namibia, Mrs. Pohamba advocated for domestic policy that institutionalizes the office of the first lady (the policy was adopted).

We are encouraged by how the first ladies are refining their roles and harnessing their potential in similar ways across Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Mozambique, and many more countries.

Since that 2009 Summit, there has also been a remarkable increase in the number of international summits for first ladies. This demonstrates not only how powerfully they are embracing their role as first lady and mother of their country, but also the recognition of their ability to impact lasting change.

Cora Neumann and Anita McBride are co-founders of the African First Ladies Initiative.

Anita McBride
Anita B. McBride served as the Chief of Staff to First Lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009 and is an Advisory Board member of Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.