Recovering better after COVID: Lao PDR

Guest blog by Felipe Morgado

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

Enrolling in the Leading Economic Growth executive programme at Harvard Kennedy School has been a tremendously enriching experience. I am impressed with the number of key ideas and learnings covered over the past ten weeks across both the theory of economic growth and the practice of leadership in public policy. They will certainly have an impact as I continue to build my career at the United Nations.

As an economist by training, I joined the course already with a solid background in development economics. However, I was eager to learn more about Prof. Hausmann’s work on complexity, product space, knowhow and growth diagnostics. They gave me a fresh perspective on investment, trade and industrial policy – reflecting on past mistakes, and articulating ways to promote sustainable growth as the world seeks to recover from COVID-19.

Just as critical was Prof. Andrews’s content on leadership and methodologies to tackle complex problems. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), high-bandwidth organizations, policy design space and multi-agent leadership are just some of the concepts that have resonated with me.  They provide inspiration to tackle the hard issues with more confidence, especially at such an important time in development policy-making, when we seeking to “build back better”.

Moving from growth challenge to results

Throughout the course, while analyzing a specific country-level growth challenge, I consistently sought to apply a United Nations lens, taking into consideration the organization’s role and mandate in supporting sustainable development globally. This helped me keep focus and build clear connections between the content and its applicability in my own professional context.

In only a few weeks, the course enabled me to move from identifying a growth challenge, to delving deep into a representation of the specific issues through a fishbone diagramme, assessing the binding constraint, starting to organize a team that would be able to engage thickly on the issue, with clear next steps and a list of contacts to be mobilized. As someone working for an international organization, especially interesting was the discussion on external best practice, its risks and opportunities, and techniques to also take into consideration existing practice and positive deviance.

The final module deep dive into the “Singapore Story” was enlightening. I was thrilled to learn more about the little known role of the United Nations in advising Singapore on its development strategy. Also implicit in the story was the essential infrastructure of the multilateral system in enabling this kind of export-oriented growth.

Leadership and development at the United Nations

I was glad to see that the current policy and practice of the United Nations is broadly consistent with the learnings from the course. The normative role of promoting the framework of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals, is complemented by extensive operational efforts at localizing, adapting to country contexts, developing capacity and focusing on results. Similarly, with the reform of the United Nations Development System, there have been important improvements on organization, for instance via more rigorous approaches to identifying key development interventions, which are validated by all parties (UN, Government and other stakeholders) in the form of a Cooperation Framework. Country-level UN leadership has been revitalized in the shape of reinvigorated UN Resident Coordinators.

Only by building a bridge between theory and practice will we be able to deliver results in sustainable development. There is limited value in being an economics expert able to create growth strategies that are detached from the applied context, or in being a public policy practitioner that can implement but not think about transformative policies.

Combining these aspects has been, for me, a key asset of the Leading Economic Growth programme. In my own experience at the United Nations, I have sought to break these artificial silos between “subject area experts” and “managers”. This is necessary so that we can fulfill the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals, with only a decade left and in the aftermath of an era-defining COVID-19 pandemic. The course certainly has provided me with inspiration to continue to explore innovative, pragmatic ways to tackle growth challenges.

Enhancing the sense of a common agenda

One final reflection is related to the “sense of us” and how it applies to the United Nations. The broadest identity, beyond nationality and regional affiliation, is of belonging to a humanity that shares common values and aspirations, and is bound together by a common future on a common planet. Indeed, the United Nations is currently preparing “Our Common Agenda”, to be presented in September 2021, in response to the 75th Anniversary of the creation of the United Nations.

While I feel strongly attached to this global identity, many people take it for granted, question the relevance or purpose of international cooperation, or outright object to it. The course made me think more intentionally about ways to strengthen this shared “sense of us” that ultimately underpins the legitimacy and effectiveness of the United Nations in promoting not only sustainable growth, but also peace & security and human rights for all.  As enshrined in the Charter, 75 years ago “we the peoples of the United Nations, determined … to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom … and for these ends … to employ international machinery for the promotion of economic and social advancement of all peoples … resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims”. COVID-19 has made clear the interconnected nature of economic and social progress everywhere, and provides an impetus for a renewed sense of a common agenda to build a better world for all.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

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