Can Harvard's JFK School Help Solve Africa's Biggest Problem? One Big Donor Hopes So

Once upon a time, public policy schools were seen as top training grounds for public service. Those days are largely over, as the folks at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton can tell you. The university was famously sued by the family that gave a huge seed gift to the school to promote public service but then became upset when, over the years, the school turned into a major feeder for private consulting firms. 

Fortunately for Harvard, John F. Kennedy isn't around to complain that his name is affixed to a school that last year sent only about a third of grads into the public sector. ("Ask what you can do for McKinsey. . . .")

Fortunately, some deep pocketed donors still think of the JFK School as a great training place for public servants worldwide, and one of those donors is Christen Sveaas, owner of Kistefos AS, a Norwegian investment firm, who recently gave the school what he refers to as a “small” gift of $11 million to establish the African Public Service Graduate Fellowship Fund.

So is writing a check to an American university with a $32 billion endowment really the best way to help the poorest continent in the world? 

Sveaas hopes so, and in a press release regarding the donation, he said, "It doesn’t always seem that democracies work as they should, and I hope my small contribution can help educate the next generation of African leaders."

Sveaas is zeroing in on Africa's biggest obstacle to progress, which is poor governance—and, even more narrowly, corruption. This continent, home to many poor populations, is also incredibly rich in many ways. To cite just one example: Africa is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the world’s gold production and over 50 percent of the world’s diamonds. But all this bounty never quite translates to economic advancement as African countries hemorrhage cash to offshore bank accounts.

Related: Who’s Taking on Africa’s Dirty Money Problem?

If you're a concerned funder like Sveaas, who's wealthy but no billionaire, a focus on corruption actually makes a lot of sense. As we have written before, corruption is a great leverage point for philanthropists looking to help developing countries. If anti-corruption efforts succeed in redirecting even a sliver of the money that now flows offshore back into African nations, it would make a huge difference. 

So Sveaas has picked the right issue. He's also picked a good intervention point, which is younger leaders. 

Not all African leaders are corrupt, obviously. There are plenty of great leaders fighting against the tide. And the best hopes are vested in new leaders coming up through political ranks, who haven't already become accustomed to corruption. In fact, at the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit, held earlier this year, the theme was "Investing in the Next Generation."

As for Sveaas's choice of the JFK School, that makes a lot of sense, too. Quite apart from the quality of the school's faculty and programs, the Harvard brand is known worldwide, and the African fellows who come through the new initiative will be able to get years of mileage out of their time in Cambridge. 

The dividends of investing in human capital and leadership are always kind of intangible, which is ironic given how concrete are the negative effects of poor leadership. 

The new fellowship will begin welcoming its inaugural African students in the 2015-2016 school year and will cover their tuition, fees, and living expenses. In return for their all-expenses-paid trip through Harvard, the fellows must commit to at least three years of public service work. The gift will also go toward helping support the education costs of other students coming from Africa to attend to Harvard’s Kennedy School.

This multi-million dollar gift to Harvard isn’t Sveaas’s first. In 2006, he gave the Kennedy School a $1.2 million check to establish the Kistefos Public Service Fellowship. The funds were earmarked for the support of students from Sveaas’ native Norway.

Speaking of Norway—there's a country that knows something about clean government. Norway is rated by Transparency International as being the fifth least corrupt country on Earth.