From Behind Barbed Wire to Harvard Square: Genti Miho MC-MPA 2012

by Molly Lanzarotta

When recent graduate Genti Miho talks about his life and career, he describes an unlikely journey of great geographic and cultural distances that eventually led to Harvard Kennedy School. From a childhood “behind barbed wire in communist Albania” as he describes it, to a decade of international development work that preceded his mid-career studies, Miho’s path reveals his own curiosity and drive for discovery beyond what is known and possible.

Having a growing awareness throughout his early years of his country’s isolation and his family’s precarious political status, Miho experienced an extraordinary and unexpected turn of events when Albania’s communist regime collapsed. He perceived that his own newfound opportunities in life arose from the sacrifices others had made before him. “I felt the responsibility to pursue goals larger than myself or my family and friends, and to help other people realize their dreams.”

Especially motivating to him was a sense of pride in his national heritage, from Albania’s centuries old honor code to his countrymen’s record of compassion during WWII. Miho felt that he could continue this tradition. “Today we can learn from the vision of Albanian spiritual and political leaders in the past 150 years… in how we tackle intolerance of religion and multiculturalism in Europe and beyond.”

After studying business at the American University in Bulgaria, Miho began a career working for organizations such as CARE and UNICEF that took him to areas of the world – Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Somalia – that desperately needed the energy and expertise of motivated people like Miho. But nothing had prepared him for the challenges of the Ituri and Haut Uele provinces in eastern Congo where he worked on health, education and water and sanitation projects as chief of the field offices for UNICEF.

Several rebellions – one involving the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army – were driving villagers out of their homes and Miho was confronted with the extreme difficulty of continuing a development project in an emergency setting. “At first, we thought shifting resources for higher impact would be optimal. However, the villagers came to talk to us and gave some reasons that did not sound very convincing, but showed determination. We sat together and decided to evaluate the risks appropriately.” The team's principles of collaboration – “that people decide for their own lives and then we help do it better, faster, and get out of their way”— were instrumental in calculating the risks of continuing the project, according to Miho. “No policy tool or framework can have precedence over people who want to change their lives. … [the completion of the project] would not have been possible without having faith in them and knowing the importance of not over-coordinating.”

Like many mid-career students who choose to take a year out of their working lives, Miho saw attending Harvard Kennedy School as an opportunity to broaden and deepen his understanding of “how the world evolves.”

“The people [at HKS] make me think constantly of new ways and better solutions of how to tackle public issues sustainably. It increases my awareness about my capability and role to bring positive change in the world. I see more responsibility for my actions on behalf of those who simply did not have the opportunity to be here.” As both a Mason Fellow and a Kokkalis Fellow, Miho also feels that those particular communities of international students enriched his time at HKS and provided an additional lens through which to look at the world.

Miho is not yet sure where the continuing journey will take him post-graduation, but he is exploring ways in which private/public partnerships help emerging economies bridge the gap between policy design and “tangible, sustainable and sensible results.”

Whatever happens next, Miho will stay on a course of service to others that draws its motivation from his unique personal history. “We need to try harder for peace, prosperity and dignity for humankind. When I saw some children’s will to survive in the jungles of the Congo, surviving atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, I often thought: that child could have been another President Obama. … In development, we need to take into account the underutilization of human capabilities and find innovative ways to raise people from poverty, but also use their skills for growth and the advancement of humanity.”

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Class of 2012 crowd

Genti Miho MC-MPA 2012 graduated from Harvard Kennedy School on May 24, 2012.

"In development, we need to take into account the underutilization of human capabilities and find innovative ways to raise people from poverty, but also use their skills for growth and the advancement of humanity."

—Genti Miho