Alum-spiration: “We are all obligated to commit ourselves to good governance”

Bidjan Nashat, among the first batch of MPP students, still draws on the lessons he learned during his time at the Hertie School.

For Bidjan Nashat, enrolling at the Hertie School in 2005 as part of its first-ever cohort was a plunge into the deep end.

“We didn’t know yet how everything would turn out, and it felt a little bit like we were all trying to establish and build the Hertie School together, kind of like a startup,” he recalls.

Bidjan, who currently works as Global Programme Quality and Impact Director at Save the Children International, was born in Berlin to an Iranian father and a German mother. He credits his parents for his early interest in politics – his mother with her work as an activist for Amnesty International and his father, a doctor, who was always committed to humanitarian aid.

A defining moment came when he did his 13-month civilian service in lieu of military service after graduating from high school. Bidjan, who was 19 years old at the time, says that he wasn’t excited at all about his assignment: working at a Berlin hospital.

“In hindsight, however, it was during my civilian service that my fascination for leadership, people, and organisations began,” Bidjan says.

The question of how to build good, capable organisations for those who need it most runs like a red thread through Bidjan’s professional career. One class he took at the Hertie School and still remembers vividly today is “Organisational failure and public policy disasters”, taught back then by Wolfgang Seibel, Hertie School adjunct and Professor of Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Konstanz.

“We often talk about successful projects and institutions, but in this course, we analysed organisational failure and public policy disasters in order to assess the risks of failure and to contribute to appropriate risk reduction and crisis management strategies,” Bidjan says. He wrote his master’s thesis about how organisations can make good decisions based on data and evidence.

After graduating from the Hertie School in 2007 with a Master of Public Policy (MPP), Bidjan, together with some of his classmates, helped establish Teach First Deutschland, a non-profit initiative with the aim of improving equal opportunities in the field of education, based on the successful concept of Teach for America.

He then moved to Washington, D.C. – where he had also met his wife – to start working at the World Bank.

“It was a great experience, both intellectually challenging and enriching,” Bidjan says. “It was not only important to use data and evidence as a basis to improve organisations, but I also learned a lot about leadership and organisational culture.”

In 2011, when the Arab Spring unfolded, Bidjan decided that it was time to move on to a more purposeful role.

“While all these significant changes happened in the world, I was sitting in an air-conditioned room in DC reading evaluation reports,” he says with a laugh.

Having lived in the US for quite some time, Bidjan decided to reactivate his network in Germany. Together with a friend, he developed trainings for organisations on how to develop and maintain good leadership on results and impact, which they offered through the LEAD Academy in Berlin. Working with German NGOs again put him in a better position when he applied to Save the Children in Berlin.

“When you live abroad for several years, you are a bit disconnected from what’s going on in your home country, and I had to start from scratch again, building my network,” he says.

Bidjan has worked for Save the Children for almost a decade in different leadership roles, including during the refugee crisis in Germany in 2015-16. As Global Programme Quality and Impact Director, he is responsible for ensuring expertise, monitoring quality and measuring impact for the organisation. He leads a global team focused on creating, using and learning from what works across all of Save the Children’s programmes. During COVID-19, that meant leading the adaptation of a $1.2 billion programme portfolio across all thematic areas and monitoring and evaluation in 2020.

“Learning about how you lead yourself and others through crisis and change is crucial, even outside of the humanitarian sector and whether you are in a big or small organisation” Bidjan explains. “There are important lessons that I took away personally from a challenging year. The devastating impact of COVID-19 on children and families should make every leader in this sector more focused on being more effective, remind us of our origins and why we exist.”   

Bidjan, who moved back to the U.S. earlier this year with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, also leads change toward a bigger focus on diversity of expertise within his organisation.

“In the past years, we have invested heavily to become more local, to employ more experts from the Global South. Legitimacy and impact are closely connected. ”

In the end, he says, it’s all about good governance – which leads him back to the Hertie School.

“I think we are all obligated to commit ourselves to good governance, regardless of which sector we work in,” he says. “This is one of the Hertie School’s biggest strengths, and the common goal that connects the students, alumni and faculty: to change things for the better.”

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.