Voices: From conflict to concrete results - "being the carpenter"

“Without people, UNOPS is just a name. It is the people that make UNOPS what it is today.” - Chakib Belhassan, Director of UNOPS in Sudan (former Director of UNOPS in Tunisia)


Throughout 2015, we will be celebrating some of our key achievements, speaking to some of our longest-serving personnel and looking ahead to how UNOPS can continue our mission – serving people in need.


I began working with UNOPS in 1993, before it became an independent organization. At the time, I was living in New York and working with the United Nations Development Programme, when I got a call asking if I wanted to take a job in Somalia. It was an exciting prospect as I had never done any field work in a conflict area before, so I said yes.   

I was working on a project in the northern part of the country, called Somaliland, and the situation there was much more complex than it was in the rest of the country.

There, we were the implementing agency for the Somalia Rural Rehabilitation Programme. I worked in Somaliland for two years and it was very intense. In the first six months, to travel just 90 kilometres you had to go through 17 checkpoints, run by different local tribes, not checkpoints run by the military or governments. Every time we crossed a checkpoint they pointed their Kalashnikov rifles at us and held knives to our necks. It was quite an exhilarating introduction to field work in a conflict area. I think I was more carefree back then, but we were just there to help, so we always tried to explain, with the support of our driver, what exactly we were doing.


The environment at that time brought our team together to perform in what were really dreadful conditions; security issues, limited food supplies and the fact that there was a war going on around us. Besides all of that, we were working every day to get the job done – from 7 in the morning until 10 or 11 in the evening. Despite all of this we were still extremely motivated.

I returned to Somalia in 2001 and since our initial project – where we implemented around 1,000 sub-projects to improve infrastructure, education, health, and social and income equality – even more projects had been implemented and the local economy had improved substantially. The authorities were more structured and there was a sense that parts of society had returned to normality.

It was great to see that some sub-projects were still in operation and still continuing to improve the lives of the people living there – such as a water-supply project that brings water to a village where the women were walking up to eight kilometres every day to get water. We managed to bring the water to them and at the same time provide water for the shepherds of the area to avoid the conflict between some of them and the rest of the population.

We helped to create an entire system that is sustainable, which includes the ongoing operation of the water supply. They established a committee in the village that manages the whole process and it all works really well.

Contributing to something really useful is the biggest reward you can have. I would happily go through it all again, perhaps with fewer checkpoints and even fewer years, though!

UNOPS has changed in a lot of aspects over the years, but one important thing that has changed is that we have started to become better positioned in the international arena and within the UN system.

Visibility means that we are recognized for what we do and I think this is important. We are good implementers and we have good people who can deliver results. Without people, UNOPS is just a name. It is the people that make UNOPS what it is today.

It's like what my friend used to say, he worked for another organization and once told me: 'I am tired of just writing reports. I want to be like the carpenter, who builds the chair and can then sit on it.'

I feel a little bit like that working for UNOPS. I can build that chair by doing the work with the people and then after that, I can see the results. That is the real reward, seeing how our work improves the lives of others.