The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)


The Executive Director of a UN agency on running it like a business

Leading UNOPS, which I’ve done since 2014, requires a daily walk across a political tightrope.

But I try not to let politics distract me from my primary goal: helping the agency continue to become a self-funded, sustainable, and entrepreneurial arm of the United Nations – staying true to our original mission even as we diversify to serve a wide array of clients and take on projects unlike what most people envision for an NGO like ours.

Not long ago the organization teetered near bankruptcy; today it’s growing smartly. What we’ve accomplished can be instructive. It’s easy to name dozens of successful turnarounds in the private sector; it’s much harder to think of nonprofit examples. UNOPS has been able to change dramatically, creating a culture of discipline and a measured approach to risk-taking.

UNOPS has an unusual history. Until the mid-1990s it was a project-execution department within the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which is comparable to other large UN agencies such as the International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme. UNOPS always charged other members of the UN family to cover the costs of projects – building infrastructure, for example – but as it grew, so did a seed of doubt. Critics said it was a conflict of interest that the UNDP made policy decisions and then charged member states to take actions accordingly through its de facto subsidiary, UNOPS. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then the secretary-general, wanted more transparency around funding decisions and clearer incentives for agencies to work together.

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