The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

Ho​w can organizations imagine the unexpected?​​ ​

Speech by Grete Faremo, Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UNOPS at the EFQM Forum Event in Madrid, 26 October 2017 

[Check against delivery] 

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about UNOPS work and the wider United Nations – organizations that are probably a little different to your own. But nonetheless, organizations that are facing similar challenges in terms of sustainability, technology, data, compliance and talent management.

So what is UNOPS?

Well, let me introduce you to Dahal, holding his Nepalese identity card as he stands amongst the rubble of his home.

Dahal and his family lost their home and everything they owned in the devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal in the April of 2015.

However, he considers himself lucky. Some 9000 people in Nepal were killed during those earthquakes.

Dahal is also one of the poorest people in the world living in one of the poorest countries. He had no idea how he was going to be able to rebuild his family home.

This is where UNOPS and its partners entered the picture.

We are not an ‘aid organization’ with warehouses of emergency equipment or bank accounts full of donations ready to be used when disaster strikes.

We couldn’t dig into our own pockets to rebuild Dahal’s home.

But we did help mobilize and connect the many actors that could.

We brought in the financial resources of the World Bank by offering them the transparency and accountability that they required.

We linked them to the Nepalese authorities who were responsible for reconstruction in the country.

We brought in the technical expertise of suppliers and experts.

And, we brought our own project management and logistical expertise to the challenge.

We recruited and deployed over 4,000 engineers and other personnel in an extremely short time frame. We provided training and procured over a million dollars worth of tablet-based surveying equipment.

And then we deployed experts throughout some of the worst-hit areas of Nepal. They surveyed almost 1 million homes and assessed the damage to each of them. We geo-tagged, photographed and documented affected families and their homes. And we did it in the midst of a political and humanitarian crisis that was happening in one of the most inaccessible landscapes in the world.

Our work meant that over 1.8 billion dollars could be disbursed to over 600,000 Nepalese people, so that they could restart their lives.

But we also transferred skills and technology to the Government of Nepal. Over 1,000 of the survey engineers that we trained are now working for the Government and the mobile technology that we pioneered is transforming the way that it works.

And of course, Dahal was able to rebuild his home.

This is what UNOPS does.

We are the operational arm of the United Nations System – the United Nations Office for Project Services.

We are the workhorse of the UN.

UNOPS is a service provider, a technical advisor and an implementer of projects. We are impartial and able to operate in conflict regions and fragile states. We provide strategic solutions to core development and humanitarian challenges. In doing so, UNOPS aims to ensure national ownership and to enhance local capacity, while delivering services to the superior satisfaction of our partners and with the greatest impact for our beneficiaries.

We deliver project management, procurement and infrastructure services to governments, donors and other UN organizations and, increasingly, to private investors. We don’t deliver policies; we implement projects – more than 1,000 projects at any given time.

We have broad local knowledge from working in more than 80 countries with close to 10,000 personnel on our contracts.

We receive no core funding from donors. UNOPS, uniquely in the UN system, is only paid for the services we agree to deliver. Last year, we delivered about 1.4 billion dollars in peace & security, humanitarian and development projects.

In 2016, we created more than 3 million days of paid work for our beneficiaries. Provided over 50,000 days of technical assistance. And we built 74 hospitals and 278 health clinics. 50 schools and over 3,000 kilometers of roads.

We do these things because our Mission is to help people build better lives and countries achieve peace and sustainable development.

We bring to this task the values and principles of the United Nations and the innovation, boldness, speed and efficiency of a self-financed institution.

We bring the highest international standards to what we do, while respecting local contexts.

We do this as our contribution to tackling the huge challenges of the 21st century.

We provide practical solutions to assist our partners to save lives, protect people and their rights, and to build a better world.

We aspire to be a leader in the efforts to channel private sector investments for social and environmental impact, while addressing the immense needs for sustainable development.

What drives us is a passion to fight inequalities and to provide opportunities to those most vulnerable.

This means we often work in the most challenging environments, building foundations for communities to function and people to live with dignity and respect.

We are passionate about quality: In our people and in what we do.

We earn the trust of those we work with by caring about what they value, and by delivering on our promise to always act in the service of people in need.

Our Vision is a world where people can live full lives supported by appropriate, sustainable and resilient infrastructure and by the efficient, transparent use of public resources in procurement and project management.

And, we have always been agile, responding quickly to conflicts or natural disasters.

For example, in Haiti, since the 2010 earthquake, UNOPS has provided continuous project management, procurement and infrastructure support to the country, from early recovery and reconstruction to disaster risk reduction and sustainable development.

Our services have transitioned from debris management and shelter construction to sustainable urban development, road and transportation services, health services, promoting the rule of law, sustainable rural development and support to United Nations organizations in Haiti.

In West Africa, as part of the response to the Ebola crisis three years ago, UNOPS supported the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the rapid deployment of hundreds of international responders, in order to rebuild health services and create a safe environment for patients affected by Ebola.

But our business model like the world is complex, with a web of unusual stakeholder relationships to manage.

Which is why, when we first saw the EFQM definition of Excellence it resonated with us so strongly.

I don’t have to remind this audience of the definition but I’ll put it up here on the screen anyway.

As you know, there is one, small word in this sentence that makes the difference.


We have many stakeholders that ‘all’ need to have their expectations met and it quickly gets complicated.

Here’s an example.

In Myanmar, we manage the ‘Three Millennium Development Goal Fund’ helping to build the health system of the country. Over 70,000 children and pregnant women die each year largely from preventable causes. In the country, the leading causes of death and illness are tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. The Fund provides substantial resources to address these diseases as well as to improve maternal and newborn child health.

The money for this program comes from seven bilateral donors such as Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (USA), Sweden, Switzerland and the European Union (EU). So we already have an unusual degree of complexity here as we manage individual expectations from each member of this group.

Part of our responsibility in these relationships is being transparent and accountable. Transparency is part of our value proposition. Our books are open. Every dollar we spend is accounted for and reported on publicly.

In fact, UNOPS is one of the founding members of the International Aid Transparency Initiative – IATI – a voluntary, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve the transparency of aid, development, and humanitarian resources. But we do not see this as a burden. Rather it is one of the means that we use to satisfy another of our key stakeholder groups – the societies in which we work, by which I mean the citizens of both developing countries and donor countries. By being transparent in our operations we give citizens the information that they need in order to hold their governments accountable for the use of these resources. This stakeholder group is perhaps not one that immediately springs to mind but it is vital. By making information and data available, we empower citizens, governments and donors to collaborate and maximize development impact.

And of course, the Government of Myanmar is a key stakeholder as we work to help it meet its own commitment to providing universal health coverage. Our approach is integrated and aligned with the country’s National Health Plan. This integration means that we have to build human-rights based approaches into the design of the program to ensure that access to health is equitable and available to minorities, women and other vulnerable communities.

In a country that has moved from military rule to a constitutional democracy in recent years, managing this stakeholder relationship has also had its own challenges.

It goes without saying that the communities in which the Fund works are vital stakeholders. So we use community feedback mechanisms to help us understand how our interventions are perceived and received by the people that we serve.

In 2016, more than 7,500 pieces of feedback were received from communities, and 66 percent of which have already been addressed. For example, after a request to improve the accessibility of drop-in centres for women with drug dependence, we began to open the centres on the weekend and arranged outreach services to reach those who could not access them.

In order to get our work done in Myanmar, we then have to work through partnerships which may include other local NGOs, community-based organizations and, of course, a network of suppliers and logistics providers to deliver services throughout rural Myanmar.

You’ll have noticed that I have not used the word ‘customer’ amongst any of these stakeholder groups and that is quite deliberate because our business model is not so simple. The concept of a ‘customer’ that receives goods or services in return for payment is not how our model works.

Quite often the beneficiaries of our work are the poorest in society without the means to pay. And often, as in Myanmar, it is their governments that have the responsibility to provide these services but they, in turn, do not have the capacity or resources necessary to fulfill these responsibilities.

So, in our UNOPS Excellence Model, we present the idea of ‘partner results’ where a partner may be someone that funds our work, someone who we help to achieve their own results, or even those that directly benefit from our work.

There is another stakeholder group that I have to mention – our own people.

People are our only asset. We have no plants and machinery, just the knowledge and skills of our personnel.

We have a highly engaged, global workforce. Wherever possible we try to build local capacity by using local staff rather than expatriate internationals.

And we not only have a responsibility to reflect the societies that we serve in the make up of our own personnel, but also passionately believe in the value of diversity and gender balance.

So we ensure that gender considerations are built into the designs of our projects and we are working hard to achieve gender parity at all levels of our organization.

Our new Secretary General has made gender parity a key element of his reform agenda and it is a strategy that we believe all organizations should be actively engaging with.

This, then, is how UNOPS helps. Building a coalition of stakeholders and acting as an honest broker in order to mobilize resources, increase capacities, improve speed, reduce risks, increase quality and improve transparency.

Here’s another example where stakeholder understanding and management are absolutely key to our work.

The conflict in Gaza in 2014 left many residents homeless after their houses were destroyed.

The rebuilding of homes and hospitals in Gaza can only be done by facilitating interactions between the key stakeholders that are the Governments of Israel and Palestine.

Of course, there are many challenges facing the residents of Gaza in rebuilding their homes but one of the main ones are the security restrictions placed on building materials entering Gaza.

Permission is needed from the Government of Israel before items such as concrete can be brought into Gaza.

In order to meet the needs of these two key stakeholders, the UN facilitates a process that allows entry into Gaza large amounts of ‘dual-use’ materials for the purpose of reconstruction.

UNOPS has designed and developed the material monitoring system which assists teams of engineers, surveyors and stock monitors to produce the reports which in turn provide the degree of transparency necessary to satisfy the Governments of both Israel and Palestine and so allow reconstruction materials into Gaza.

Wherever I travel in the UNOPS world, our project managers are always talking to me about their stakeholders. We have a demanding job in keeping them satisfied but it is a challenge that we relish and one that we think we are good at.

But our world is changing.

Sustainable Development is not business as usual.

The world looks very different now compared to when the UN was founded.

I have had the privilege to sit on two sides of the sustainable development table. Firstly, as the Norwegian Minister of Development Cooperation, I have been on the donor side of the table; providing funds and expecting results. And now, I sit on another side of the table, implementing projects on behalf of our partners and donors.

So I know that the pressure to demonstrate results, to integrate approaches that increase the effectiveness of what we do is ever increasing. Even the donors that are maintaining their commitments to funding development assistance are under ever-increasing pressure to demonstrate effectiveness. For example, in the UK foreign aid is the most scrutinized part of all government spending and is heavily monitored and audited.

As an organization working in sustainable development, we know that if we are to remain relevant and credible, we need to be able to demonstrate effectiveness and efficiency. It is one of the reasons that in UNOPS we have embraced the concept of excellence. It is why we never shy away from external assessments of our capabilities because we know we have so much to learn from forums like this.

But it is not just individual organizations like UNOPS that can take inspiration from the concept of excellence. Since the millennium, the world has come together in a far more coherent manner in order to set targets for the elimination of extreme poverty.

At the Millennium Summit in 2002 the world’s leaders set out a series of time-bound targets that became known as the Millennium Development Goals.

If I didn’t know better, I could almost think that they had been reading the EFQM’s RADAR logic 

These goals had a compleion target of 2015 and targeted key areas including poverty, education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, and the environment.

And whilst not all these targets were met, there were some real achievements.

By 2015:

The number of people in the world living in extreme poverty was more than halved.

91% of the world’s children were enrolled in primary education.

Two-thirds of the world’s developing countries achieved gender parity in primary education.

Child mortality was reduced by more than half and global maternal mortality by nearly the same.

The number of new HIV infections fell by 40%.

And the number of people without access to improved water sources also fell by half.

Despite the seemingly continual headlines telling us of conflict and disaster, there has been real progress on all the major indicators of human development – food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the state of the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the conditions of childhood.

But, you all know that we have to continually assess and refine our approaches.

While this first set of goals were revolutionary in providing global agreement because they were realistic, easy to communicate and had clear measurement mechanisms, their achievements were uneven.

So, with the objective of continual improvement and having now a better understanding of what works, we have set ourselves new targets that build on the old and aim to go further to end all forms of poverty.

So we now have 17 goals and 169 targets to achieve by 2030! The Sustainable Development Goals or so-called ‘Global Goals’.

The new Goals are unique in that they call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, social protection and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.

The process of arriving at these goals was led by the member states of the UN but with broad participation from major stakeholder groups, civil society, scientific and academic institutions, as well as the private sector. The goals and targets are the result of over two years of intensive public consultation and engagement with particular attention paid to the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable.

In these goals and targets, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger and disease. We envisage a world free of fear and violence. A world with universal literacy. A world with universal access to quality education, to health care and social protection, where physical, mental and social well-being are assured. A world where we reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation with improved hygiene; and where food is sufficient, safe, affordable and nutritious. A world where human habitats are safe, resilient and sustainable and where there is universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

We envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice, equality and non-discrimination; of respect for race, ethnicity and cultural diversity. A world which invests in its children and in which every child grows up free from violence and exploitation. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all legal, social and economic barriers to their empowerment have been removed.

We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources are sustainable. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient.

These goals are global in nature and universally applicable, taking into account different national realities, capacities and levels of development.

Together the goals establish a plan of action for people, the planet and prosperity. They recognize that eliminating poverty is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.

In the EFQM context, these goals have been scoped to address the needs of all stakeholders and are consistent with the objectives of sustainable development. And the targets that have been set are appropriate and achievable.

But you are all experienced excellence practitioners. So I know you are sitting there wondering how the world will develop enabling approaches and mobilize resources to achieve these goals.

Individual countries are of course developing their own approaches based on their specific circumstances. And we are already seeing some common themes emerging from all countries. For example, the need for high-level leadership and the need for cross-government structures for delivering on the goals.

So, in Colombia, the Goals are being used as a tool for peacebuilding, involving various government Ministries as well as the President’s Office.

In Germany, the new Sustainability Strategy is seen as the overarching strategy of the German Government with responsibility sitting with the Chancellor’s Office and the cabinet. The Federal Statistical Office’s most requested publication is the report that  tracks 60 indicators across all policies relating to the Strategy.

In Uganda, it is the Prime Minister that chairs the SDG Policy Coordination Committee and in Finland there is a sophisticated structure for delivering on the Goals with a coordination secretariat sitting in the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the context of the EFQM model, the key to successful deployment will be the integration of approaches whilst tracking and reporting on results ensuring that we have genuinely inclusive approaches to deployment and are not just focusing on those easiest to reach.

We undoubtedly do have a challenge around data, indicators and measuring progress. Countries are at different stages of preparation regarding measuring and monitoring progress. Many countries are aligning their own national indicators to the Global Goals. Others have put in place new monitoring systems – for example, the US has produced an open-source platform and made it available for other countries to use.

And we also have a challenge around communication. Someone has commented that the Sustainable Development Goals are ‘the UN's best kept secret’ referring to the fact that they are not well-known or understood by citizens, the private sector and other stakeholders. 

But the real challenge of meeting these goals will be to mobilize new resources. In our Excellence Model, the enabler of partnerships and resources is perhaps the one that gives us the biggest challenge in meeting the Global Goals.

We all know that aid – donor money – can cover at best only a small part of the funding needs for the sustainable development goals.

Donor money must be used strategically. Often it should be used as a catalyst to leverage larger amounts of private sector funding. It must not be wasted on projects where private sector capital can be attracted and, in many cases, do a better job.

Traditional roles for development aid will remain, of course: vaccination of children, efforts to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria and rebuilding after disasters. 

However, we must reform development assistance. We need smart aid – aid that makes us agile; aid that facilitates, catalyzes and supports. Not aid that duplicates or replaces.

Yet we should not be naïve. We know that private sector capital tends to gravitate towards the lowest risk and the easiest return. Our challenge is therefore to address the factors that have so far prevented private capital from investing in infrastructure and services that also serve the poorest.

The UN will have a strong role to play is making this happen:

- It can be an honest broker; a convener of private sector, bilateral donors and developing country governments into alliances for specific projects;

- It can execute projects with integrity and using the vast experience it has in some of the most difficult country settings;

- And it can represent the common values of the UN mandate in the process when compromises are made as we turn idealistic ideas into realistic action.

At UNOPS, we are currently looking at ways to lower obstacles and risks so that private investment vehicles can invest in the massive infrastructure needs that are required by the Global Goals. We still have a long way to go before we see significant private sector investment in sustainable development in lower-income countries. Different parties need to come together to work collaboratively – host governments, aid donors, institutional investors and entrepreneurs. Yet, if we want a cleaner and more just world for future generations, private investment in development operations – paired with public funds and strong public planning – is the only way to get there.

As an example, UNOPS has a proven track record in building infrastructure. But the infrastructure needs required to meet the 2030 Goals will amount to over 1 trillion dollars per year. Way more than traditional funding can finance.

So we will all need to come together, public and private sectors. Whether we talk about renewable energy, ICT infrastructure, roads, housing, waste management or other infrastructure, sustainable projects can be taken to scale and be made attractive to investors if de-risking these projects is done right.

UNOPS is now exploring the opportunities for new and true partnerships.

True partnerships will be key to the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda and key to a sustainable future for all!

Thank you!

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