2019.10.23 // Robert Opp
Last year during WebSummit, we were so lucky to be able to spend some time with Robert Opp from World Food Programme and talk about his experience at the job. The conversation was one laugh after the other, and his kindness was impossible to pass unnoticed. After that, and since last August, he has been occupying "new shoes" has a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at the United Nations (UNDP), so has we launch this interview, we also want to wish him all the luck in the world for his new functions.
Carolina: Hello, Robert! It is an absolute pleasure to talk to you again this year and thank you for saving a piece of your time to share with us your experience at World Food Programme.
Robert: It is my pleasure!
C: So tell me, when did you realize you wanted to be part of this project (World Food Programme) and how did it happened?
R: So I few years ago... actually I have to ask a question about your question.
R: Are you asking me about my current role, or about like 18 years ago when I started?
C: Yes, when you started! In the beginning!
R: Aaaaaah! If that's the case, that's a different question actually! Well, a long time ago, when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in history, I did a semester abroad in West Africa in Gana and that opened my eyes to the world of global issues. The issues around inequality and the issues around justice, around global justice, and I decided I wanted to take my career in that direction. I ended up studying a master's degree and started working with the Canadian Government doing research on post conflict development. While doing it, I realized that I needed to have more field experience and so I applied for the World Food Programme. My first posting was in Angola, during the high of the third phase of the civil war and I definitely got field experience that way! It was very eye opening has well. And what I like about World Food Programme is that we have a scale, a size and a scale, that we can really really have impact! It's a large organization, that has all the problems of a large organization, all the burocracy of a large organization, but at the end of the day if you actually want to achieve something you have the scale to do it! That's why I ended up in World Food Programme.
C: And that mission in Angola, was it already with World Food Programme?
R: Yes, it was already with World Food Programme, it was my first World Food Programme job. Since then I've done many different things there.
C: What measure that you've implemented in the company, If I can call it that, did it gave you more pleasure, the one you've nurtured since a baby and then you could put it on practice?
R: Well, I think that some of the more recent innovations have been like that. Share the Meal is one of them. Share the Meal was not my idea, but it was the idea of a couple of colleagues that were working in my team. They came to me and said: we have this idea for a crowdfunding platform that would be really looking at how many cellphones are in the world; if every cellphone user just did a small bit you could go a huge distance when it comes to getting resources for the fight against hunger. At the time the two colleagues that thought of the idea, thought that they would have to go out of the organization to make it happen. I've convinced them that we should try to do it inside of the organization and we have successfully been able to do that. Share the Meal has now raised about 13,5 to 14 million dollars for fight against hunger! It runs like a start up inside the organization, so I'm quite proud that we got has far has we have! We still have issues, we still have challenges, but I'm proof of that! I would say another one that I'm proud of is, well, I would say that I'm fairly proud of where we came with our blockchain programme. I think we've talked about this last year. We're now assisting 106 thousand Syrian refugees in Jordan, with a block chain based digital cash transfer system and I didn't realized, It but people are telling me, that's one of the largest examples of the functioning blockchain, particularly in public sector. That's not what we've set out to do, we just wanted to solve a problem and we did that. It is something that is working well, is exciting and interesting to see how and UN agency can take a technology, which is still in the developing phase, and apply it with very concrete cost efficiency and quickly also, we did the proof of concept within 6 months, we were at 10 thousand people in six months! That's my point about World Food Programme, if you want to do something and do it at scale than organization has the ability to do it. It's a programme that is demonstrating cost efficiency, it's demonstrating benefits in speed and benefits in transparency. And I'm not saying that World Food Programme is going to all blockchain system starting next year, it's not that, we still have to prove every step of the way, but I'm pleased we have come has far has we have.
C: Best and worst moment during the job?
R: Again, the whole career?
C: The whole career!
R: Oh boy!
C: The one you say this was the cherry on top of the cake and the other one that you think this made me tougher but I don't want to go through this again, please!
R: Actually I was at a meeting with general secretary Antonio Guterres, I was doing a presentation, he was there speaking about how he felt there were some agencies that really were leading the way when it comes to innovation, and he mentioned World Food Programme has on of then. That was not a public meeting but it was something that was very nice to hear. The worse moment, I probably have to think back to Angola, because...
C: ...the first mission than.
R: Yes. For very different reasons. I was on a monitoring mission on southern Angola and I went back to Luanda. After a few days, a got a phone call and I heard that the driver that I have been with, that was in the very same area, doing exactly the same path, have hit a land mine with the car and he's legs were amputated. That was one of those moments when I thought how random life is.
C: Yes, and fragile.
R: Like I said, he was in the exact same road, he just chose to turn around in a certain spot, put the weal where it hadn't been before and, you know, and I just felt so, upset for him and his family. This was just one example, we had many examples of that in Angola, but that one hit very close to home.
C: Should profit and purpose walk hand in hand?
R: Yes. I would put it differently!
R: I would say that the solutions that are going to have the most impact on the sustainable development goals will be those that are actually economically sustainable themselves. In other words, I don't think that we are going to have a purely public driven development model that is going to work and sustain itself. So we need all the stakeholders, the public sector, the private sector, the civil society! What I think will make the difference, is to find ways to apply technology and innovation that can be done in a self-sustaining basis, meaning there's a commercial element to it, there's a demand and a business model that fits technology and makes it sustainable for markets that are currently not being served.
C. What would you say to invite a family and children to support the World Food Programme? What would be your invitation or moto?
R: First for all, the world is so connected now, that it's so easy to find out information about hunger or other issues, but we also understand that is almost too much information out there. If people want to participate in the fight against hunger in any small amount or large amount, we've built Share the Meal has a platform to make it possible and to make it has easy has possible. So Share the Meal is a platform where you can go to, it's currently a smartphone app, it is available in all the app stores and all google play stores around the world. You can download it for free, you can provide, trough your credit card, 50 cents ($) a day or 40 cents (€), which is enough to cover the cost of feeding one child for one day, on one of our programs worldwide. When you do that, you also get little bit of a story, behind the people that have been assisted in the programmes that you've donated to and it's a way of bringing people in. So I would say that my invitation to act, is to go to Share the Meal and use it has a way to stay informed, to participate, even in a small way, in the fight against hunger. But I think Adriana is going to have a better answer than I do in this one!
C: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to talk to you again.
R: My pleasure!