On Decmber 1 last year, Hopolang Phororo, a Lesotho national, assumed the position of the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator in Namibia, following her appointment by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

She has travelled extensively and has worked in many countries. Her academic prowess and impressive work skills had earned her positions in many highly reputable organizations.

 Phororo holds a Master’s Degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from Duquesne University both in the United States of America. Also under her belt, she is armed with the Honor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of South Africa.

A seasoned researcher, Phororo has written and published several working papers as well as selected articles in chapters in books on HIV/AIDS, youth employment, and agriculture-related topics including a book titled ‘Joy Comes in the Morning’. Passionate about leadership and women and youth empowerment, she is also an advocate for gender-based violence.

Our reporter, Thoboloko Ntšonyane caught up with her, in the interview she journey from working in Lesotho to how she ended up making strides internationally.

Below is an excerpt from the interview.

Please take us through your leadership journey with the United Nations.

I am one of those privileged people, who was exposed to the UN as a child. My late Dad worked with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for eight years and we lived in Rome, Italy. However, this was not what inspired me to work for the UN… rather, it was the research work that I did prior to working for the UN, where I was able to engage at the community level.

I was always struck by the fact that we, the researchers thought that we had all the answers to make life better for farmers, women, and young people in the communities. Many years later, I got it… we ought to listen more to our partners and together, co-create solutions.  After working as a Research Fellow at the Institute of Southern African Studies (ISAS), I worked for UNDP in Maseru as a program officer for two years before moving to Namibia to work, once again as a researcher with the Namibia Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU).

After Namibia, I started exploring the possibility of joining the UN, as professional staff. I was successful with my application at ILO, a specialized agency of the UN dealing with issues on social justice. I was trained as an Agricultural Economist, so I was thrown in the deep end with ILO since concepts such as tripartism, decent work, and social dialogue were foreign to me.

However, I soon learned and grew to appreciate the broad mandate of the ILO to promote decent work for all workers, regardless of where they work. I found my niche and held various positions in ILO, starting in Abidjan as a Decent Work Focal Point Officer in the Regional Office for Africa. I then became a Youth Employment Specialist in Addis Ababa, after spending a brief spell in Geneva, when the Regional Office was temporarily relocated. After four years as the Youth Employment Officer, I was promoted to the Deputy Director of the ILO Country Office for Tanzania, which had responsibilities for Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. After another four years, I was promoted to the Director for the Country Office for Zimbabwe also covering Namibia. After spending almost eight years in Zimbabwe, I returned to Namibia, this time as the UN Resident Coordinator.

How did the UN contribute to your professional empowerment?

I often say that one thing the UN gives to its staff members is exposure. With the various positions that I held in various countries, I learned several lessons about different country contexts, the people, the culture, and working with diverse nationalities. It’s a humbling experience because I realize how little I know… Curiosity and the willingness to learn have helped me in my engagements, whether it be with a village headman or a young person in village hundreds of miles from any town.

I learned so much more than I could by observing people and listening with the hope of inspiring the various teams that I have led and continue to lead to make life better for the people whom we serve. There were days when I got overwhelmed by the challenges that people in the community faced and I would want to throw the towel in, then I would look up to the Lord for strength. I learned patience because when you are in the development arena, solutions cannot be addressed overnight, and forging strong partnerships takes time since trust must be built.

What motivated you to choose a career within the UN family?

When I joined UNDP in Maseru, it was a timely opportunity since my contract had come to an end at ISAS. It was during this time that I got an appreciation of the breadth and scope of the sustainable development agenda. I was challenged by the Junior Professional Officers, who were afforded an opportunity to get hands-on experience in multilateral international cooperation and were equally qualified as I was. I did not think that I was eligible for the JPO programme since it was supported by Western countries, so I did not pursue it, but I resolved that one day, I would become a professional staff.

At that time, I learned that if I acquired some international experience, I could increase my chances. A work opportunity arose for me to move to Namibia as a research fellow for NEPRU and I was there for four years. Then, I got restless and knew it was time to look for professional posts with the UN, and about six months later, I had a job with ILO. I was not particular about which UN entity; I would work with because I believed in what the UN stood for. I took up a great challenge to move to West Africa, where I had never lived, ready for an adventure to learn French and to learn from others.

I did not know what I was getting into, and I got terribly homesick, doubting whether I had made the right decision. The political impasse in Cote d’Ivoire shortened my stint, which then defeated my purpose to learn French!

What does your role entail as Resident Coordinator in Namibia? 

As the highest-ranking representative of the UN development system in the country, I will lead the United Nations country team and ensure system-wide accountability on the ground by coordinating the operational activities for the development of the UN in support of Namibia’s efforts towards the implementation of Agenda 2030.

Let me share some of the specific issues that I will be working on… Under my leadership, the UN Country Team will develop, implement and monitor the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF) together with the government and in consultation with other national and international partners that are aligned to national frameworks, including the National Development Plan, Harambe Prosperity Plans and Vision 2030. This will ensure ownership at all levels. Given the shrinking fiscal space, declining ODA, the compounding crises and Namibia’s UMIC classification means that convening and forging partnerships at all levels will be crucial, and this is a tall order.

However, I am confident that there is no better time than now to have the reformed UN system at the centre of UN action. In the implementation of the CF, I will support the effective and efficient use of resources, namely through the implementation of the Business Operating Strategy, which requires the UN to operate as one. In addition, I will support communicating as one UN to have far-reaching impacts and increase visibility.

What advice would you share with aspirants about reaching an executive position with a prestigious organization such as the UN?

As you can see, climbing the ladder was a gradual process for me and it has been one step at a time every position that I have held was preparing me for the next. It is very important to be open to learning from others and from my own mistakes and to keep going on. I have a problem with shortcuts because they short-circuit you and you do not develop the staying power. Perseverance and patience have served me well while working at the UN.

Having a positive work ethic, in terms of accountability and responsibility has kept me focused, so it is important to be clear in your mind why you are waking up each morning. We need to shift mindsets to understand that our overall role is to serve people, representatives of diverse entities and it is not about entitlements but rather that it is a privilege to work for the UN. I am reminded of a quote by John F Kennedy, who said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” I replaced the country with the UN, and this helped me to do my very best in the positions that I held.

Being a person of integrity, displaying vulnerability and humility are essential ingredients in order to reach an executive position. Then, one can be generous in sharing the experiences that one has acquired, no matter how short or long your journey has been because there are always others who are behind you aspiring for greater heights.

What is next for you within the echelons of the UN, and where do you see yourself in the near future?

One day at a time… I have just arrived in Namibia, so my focus is to do my best in this current role. As for what next, let’s see what God has… what I can say is that I am a development practitioner and I am passionate about people, so I know that it will be in spaces where I can support people to drive the path for sustainable development.