Having joined the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2000, she has traversed this field for just over two decades. A teacher by profession and an ardent champion of human rights, women and youth empowerment, she has risen through the ranks from project management roles to management and leadership positions at UNDP, serving at country, regional and global/headquarter levels in the United States. ‘Servant of the people’ as she describes herself, climbed the ladder assuming regional and country-level leadership positions, and experienced an upward mobility further.

A Kenyan national served as the Assistant Resident Representative in charge of the Governance and Gender Programmes in Kenya. From there she became a Training Policy Specialist in New York, and then moved on to become the Head of the Regional United Nations Development Group Secretariat for Eastern and Southern Africa (R-UNDG ESA) covering 22 countries including Lesotho. She then became the Deputy Resident Representative in Somalia.

Her ambition and prowess in development practice has earned her accolades and awards. In 2016, she received an Honorary Award for Leadership in the United Kingdom for exemplary performance in cultural change/change management, leading role in spearheading the work of R-UNDG ESA and capacity building initiatives for different categories of partners including governments, civil society organizations and the UN system, both in her current and previous positions. The Kenya’s Minister of Gender acknowledged her in 2005 for hercontributions towards the establishment of the Ministry of Gender, the National Commission of Gender and Development and the Department of Gender and  Development during the launch of the three institutions. In 2004, the Government of Kenya recognized her contributions towards the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and the New Partnerships for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Initiatives.

Under her belt, she is armed with a PhD in Economics and Planning of Education from Kenyatta University, Kenya, and a Master of Philosophy Degree in the same discipline from Moi University, Kenya. Towards the end of last year, Dr Jacqueline Olweya was appointed as UNDP Lesotho’s Resident Representative. Our reporter Thoboloko Ntšonyane sits down with her to learn about her journey in joining the UN family, the projects that the UNDP is supporting in Lesotho, to discuss the challenges facing this country and the efforts UNDP is investing in to help the government and Basotho overcome some of these challenges.

Below are excerpts of the interview.

For our readers to be acquainted with your work, please take us through what your daily duties/routine in office include. Can you describe what the UNDP Resident Coordinator’s roles are?

My daily duties/routine is dependent entirely on the roles of the Resident Representative which include providing strategic direction and taking forward UNDP’s role and mandate at the country level; building partnerships for effective delivery of such mandates; effectively communicating the mandate and role of UNDP and advocacy for the ideas and values that the organization stands for; and ensuring oversight of UNDP resources (financial, human/staff) i.e. effective office management.

In this regard, my daily routine comprises checking and responding to emails; attending meetings (internally within UNDP and externally with diverse range of partners including government, Civil Society Organisations(CSOs), private sector, media, development partners/donors); reviewing documents, reports, proposals to ensure strategic direction and alignment to UNDP’s mandate and vision, as well as alignment and contributions to the country’s vision and aspirations.

How did the UNDP contribute towards your professional empowerment?

Through online courses on varied topics; exposure to different functions/roles; allowing me to join/participate in various networks within the organization relevant to my work; as well as management courses.

What motivated you to choose the career within the UN?

The values of the UN – promoting peace, furthering realization of human rights, ensuring inclusion and ending discrimination, is what motivated me to pursue a career within the UN system, as these aligned to my own values and aspirations.  My values were shaped by observing my mother – who was a grade 2 school dropout but through homeschooling (thanks to the support of my father) rose through the ranks to become an effective community leader and politician – who endeavored to change the lives of the marginalized and vulnerable members of our community.  Our house was a home to many orphans, mom provided support and initiated programmes for women, youth, widows, she claimed her space in politics – a field then dominated by men, yet did so with humility and respect.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role? How do you overcome these challenges?

I face two categories of challenges:

 1) Institutional – where there are misunderstandings of the mandate of UNDP and my role as the Resident Representative in taking forward that mandate in any country. I overcome/address this through awareness creation and/or advocacy with the different partners to enable them better understand and appreciate UNDP’s mandate and my role in that regard.

The other category of challenge I face is what I would refer to as ‘personal’ – working away from home [Kenya] and family and ensuring an appropriate ‘work-life balance” with the very demanding nature of my role as the UNDP Resident Representative.

To address this, I ensure I am deliberate on creating time for ‘self/myself’ and having some minimum non-negotiables e.g. having uninterrupted one hour of exercising/gym workout daily, except on Sundays; making all efforts to be there for special family occasions – my spouse and/or children’s birthdays; creating time for daily communication with family and friends – phone calls, WhatsApp messages – costly yes, but worth it and rewarding. I also have a very strong social network – comprising family and friends.

What advice would you share with aspirants about reaching executive positions with prestigious organisations such as the UNDP? 

It is possible to join the UNDP and rise through the ladder to senior positions without having a ‘godfather/godmother’. You need to have a clear vision and drive of wanting to join and work for UNDP, walk that path/strive towards that vision; be flexible and willing to learn, get mentors to help you walk that journey and guide you as need be and never give up when you meet hurdles along the way.

From the time you have spent in Lesotho since 2022, what would you say are the most pressing development issues in Lesotho that require a sense of urgency to address?

Issues of poverty and inequality are of pressing concern in Lesotho. Over 49.7% of the population lives below the poverty line, with significant spatial and gender differentials in poverty. Urban poverty stands at 28.5% and rural poverty at a significant 60.7% of the rural population. Poverty among female headed households stands at 55.2%, compared to 46.3% for households that are headed by males. Lesotho’s Gini coefficient in 2020 was at 44.6, putting the country as one of the 20 most unequal in the world due to these differentials.

Unemployment: Youth unemployment – the unemployment rate remains high at 22.5% (using strict definition) and 38.3% (using expanded definition that includes discouraged job seekers) in 2019. Youth employment for the same period is significantly higher at 37.44%. Unemployment has been cited as an underlying cause of high levels of migration, especially illegal migration to South Africa and has also fueled crime with Lesotho, with homicide rates per capita being the highest in Africa and 3rd highest globally (after El Salvador and Jamaica) at 35 homicides per 100,000 persons.

Underlying all of this has been a governance system that has not worked for the wider population, in delivering the services they need, such as social services, peace and security and improved development outcomes. The political instability with rapidly changing coalitions, rapid turn-over of policy makers has meant that the policy focus and strategies that underpin them have been subject to volatility and change, rendering them incapable of delivering to the population.

Given this context the ongoing reforms are paramount to change the policy and enabling environment, build the needed capacities and systems to propel policy and strategies and enable optimized service delivery across all sectors.

The outstanding constitutional amendment bill [Tenth Amendment to the Constitution famously known as the Omnibus Bill] part of the national reforms process remains a critical and urgent issue in Lesotho. With the investments and level of ambition presented by the national reforms present a realistic chance of transforming the Kingdom of Lesotho into a stable and prosperous nation for the benefit of all Basotho.

Global warming, drought, COVID-19 pandemic, and ever rising inflation rate have posed a major threat to food security in the country. Which are the projects that the UNDP mounted and is supporting that aim to address these problems? What is their success rate, and how much impact have they had in the communities and nationally?

UNDP has been collaborating for years with the Government of Lesotho and local communities to carry out a number of climate change mitigation projects. These include Reducing Vulnerability from Climate Change (RVCC) project implemented in the district of Mohale’s Hoek, whose objective was to mainstream risks of the changing climate into development. The project supported local communities with skills development to climate-proof their nature-based livelihoods, including agriculture and to promote sustainable management of natural resources such as rangelands and wetlands.

The RVCC supported 2 380 people and has put about 20,000 hectares  of land under sustainable management through different interventions including beekeeping, climate-smart agriculture including establishment of permaculture gardens, range management best practices, establishment of farmer field schools.  Many of the good practices and lessons learnt from this project are being embedded within the ongoing Sebapala Integrated Watershed Project in Quthing. 

The UNDP through the GEF funded Small Grants Programme is supporting local communities to conserve and sustainably utilize their natural resources to support their livelihoods and to implement their locally designed environmental solutions.

UNDP is also piloting the programme on green value chains and local supplier development in the district of Mohale’s Hoek. The programme is implemented in collaboration with the LNDC, Standard Lesotho Bank and Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Nutrition. The programme aims to develop capacities of local smallholder farmers and agri-preneurs for commercialization, and sustainable production, competitiveness and facilitate access and participation for access to business development services, including finance and markets. Through the programme:

  • 50 farm assurers comprising extension workers in the Ministry of Agriculture, some farmers and marketers, have been certified to support farm assessment for GlobalGAP compliance, and the project is providing technical support to at least 120 farmers in horticulture, livestock and beekeeping.
  • The programme is working with the Rural Self-help Association to implement a mentorship programme for 85 youth and women agri-preneurs to improve productivity and business acumen, 8 of whom were granted small grants for procurement of equipment and implements to sustain their enterprises.
  • With RSDA again, the programme is piloting aggregation for honey, supporting the farmers to adopt production standards and practices to help them penetrate the formal local and regional markets for honey products. For this pilot, the programme has enlisted 135 beekeepers in the Mohale’s Hoek district. 

Through the Sustainable Energy for All project (SE4ALL) project, the Government was supported to enhance the enabling environment to attract private investment into the renewable energy (RE) sector by supporting the development of a regulatory framework for establishment of mini-grids. The project also provided catalytic funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) to local companies that enabled private sector to mobilize additional financial resources worth more than US$ 10 million (M150 million) from the EU, USA and UK, that was invested towards establishment of energy trading centers to introduce renewable energy (RE) technologies and mini-grids for generation of RE in the five (5) mountainous districts of Lesotho.

Are there any skills development for people living in poverty ridden areas that UNDP is undertaking? If yes, which are those and how do you plan to ensure their continuity post their allocated time frame?

In the area of building climate resilience through climate-smart agriculture and sustainable natural resources management, the focus is on skills development and promoting technologies and best practices to enhance community-led interventions.

UNDP also works with communities in enhancing their capacities to participate in governance systems and practices, to be a part of decision-making on issues that affect their lives and livelihood. This is especially important to give communities not only the confidence but to ensure that development solutions tap into local knowledge systems and can be owned by the community.

UNDP is also working with the private sector to support programmes which promote access to energy, particularly for rural and out of grid communities, focusing on renewable energy. As part of the programme, UNDP is supporting capacity development for private sector and community organizations to adopt green energy technologies.

As part of all UNDP programmes, sustainability is at the core of these initiatives. The aim is to build capacities within the communities and integrate the capacities such that communities can lead and undertake these interventions with minimal external support. Working with Local Government and embedded the needed capacities, skills and competencies at the Local Government level to provide communities with the needed technical and development is also critical to all our interventions.

More important is partnership, we cannot do what we do without partnership and ensuring that there is a network of local and national partners who can continue to consolidate on the capacities and interventions we support.

To ensure continuity and sustainability post the project timeframes, UNDP adopts a number of strategies, including:

1) Co-creation of the projects from designs stage with the beneficiaries/community to ensure relevance to needs and enhance ownership;

2) Leveraging partnerships including with CSOs, private sector, development partners/donors e.g. in the case of the SE4ALL project mentioned above; UNDP leveraged private sector investment (OnePower) to undertake the installation of the solar mini-grids, and through contributions of seed capital from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) enabled mobilization of additional approximately M150, 000,000 from the European Union, United Kingdom and United States of America.

3) Advocacy for government leadership through appropriate entity/ department and ultimate ownership of relevant projects e.g.  if I use the same example of SE4ALL project, the government through the Department of Energy played a leadership role in the project including co-chairing of the Project Steering Committee jointly with UNDP. At the inception of the project, the government’s contribution was indicated as $8,000 (M153 000). However, by the time the project came to an end 3 years later (March 2023), the government’s contribution was approximately 14 times the initial commitment.

4) UNDP also ensures continuity and sustainability of projects beyond their time frames through capacity development of the individuals/communities, systems and institutions.

How do you think Lesotho is faring in the strides towards achieving the goals of Agenda 2030, which aim to end poverty in all its forms?

Lesotho is on track to meet only two of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Responsible consumption & production, SDG 12 and Climate Action, SDG 13 ), while progress is stagnating for ten (No poverty- SDG 1, zero hunger – SDG 2, good health and wellbeing- SDG 3, quality education- SDG 4, clean water and sanitation- SDG 6, affordable and clean energy- SDG 7, decent work and economic growth – SDG 8, industry, innovation and infrastructure- SDG9, reduced inequalities- SDG 10 and sustainable cities and communities – SDG 11).  For peace, justice and strong institutions, SDG 16, Lesotho is moving backward. Overall, across 10 goals Lesotho’s average performance by SDG is in the 50th percentile or less.[1] According to the Africa SDG Index, Lesotho is ranked 32/56 countries, scoring 50.91%, primarily due to insufficient data to report on the SDG indicators.

The above status confirms the key challenges currently facing Lesotho which I mentioned in a prior question – poverty; inequality; unemployment and weak governance – be it from institutional, systems and/or legal frameworks perspectives.

This year marks the midterm for the Agenda 2030, with only 7 years remaining until the deadline. The UN has marked this period, since 2020, a decade of action, to mobilize countries to intensify actions to accelerate the attainment of the targets for sustainable development. It is also a period of reflection on the global and individual country performance on the SDGs. UNDP has supported the Government of Lesotho to submit at least two reviews, the Voluntary National Review for 2019 and for 2022.

This year the Secretary General of the UN will be hosting an SDG Summit to reinvigorate global commitments and resources towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. As part of this process, national governments such as Lesotho are expected to make firm commitments on priority and transformative interventions that will accelerate achievements towards the SDG.

As the UN and UNDP, we will be supporting the Government of Lesotho, working with the national stakeholders to assess the status of SDG realization and prioritization in this remaining period, identify catalytic and transformative interventions as well as partnerships that can propel the Kingdom towards accelerated achievement of the SDGs as expressed in the Extended NSDP (National Strategic Development Plan) II.

UNDP supports government and line ministries financially, technically or otherwise when building the national policies such as Poverty Reduction Strategy, National Vision 2020 and successive National Strategic Development Plans, to name but a few, what does your organisation do where there is lack of political will or other capacity constraints which hinder their full realisation? Does the UNDP call on the government to renew its commitment and live up to its promise in order to improve the quality of lives of its citizens?

While cognizant of member states sovereignty and commitments to international treaties and obligations, UNDP adopts different strategies to support governments to renew their commitments, live up to such commitments and meet their obligations.

Such strategies, which may involve quiet diplomacy depending on the issue at hand, include support for analytical processes to get a better understanding of the issues impeding the government from meeting its commitments, capacity development (for individuals, through systems and institutional strengthening and other forms of support to addressing any identified gaps from such analysis; knowledge sharing as well as sharing of best practices from across the world noting UNDP’s global presence; building and strengthening partnerships with other like-minded entities in support of government to meet its obligations.

Our 2023 Stakeholder Survey has confirmed that our national partners see UNDP as an impartial and trusted partner in sustainable development. In this role UNDP sees capacity development as the process through which we can support institutions and organizations to obtain and strengthen their capabilities to achieve their development objectives over time. This includes supporting the institutions and their stakeholders to undertake a diagnostic of the issues, opportunities and capacities and supporting in defining feasible pathways towards development. Within this process we convene parties, and we aim to facilitate consensus as we undertook during the Lesotho National Dialogue processes in 2019.

As mentioned previously, from a rights-based perspective; UNDP focuses on continued engagement with both government as duty-bearers to assist in unblocking capacity challenges that sometime underpin political will; and CSOs, private sector and academia as right holder to enhance their capacity for continued advocacy and negotiation with government on moving towards agreed change parameters.

Further, UNDP works with the government to periodically review its progress on the various development agenda, including the NSDP, Vision 2020, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063. This enables the government to renew its commitments to its development vision, identify bottlenecks and opportunities for development as well as mobilise multi-stakeholder engagement, and partnerships.

The UNDP Country Programme Document (CPD) is anchored on the national development agenda; the current and immediate successive CPD draws its priorities from the NSDP II, and Agenda 2030.

The primary focus of UNDP in the CPD for 2024 – 2028, is to support the government to strengthen a) Inclusive Green, Resilient and Sustainable Economic Growth; b) Good Governance, Accountability, and Improved Service Delivery; and c) Climate Action, Disaster Resilience, and Environmental Sustainability.

Government has been accused of lack of implementation and sometimes it is slow to implement and live up to its commitments. How do you ensure that there is return on investment (ROI) and sustainability on the projects that you support?

Where UNDP supported the establishment of solar mini-grids [SE4ALL project], I will mention things that we did: one is to enhance community involvement as a strategy of ensuring ownership; we involve the communities in the conceptualization of the projects, and the district leadership in the location of the projects; a feasibility study was undertaken where they should be and how they will be beneficial to the people. So ensuring community involvements in co-creating the project is a critical element of ensuring sustainability going forward.

The second strategy that we adopt is that of partnerships, in this particular [instance] the UNDP did not establish the solar mini-grids, we provided the seed grants of $900 000 (M16.9 million) which we got from the Global Environmental Facility. We leverage private sector investments through OnePower Initiative to install the solar plants, because we are not experts, we can only facilitate, we can only leverage the private sector as the partnership strategy and to make sure that there is ROI.

We also, through the private sector partnership and through reaching out to other partners, were able to bring in additional M150 million from the UK, US and EU, because we leverage partnerships, we show that it is possible. Partnerships go beyond the private sector to these other development partners but also with the governments.

As a way of ensuring sustainability, as a way of enhancing government ownership, the government of Lesotho has only committed about $8 000 (M153 000) but at the end of the project after three years they have put in 14 times the amount. That shows commitment, that shows ownership and when communities see their own government through the district [and] local leaders being part of it, then they will be part of it and ensure ownership and even security.