Cecilia Lopez y Royo

Photographer Ida Veileborg for UNOPS

2013 - Cecilia Lopez y Royo, who was an Italian-Funded JPO with UNOPS, shares with us her experience and insights on her assignment in South Africa.


JPO Assignment

Reducing the impact of climate change in Mali by UNOPS

I currently work for UNOPS as an environment specialist for the Africa region. The regional office is based in South Africa and covers Sub-Saharan Africa. However UNOPS is particularly active in support of early recovery and post-conflict countries, such as DR Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire. The areas covered in the environment sector range from supporting the development of regional parks to addressing drought resilience through water infrastructure. Within this diverse and fascinating range of topics, I have a particular interest in sustainability and natural resource management.

My current work focuses overall on providing technical assistance on sustainability, environment and climate change in projects and operation in UNOPS Africa region. This has involved mainly:

- Identifying and developing partnerships to strengthen UNOPS environmental
   sustainability initiatives in the Africa region
- Supporting the development and programming of new projects addressing
   Environment and Climate change in the Africa region
- Technical assistance to the UNOPS-Africa Environment and climate change
   portfolio of projects
- Supporting the development and implementation of sustainability initiatives in
   the Africa region
- Developing a framework for the environmental review of projects
- Strengthening knowledge management on environment and climate change
   in UNOPS Africa region

In addition to working in a multicultural environment and being based in a beautiful country, I am fortunate to work in several locations throughout Africa. This is both challenging and exciting: from the development of environmental project proposals, to integrating environmental sustainability into our projects in Africa. In a post-conflict situation where the environment can be perceived as the least of one’s worries, trying to convince an experienced engineer that this is an integral part of his or her work can be a challenge. Developing an environmental review framework for projects implemented by UNOPS has been an extremely interesting and challenging undertaking. Knowing that we could improve the environmental sustainability of our projects and add-value to work we were doing, has been a great driver. However this needed to be balanced with challenging working conditions, the options available locally, project constraints, etc. The framework and tools to facilitate its implementation were developed together with the project teams, and these have now been adopted by UNOPS Headquarters as a part of our global environmental management system. This has been extremely gratifying for the entire region, and has given us additional positive outlook on working in the UN and knowing that we can all contribute to protecting the environment and improving the lives of people.

South Africa

South Africa is beautiful country. It has mountains, oceans, parks, desert - vast expanses such as the Karoo, and striking scenery such as the Cape of Good Hope. It is also a land of contrasts, in many aspects: from the landscape, to the infrastructure, to the people.

Johannesburg’s reputation is not the best: it is considered a dangerous city with high urban criminality rates, in most areas all you can see in from the streets are high walls and electric fences. But with time, one gets to know Joburg and all of its secrets. It is actually a very multicultural city: it has a bit of every culture in the rainbow nation, and it has absorbed the culture of quite a few countries in the region: music from Mozambique, crafts from Zimbabwe, cooking from Ethiopia, fabrics from West Africa. And culture is accessible and available in Joburg: theatres, art galleries, concert halls, open area festivals.

So what I will remember South Africa for is the space, the landscapes, and Johannesburg the dynamic city.

South Africa can also be challenging, one of the things I have found most difficult to take in is how unequal the South African society can be. It is probably one of the most unequal societies I have seen due to the fact that South Africa is a fairly developed country and you can have access to almost everything: some of the best universities worldwide, some of the largest bank in Africa, 4 lane highways and high speed metropolitan trains. However these are only accessible to the portion of population that can afford them.

Overall impression

My motivation for working in the field of development is that we have a unique opportunity of making a difference. Through the JPO assignment, I have had the opportunity to directly experience that through our work we can actually all contribute to protecting the environment and improving the lives of people.

My advice to future JPOs? Don’t be too shy, don’t hesitate ... you’re new; this allows you to make some mistakes and learn a lot! UNOPS in particular, given its constant evolution, is the perfect environment to suggest new ideas and innovate.


The JPO assignment has given me the opportunity to have firsthand experience at the United Nations and in the field of international development. Being new to the UN system and African environment, the learning curve has been very steep – this has been fantastic. I have worked at regional level, thus having the opportunity to work directly with country offices and with headquarters. I have also had the opportunity to work directly with a number of UN agencies, through the partnership development. And in this sense the JPO assignment has given me quite a comprehensive understanding of the UN system, which will be very useful in making future career choices.

By the way...

My favourite quote: Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer” (Charles Baudelaire)