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On Sunday, after 6 hours without internet, some of us started suffering from acute withdrawal symptoms. So, we decided to make a trip to the IFAD-Senegal office to use their internet facilities. Connectivity has a cost – and the cost in this particular case was a heavy negotiation with the cab driver on the fare!!! Once that was settled, reading our emails was no longer a mirage but was soon going to become a reality.

IFAD-Senegal office is housed in the new United Nations building. One of the many challenges of establishing an office, is that as part of the UN family, the premises should be complaint to minimum security and safety measures – and this building meets all those criteria.

After depositing our ID cards with the security cards, we made our way to the second floor. I remember when the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited IFAD, he said: “When you are part of the UN family, no matter where you are, you always have a home”. And that is how we felt. Yes, we had a home and we were home!

Setting up country offices has its share of challenges. For example, as I am writing this blogpost, the Government of Senegal and IFAD are negotiating the terms of the Country Agreement.

“Tuesday, I met with the minister and I hope we’ve ironed out the last couple of pending issues, so that we can soon finalize the agreement and formally open the IFAD-Senegal country office”, says Mohamed Beavogui, the IFAD’s Director of West and Central Africa division.

I was pleased to see the IFAD-Senegal office in person and to see that it was so nicely branded. IFAD publications were prominently displayed, the office was decorated with IFAD posters and thanks to ICT colleagues and in particular to  Fabio Bencivenga, we could access all IFAD corporate applications as if we were at headquarters. But all of this did not happen overnight, nor was it necessarily an easy ride.

On the second day of the West and Central Africa workshop, during the decentralization working group session participants discussed the challenges and opportunities of country presence. At this session Beavogui mentioned “the impact of country presence is very clear. In those countries where we are present we are fully embedded in the national dialogue policy and are working closely with the government and other partners, our portfolio is performing much better, because we are able to provide continuous and systematic face-to-face implementation support”.

Ghachem  Kadari, the interim Senegal Country Presence Officer, during his presentation, said: “Thanks to country presence, today IFAD has a prominent place at the table and is fully embedded in the national policy dialogue process and attends strategic meetings.”

“IFAD not only is now much better known and more visible, but also plugged in to all the UN and International Financial Institution initiatives. Thanks to country presence, IFAD’s presence is now felt in the country.”

“By early 2011, we hope that the Senegal office will be staffed with an outposted country programme manager, country presence officer, programme assistant and a regional gender focal point”, says Beavogui.

“Our vision in the West and Central Africa region is to create four regional hubs – one of them being Senegal, serving Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal”, mentioned Beavogui.

During the working group session, a number of participants underscored the importance of training and having a good understanding of IFAD processes early on.

Echoing this sentiment, Kadari said: “Opening an office does not simply mean renting a place and buying some furniture. We need to recruit and train staff”.

Training is an important crucial aspect, as country presence colleagues need to understand what it means to be working for a specialized UN agency and International Financial Institutions. At the same time they need to understand and learn IFAD business, IFAD processes, make sure they understand what it means to be part of the UN and what does country presence mean.

While all this takes time, working in the field presents an additional complexity – that of not being in headquarters and having access to the knowledgeable people who can answer queries and help solve problems.

To overcome this challenge, Richard Aiello from IFAD took the floor and announced that "IFAD is finalizing an orientation programme and this will be made available in the coming months". "We are also planning to bring all country office staff to headquarters at least once year so that they get an opportunity to meet and interact with colleagues".

Nothing in the world can face-to-face meeting. It really makes  a night and day difference when you meet colleagues in person and you establish a real, as opposed to a virtual working relationship. The participants wholeheartedly welcomed the proposition of this type of annual meeting.

During the working group discussion, country presence officer highlighted that once you’ve established yourself in the country as IFAD representative, everyone will be calling at your door and would like you to participate in meetings. This poses a challenge in terms of time management.

“We have to remember that our job as country programme officer is to assist in project implementation and improve the quality of IFAD-funded projects and programme. This means we have to manage our time in such a way  so that attending various meetings do not interfere or get in the way of doing our job”, says Kadari.

Country presence has allowed IFAD to be closer to projects and programmes, has given IFAD more visibility and at the same time has allowed the organization to draw on local expertise and talent.

“Once you are established in a country, you have access to local resources”, says Kadari. “For example what we’re doing more and more is to recruit local consultants for supervision and implementation support missions and this has led to considerable cost savings”.

All the country presence officers present at the working group unanimously agreed that thanks to country presence, today they had a much better relationship with government.

Being very pragmatic people, those intimately involved in this endeavour shared a number of challenges, which at the end of the working group everyone, including IFAD, committed to address, namely:

  • Organize regular training and refresher courses for country office staff
  • Prepare a comprehensive resource manual covering strategic, operational, administrative and other related process and procedural matters
  • Organize regular meetings bringing country office staff to Rome

I asked Kadari to share his lessons learnt vis-à-vis setting up a country office. “You need to give space and resources to the person who is tasked to open the office. And it would really help if you open the office where there is at least some minimum foundation”.

“We’ve seen that IFAD’s investment in Senegal office has paid both in terms of efficiency and effectiveness”, explains Kadari. “Today we are hosting more missions, number of workshops organized in Senegal have increased because colleagues know there is an office, an infrastructure that can provide them support and the number of partners visiting us keeps increasing".

“Opening an office can be very challenging, but it is highly exciting. If there is one lesson I learnt, that is, you need to manage your time, choose a good partner, be a good communicator and negotiator, have good people skills, establish good working relationship with everyone and be humble”, explains Kadari with a smile.