Building bridges and expertise: The impact of Finland's Junior Professional Officer (JPO) programme

Sari Aroalho At COWASH IV Core Planning Meeting For 2017 Ethiopian Fiscal Year

JPO Sari Aroalho at COWASH IV core planning meeting

This piece was written by Yeshihareg Abebe Melaku, the Communications and Dissemination Specialist of COWASH IV, a NIRAS project in Ethiopia that centres around community-led water, sanitation and hygiene. Here, she shares the history of the JPO programme, from which COWASH IV benefits greatly, and talks about Sari Aroalho's experience, as she transitioned from JPO to COWASH IV's Project Management and Development Advisor.

May 28, 2024

For decades, Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs's Junior Professional Officer (JPO) programme has been fostering collaboration and development expertise. It not only offers Finnish professionals at the beginning of their careers two-years experience in the international work environment - on bilateral projects or at the United Nations - but also builds bridges between the nordic nation and partner countries as well as multilateral organisations.

The unique programme has demonstrably strengthened relationships, built development expertise and contributed to project success, as seen, for example, in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) project in Ethiopia COWASH IV. But the JPO programme's impact goes far beyond individual projects. It is a win-win for young professionals, projects, partner countries and Finland itself.

Launching the JPO programme in NIRAS

While Finland has sponsored the UN JPO Programme since 1965, encouraging young Finnish nationals to work in UN agencies and international financial and research institutions, the programme's connections with NIRAS trace back to 1996, with the second phase of the Rural Integrated Project Support (RIPS) programme in Tanzania. Tor Lundström, RIPS Team Leader at the time, was one of the JPO programme’s founders. "There was a lack of opportunities for young professionals to develop their careers in these joint projects," Tor says. Currently a Senior Strategic Advisor at NIRAS, Tor recognised this gap and proposed the idea of integrating JPOs into RIPS while drafting project documents.

With the support of Mrs. Riikka Laatu, then desk officer at the MFA, Tor’s vision became a reality. Ambassador Sini Paukkunen-Mykkänen, Finland's Permanent Representative to the Council of Europe, was one of the first JPOs to participate in the RIPS programme. The success of this debut proved to be a turning point. Since then, hundreds of JPOs have participated in projects led by NIRAS, demonstrating the programme's significant expansion.

Sari Aroalho At COWASH IV Tigray Region Steering Committee Meeting.September 2023
Sari with members of COWASH's Tigray Region Steering Committee

A career launchpad for young Finnish professionals

Currently working as a Project Management and Development Advisor on the COWASH IV project in Ethiopia, Sari Aroalho is one young professional whose career got a boost from the JPO opportunity. "The programme was an ideal entry point for me to gain valuable experience in the development sector," Sari says.

Sari joined COWASH IV in June 2023 and has been supporting the Chief Technical Advisor Neil Chadder and team on various aspects of the project. She finds this hands-on experience practical, providing her valuable opportunities for development and a deeper understanding of Finland's development work.

Working in Ethiopia, a country new to her, has been particularly enlightening, Sari explains. COWASH IV's operations across eight different regions have exposed her to diverse cultures and communities, plus it allowed her to witness the project's distinct approaches and practices. This experience has not only broadened her perspective but also honed her ability to adapt and navigate multifaceted environments effectively, she explains.

The JPO programme provides comprehensive support and a tailored capacity-building plan for each participant. This plan leverages their strengths and interests while addressing the specific needs of their assigned project, explains Mikaela Kruskopf, Project Manager at NIRAS. Currently, NIRAS Finland has JPOs working on Finnish-funded projects in Ethiopia, Namibia, Nepal, and Zambia.

COWASH IV JPO Programme Insight Story By Yeshihareg Abebe Melaku 1
Sari attending COWASH IV's on-the-job training in October 2023 for WaSH small- and medium-sized enterprises. Taken at Chironi District, Sidama Region, Ethiopia

Collaboration and knowledge exchange

JPOs play a valuable role in promoting collaboration and knowledge exchange between Finland and partner countries. While primarily focussed on providing practical development experience for young professionals, the programme also promotes a two-way exchange of knowledge and expertise. "JPOs, coming from different backgrounds, bring fresh perspectives to projects," remarks Tor.

The JPO programme also promotes strong person-to-person networks between Finnish JPOs and local experts. This collaboration lays the groundwork for successful development cooperation, which thrives on teamwork, cultural exchange, and relationship building.

Mikaela Kruskopf highlights that JPOs often fill gaps within project teams. Their diverse skillsets enrich the overall expertise, as demonstrated by Sari's experience with COWASH IV. According to Neil, "Sari's in-depth understanding of Finnish culture and philosophy has significantly contributed to ensuring a common understanding of the project's objectives and approach." This exemplifies how JPOs bridge communication gaps and strengthen collaboration within project teams.

Mikaela Kruskopf (3rd on left) with Sari and members of the COWASH Federal Technical Assistance Team

Building bridges for Finland

The JPO programme goes beyond project success and empowering young professionals, it nurtures lasting relationships. "The fact that Finland has been sending JPOs for the last 30 years has created people-to-people connections with Ethiopia," says Tor. Needless to say, these connections strengthen bilateral relations and create a pool of Finnish development experts with firsthand experience.

The JPO programme also plays a crucial role in cultivating a future generation of development practitioners who have actual practical experience in the field, giving them a better and realistic understanding of global development. Moreover, it encourages teamwork across borders, breaking down barriers and promoting a collaborative approach to development challenges.

The young participants gain invaluable on-the-ground experience, providing Finland and different multilateral international organisations like the United Nations, World Health Organisation and World Bank with talented development professionals. Upon returning, they enrich the country's development efforts for years to come, their expertise contributing to impactful solutions across the globe.

The JPO programme stands as a testament to Finland's commitment to international development cooperation. It empowers young professionals, strengthens partnerships and promotes innovative solutions. With its focus on building expertise and collaboration, it will continue playing a vital role in shaping a more sustainable and equitable future.

Mikaela Kruskopf

Mikaela Kruskopf

Senior Consultant

Helsinki, Finland

+358 9 836 24222