White man holding small African boy in his arms
Ole with his little friend Godfrey in Torit, South Sudan, where the Water for East Equatoria State project is in its final year
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Ole Stokholm Jepsen: A lifetime of learning

The team leader for NIRAS’s "Water for Eastern Equatoria" Project in South Sudan brings decades of experience to a challenging situation and explains how the simplest solutions are often the best.

Ole Stokholm Jepsen says it like it is. At 73, with close to 50 years’ experience in development cooperation, he’s not afraid to a call a spade a spade. But the Danish grandfather of five does it with grace. His honesty comes with good intentions, informed by decades of learning from his own mistakes and watching misguided policy result in short-term, unsustainable change.

“A lot has changed for the better in development cooperation. We’ve moved away from having solely expats in the field, to a situation today where nationals are much more involved. Project outcomes are much more sustainable when we build capacity with end users, local consultants and local authorities who take the lead in developing their own country. That way, there is no vacuum when we leave. This is key to a successful exit strategy,” Ole explains. “But some things have not changed enough. I still feel too much development money isn’t being spent effectively. Funding is targeted at building public sector capacity, but often what remains is a monster that the Government cannot sustain without continued donor support. Don’t call this resilience or sustainable development.. Nation-building doesn’t work that way. It would be much more effective to grow a strong tax base that would then enable national governments to sustain basic public services.”

Ole has earned the right to speak frankly. He’s been around the development block and finds honesty opens the way for a more realistic approach to meaningful development. In his 48 years working in the sector – 40 of which have been spent within the NIRAS family with the likes of Carl Bro and Danagro/Scanagri – he has worked in close to 50 countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa. With a background in agriculture, his career began in the FAO as a farm manager on a beef industry develop­ment project in Kenya when he was 25 years old. Since then, he has expanded his project management specialisations to cover all areas of agricultural and integrated rural development, private sector growth, and natural resources management (including water) to name just a few.

Ole (on the right) shows Marc Mazairac, (First Secretary, Development Cooperation, Dutch Embassy in Juba) around the project site in Torit

Having worked in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somaliland and now South Sudan Ole seems to be drawn to tough environments, but he confesses it is all a bit of a coincidence. “It sounds much more glamorous than it really is. For many years, I worked in more peaceful places but, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, I took a temporary position with the Coalition Provisional Authority in southern Iraq as Head of the Department for Food, Agriculture, and Irrigation. I went for three months and stayed for five and half years. It’s a plot line that tends to repeat itself. I say I’ll do a project short-term and then … well … ask my wife.”

South Sudan is no exception.

Seeking mostly short-term assignments so he could spend more time with his wife of 46 years and a growing troupe of grandkids, in 2014 Ole launched a consultancy in his native Denmark and took a brief contract in 2015 to support a sister project, Water for Lakes, to the Dutch Government-funded Water for Eastern Equatoria Project. The project had already been running for three years, but the team had been evacuated mid 2016 following a second outbreak of conflict in the world’s youngest country and, according to the UN, one of the most dangerous places for aid workers.

“When the NIRAS team was pulled out, there was a vacuum. After working in Helmand Province, I felt prepared. I didn’t think I would stay on as the team leader, but now I feel – of all the work I’ve done – this project has the potential to be the one that could have the greatest impact.”

For someone with his experience, this is saying a lot.

A gift of gratitude: peanut butter processed by local women's cooperative supported by the project.

Water for Eastern Equatoria is a long-term development project focused on integrated water resource management and water-, hygiene-, and sanitation-related (WASH) interventions for people as well as the agriculture, livestock, and fisheries sectors. Parallel to improved availability of water, the project also promotes environmentally friendly, climate-smart agriculture and alternative livelihood interventions that are vital to a country where temperatures are estimated to rise two and a half times faster than the global average and where six years of intense civil war has decimated the economy. With close to 400,000 people estimated to be dead and a third of the population displaced, many outsiders don’t view South Sudan with much optimism. But Ole respectfully disagrees.

“They are such a young country and have been in conflict for so long, they are ready to change. With my experience, I can see what tools will work here. I’m not afraid to speak up and point out the challenges. The single biggest barrier to private sector development – which lies at the heart of economic development – is free handouts. How can a small agro-service provider or someone selling seeds or spare parts compete when the goods they’re selling are given away for free? Moreover, developing huge agri-extension services doesn’t help anyone if the Government can’t sustain them without support. We need to develop public–private partnerships so that farmers pay a small fee for inputs and professional services and agro-dealers can actually earn a wage from a small but sustained demand that will scale up food production in the long term,” Ole explains. “Keeping the population dependent on donors doesn’t help anyone. We need to be realistic and have an honest, healthy discussion. In South Sudan, 75% of the population is under 30 years of age, and I truly believe that, if we can get the youth more involved in improving their own livelihoods, this is the way forward.”

This is where Ole really feels the difference will be felt. It might be controversial to say, but he firmly believes that youth activation without further education is the missing link in development cooperation. “Education and training are fine where there are jobs to go to, but in the meantime, we need to keep young people in their home country, and the best way to do that is to help them earn a living with the resources they have.”

That is the goal of the alternative livelihood interventions he and his team undertake in the Water for Eastern Equatoria Project, which has turned into a project that is not just strictly about water, but very much on water-related improved livelihood. Like the team of young footballers who were given farming demonstrations and introduced to agro-dealers who can provide tools, inputs, and services in a small but important initiative in a country where only 5% of land is cultivated and food is mostly imported. Or the group of young men who were cleaning tyres and vehicles by the river, polluting it with oil and other run-off. Today, they own a registered car-washing business on a piece of land the project negotiated from the municipality on their behalf.

Ole receiving some eggs from a women's cooperative group.

Quick-impact interventions are in fact one of Ole’s speciality. He has a knack for doing simple things just that little bit differently, making the difference between success and failure. “When we gave chickens and poultry training to women’s cooperatives, I was told this had been done before and failed. ‘But not scavenging chickens,’ I told them. ‘You gave them chickens that need imported feed. These chickens hunt for their own food and need minimum maintenance.’ Today, those women have managed to save $10,000 from the sale of eggs and poultry, and they created a lending programme for others in the community. I knew about the scavenging chicken approach because it had great success in Afghanistan, and actually the concept was developed many years ago by Danish consultants.”

The Water for East Equatoria Project recently got a one-year extension until October 2019. With a strong local team supporting him, Ole plans to see it through to the end and beyond.

“This last year is key, as we’re really in the post-project stage and developing our exit strategy. Stakeholders at all levels are now taking ownership and responsibility. In simple terms, this means that when we provide a water point, we help the community establish a water management committee that can maintain and repair the facility. As the cornerstone for private sector development, public–private partnership for service provision to water, food and agricultural development is central to the project’s sustained success. We will compile all the lessons learned from this project and use them to scale up interventions in other states in South Sudan to create peace, stability, and economic growth.”

Something tells us we haven’t seen the end of those scavenging chickens.