Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

Rural roots

Robert Opp's Augustana education has led to big things

by Zanne Cameron
Folio Staff
Robert Opp and his boss, United Nations World Food Program director James T. Morris, prepare for takeoff. Opp developed a passion for international humanitarian aid while studying at Augustana.
Robert Opp and his boss, United Nations World Food
Program director James T. Morris, prepare for takeoff.
Opp developed a passion for international
humanitarian aid while studying at Augustana.

Robert Opp arrived in Angola just as the southeast African nation's civil war had re-ignited. His United Nations assignment, to co-ordinate post-war aid, changed before he'd even arrived. In fact, rebel forces had recently shot two UN aircraft out of the sky.

"I was in the thick of it," said Opp, who would be responsible for ensuring more than 300,000 refugees were fed each month if his plane landed, that is.

He had his education at Augustana to thank for what would be a "pretty intense" assignment, doing his best to feed people and not get his staff killed.

A decade earlier, Opp participated in the first Rural Development Exchange (RDX) program offered at the University of Alberta's Augustana Faculty, and it changed his life.

"We left for Ghana for four months in January of 1994. It was the first pilot of the RDX, and it was an extraordinary experience," said Opp, who is now working as assistant to United Nations World Food Program Director James T. Morris. He is part of a small team within the executive director's office that manages the global operations of the World Food Program, which fed an estimated 90 million people last year. He has also worked in tandem with Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

"My current path is directly attributable to my experience in the RDX, Ghana," he said. "It was my first exposure to a Third World country. I was dumped in rural northern Ghana. I have travelled to many countries since, but it is still a unique experience. It stuck with me."

The trip was fraught with unforeseen complications, and many of the students caught Malaria, but Opp came home with a focus and a passion to serve those in need.

He eventually completed a master's degree at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. He worked for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for a couple of years, but sought a way of getting back to the field level. He applied for a position with the United Nations (funded through a Canadian Government program), which led to his assignment in Angola.

Today, Opp expects he'll stay with the UN regardless of its troubles. He believes in the organization and feels his team is particularly effective. "There is no other entity that can do this work," he said, noting that the UN world food program is one of the few entities that can address hunger and aid issues on a massive scale. "I still believe that I am making an impact." Opp feels that World Food PRogram and the UN can literally "move mountains to serve people in need. It is worth pushing for."

His call to service is still strong. "I work with and meet really extraordinary people; people with passion. My boss and my colleagues are inspirational. They truly want to solve the problem of hunger, especially among children. From villages to global summits, I see people every day at every level who are full of hope."