Albertan born on a grain farm to rethink how World Food Programme's humanitarian aid is delivered

Robert Opp didn't set out to change the world but he's now tasked with reimagining how humanitarian aid is delivered by one of the world's largest aid organizations.

Claresholm's Robert Opp first-ever director of the world's largest aid organization's innovation division

Robert Opp says he loses sleep at night thinking about the challenges the World Food Programme is facing, but also the huge amount of potential to solve them by harnessing technological advancements. (Giulio d'Adamo/World Food Programme)

Growing up on a grain farm in southern Alberta, Robert Opp couldn't have known the challenges that lay ahead for him as he became the first man to tackle systemic change and innovation at one of the world's largest humanitarian aid organizations. 

Opp is the director of the newly-minted Innovation and Change Management Division for the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP). 

Now in its third year, the division is tasked with incorporating new technologies into the practices of humanitarian aid delivery. This includes experimentation with everything from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and artificial intelligence, to blockchain and chatbots.  

From Claresholm to the WFP

Opp graduated from the only high school in Claresholm, Alta. — Willow Creek Composite — in 1990 before heading off to study history at the University of Alberta's campus in Camrose, Alta. 

As Opp tells it, it was a semester abroad in Ghana that really moved his interests to the international stage. 

"That really exposed me and opened my eyes to this whole world of international issues and international development," Opp says. 

Opp then went on to study at Ottawa's Carleton University, completing a Master's degree in international affairs. 

Helping more people in an accountable way

In what is likely a conservative estimate, the WFP's website says they assist roughly 80 million people across 80 countries in a given year. 

With that many people in need of help, Opp admits there are a great number of challenges the WFP faces —challenges he believes can be solved or ameliorated with the use of new cutting edge technology. 

"It's all about accountability and transparency," Opp says. 

"If we're not able to establish a high level of accountability, trust and transparency in what we do, obviously, we have trouble convincing donors to keep giving us money to fund the operations that we're trying to pursue." 

Push for tech innovation

Opp loses sleep at night both thinking about the challenges the WFP is facing, but also the huge amount of potential there is to unlock by harnessing technological advancements. 

"Things that keep me up at night are, frankly, the fact that although we've made progress against hunger over the last 20 years, we are not making enough progress fast enough to reach the goals the world has set for ending hunger, which is 2030."

Opp said the "extraordinary" reach and penetration of the smartphone completely changes the opportunities that exist to understand the work the WFP is pursuing. 

Hamda, a Syrian refugee, uses an iris scan camera to access the funds the WFP provides to pay for food at a grocery store in Jordan. (Mohammad Batah/World Food Programme)

"When we're able to really connect and communicate with people — not just a few voices in random surveys, but when we're actually getting thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of voices communicating with us — then we're able to really understand what kind of assistance is needed, what kind of impact we're having with it and what people are feeling. What's on their minds?"

Opp said pen and paper is still as sophisticated as information gathering sometimes is on the ground for the WFP, so the opportunities for innovation are huge. 

Lessons learned on a grain farm

Ultimately, starting out in Claresholm gave Opp a great perspective to lay the groundwork for everything that came after it. 

"The sense of community I inherited growing up in a small town and the idea that neighbours help neighbours, and that's what we're here to do. We're here to look after each other."

A World Food Programme plane releases sacks of food during an airdrop in northern South Sudan, February 18, 2017. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)