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Laurent Thomas
Assistant Director-General, Technical Cooperation Department, FAO

Laurent Thomas
Assistant Director-General, Technical Cooperation Department, FAO

This year, Groupe URD is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your dealings with Groupe URD?

I currently work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) where I am the Assistant Director-General in charge of the Technical Cooperation Department, which is responsible for the FAO’s activities in the fields of: 1) support for programming investments in agriculture and rural development; 2) relief and rehabilitation; and 3) the mobilization of resources, particularly in relation to South-South cooperation. Since Groupe URD was created, I have considered it to be an important partner of the FAO. As far as I know, it is the only French-speaking think tank on humanitarian issues. There are many think tanks on these issues, and particularly in the Anglo-Saxon world, but in France it is the only one which is really solid in the sector. It is also a reference in the area of evaluation and the development of methodological tools.

We have been partners for a long time. For example, there was a decisive mission in South Sudan around fifteen years ago. Nowadays, FAO is very present vis-a-vis the South Sudanese authorities, and that founding mission with Groupe URD is one of the reasons.

More recently, we engaged in dialogue with Groupe URD in connection with our strategy. When we wanted to include the resilience of rural populations in our new logical framework, the technical contribution of the Groupe URD team was very useful.

What is important about Groupe URD is their ability to reflect, the accuracy of their reflections and the fact that they sometimes go against conventional thinking. Their factual analyses do not just repeat established ideas. I have also been struck by the leadership of François Grünewald, for whom I have a lot of respect. With his team, he has created a high quality organisation. I consider that Groupe URD contributes to spreading the influence of French-speaking schools of thought in the humanitarian sector. The United Nations have chosen them to carry out numerous analyses in post-crisis situations, and their outputs have allowed this community of actors to evolve.

Can you describe Groupe URD briefly/in a word?

A credible and professional organisation working for the humanitarian sector and its principles. What I like is Groupe URD’s ability to work on different levels of analysis and production of outputs. They work on fundamental issues and produce tools based on the analysis of field realities. Their ideas are really rooted in their knowledge of the field and their ability to listen to actors in the field.

What is your perception of Groupe URD? How do you perceive its role, its positioning and its specific characteristics?

I am really convinced that Groupe URD’s work is important. What I like about their positioning and how they define their priorities is their desire to maintain a strong link between their professional practices and training, whether of managers, practitioners or the new generation of humanitarian and development professionals.

Within the humanitarian sector, in the emergency assistance community, there is a dominant trend which gives priority to crisis responses which aim to save lives – which is fundamental – but it is not enough. It is well known that it is also necessary to work on the other dimensions which contribute to reconstruction. It is necessary to deal with prevention and warning and for responses to tackle the roots of problems, but these are positions which are not always easy to hold within the humanitarian community. Groupe URD have moved debates forward in this area.

To my knowledge, the first person to talk about the idea of building resilience in humanitarian contexts was François. I discussed the concept of resilience with him more than 10 years ago. Very perspicacious – he is a visionary…

Do you have any anecdotes you would like to share?

If he wants to, I’ll let François tell you about the end of project meeting with the United Nations Coordinator/ Sudan Humanitarian Coordinator for the initial assessment project that he carried out for the FAO about fifteen years ago.

How do you see Groupe URD in the future? What are your wishes for the future?

I would like Groupe URD to achieve some stability. It is a continual struggle for them to obtain funding, to the detriment of the serenity that is necessary to produce ideas and manage knowledge. I would like them to receive more help so that they can carry out their work unhindered in their areas of activity (in consulting and analysis, and in terms of fundamental issues, political and methodological analysis and the development of tools).