I learn something new every day: A Conversation with UPU’s Sandra Bonfigli
“The UPU is at the centre of a global network, and UPU staff, including the wonderful people I work with, are working tirelessly to help improve the situation of countries.”1. Please describe your role at the Universal Postal Union
I have been with the UPU for nearly 30 years and work in the Procurement Unit of the Development and Cooperation Directorate (DCDEV). Our directorate coordinates cooperation projects for the postal sector.
The unit’s role is to identify and procure equipment needed for cooperation projects and to find the best means of purchasing equipment needed by our member countries all around the world.
To do this, various factors are taken into account, such as the geographical location of the country and the availability of equipment in local or regional markets. As far as possible, we also try to anticipate any difficulties with transport or delivery.
Although cooperation projects follow a four-year cycle between Congresses, we often intervene during emergency situations. Indeed, it is DCDEV’s role to help get postal services up and running again as quickly as possible following certain natural disasters.
I have been very lucky to work in this area and to be in a position to provide concrete help to our member countries. It is extremely rewarding work, which has kept me motivated throughout my time here at the International Bureau.
One of the most important initiatives I was involved in was a large-scale project to provide equipment to Haiti after the massive earthquake in January 2010. This was a humanitarian disaster that ravaged the postal infrastructure. Responding quickly we managed to rebuild a sorting centre in a few short months, after which people were able to receive letters and parcels from families abroad. We literally worked day and night to make this happen and the project continues to mean a lot to me. I think it is safe to say that, in this line of work, you are learning something new every day.
2. How did this project to provide Personal Protective Equipment to postal operators in least developed countries begin?
The project to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) came about quite naturally. It started when we realized the sheer extent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the speed it was spreading across the world. Faced with this crisis, we immediately began to think about how the UPU could assist postal workers courageously serving on the front line.
We explored all possible avenues for purchasing protective equipment, but at that point in time, the equipment was simply not available. There was a shortage of masks and disinfectant worldwide.
We decided that the best way to source this equipment would be to work together with other United Nations organizations. That is when we began working with UNOPS, which was already purchasing other PPE for other organizations. It was a natural partner in this endeavour.
3. What difficulties did you encounter?
Although we moved quickly, acquiring the equipment proved difficult. The crisis was really in full force when we were beginning our project; but no one at that time could have predicted its global impact.
In the first instance, governments began frantically acquiring masks, gloves and disinfectant for health workers, and we were unable to purchase the quantities we had originally planned. Then, almost inevitably, supply chain problems made it hard to get hold of any equipment at all. Happily, we have now managed to put everything in place and have been able to procure a large number of masks.
The next problem was that most airlines are currently grounded, so we relied on our partnership with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to find the quickest and most secure means of transporting the equipment to beneficiary countries. The delivery will soon take place and I am grateful for the support and assistance of UNOPS.
4. What has been the UPU’s role in this important project?
The role of the UPU, and specifically the DCDEV, has been to mobilize a response together with our key partners, and to understand the importance of the human element of this issue.
Our regular contributors – China, France, Japan and Switzerland – pledged contributions to top up the UPU's funds to help get this project off the ground. In addition, DCDEV includes regional programmes with on-the-ground expertise, a disaster-risk-management unit and a goods and services procurement unit. Having this experience under one roof has made it much easier to implement the project.
We have all worked in the spirit of collaboration and I have been able to rely on the invaluable support of my colleagues who have each contributed to this project in their own particular way. I am particularly grateful to Silvia Baratech who has given her all to this project and who works with me in the Procurement Unit.
We are also fortunate to have extensive experience of working remotely with postal partners around the world. This crisis has shown us that the network of contacts we have gradually established and the trust built up during these years is bearing fruit.
The UPU is at the centre of a global network, and UPU staff, including the wonderful people I work with, are working tirelessly to help improve the situations of countries.
5. Why is PPE so important to postal operators in less developed countries during the COVID-19 pandemic?
As we all know, human capital is at the heart of the Post and is key to its proper functioning. Postal staff work in close cooperation with one another at all levels of the supply chain, including collection, sorting, transport and delivery. Postal staff are continuously in contact with their customers and partners. The pandemic has exposed postal staff to a high level of risk in almost every part of their daily working lives. The PPE is therefore paramount to their safety.
In fact, the DCDEV is currently examining options for another project of this scale to further support postal staff and offer additional assistance to the least developed countries and other countries facing particularly difficult circumstances.