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Breaking new paths in pursuit of environmental goals

September 8, 2020

Portrait of Paola Ridolfi
Photo courtesy of Paola Ridolfi

Paola Ridolfi is Manager of the Global Environment Facility’s Policy, Partnerships, and Operations unit. In an interview, she reflected on how her team is helping countries and communities stay focused on environmental priorities during the COVID crisis and shared how her love of studying caves has informed how she approaches new challenges.

What do you like about your job?

I work with an extraordinary group of people. I feel fortunate to lead a talented team of professionals with diverse backgrounds who are all committed to the GEF’s mission to support global environmental benefits through partnership. It’s also an immense privilege to work with government officials around the world, with local communities receiving support from the Small Grants Program, and with the 18 partner agencies that implement GEF-funded projects addressing biodiversity loss, deforestation, illegal wildlife trafficking, land degradation, ocean pollution, and much more. The GEF Council and GEF Assembly meetings my team organizes give us a chance to bring research, innovation, policies, and practice together in a way that is really special and unique.

How did you get into this field?

I joined the GEF one year ago after over 20 years in research at the Council of Europe and at the World Bank, where I managed country programs and strategy in West Africa, the Sahel, North Africa, and Southern Africa, and worked in the water and cities practice. Prior to that, I studied at the University of Bologna, the University of Trier in Germany, Johns Hopkins University, and the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. It was in Senegal that I first observed first-hand how macroeconomic and sector policies directly impact peoples’ lives, livelihoods, hopes, and opportunities. This inspired me to put my energy toward helping governments develop policies that are coherent, with sustainability at their core, also addressing opportunities for women and girls. Later in my career I had the chance to work in countries coming out of conflict or in difficult transitions, such as the Arab Spring, floods in Mozambique, and insecurity in Mali. I have learned a tremendous amount from the resilience of people who protect their heritage and their environment. At the GEF, I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the global priority of our time – reversing the policies and growth models that make our economic system unsustainable.

Paola Ridolfi at an agribusiness event in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Paola Ridolfi (center) at an agribusiness event in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Photo courtesy of Paola Ridolfi

What is a typical workday for you?

On a typical day, I have meetings with team members on topics related to portfolio monitoring, quality assurance, consultations with agencies, the Country Support Program and its series of national and regional engagement activities, and the GEF Small Grants Programme which provides support to local and community initiatives around the world. I allocate a lot of time to planning program activities and take time to check on colleagues one-on-one to see how everyone is faring in a time when we are working remotely. I also enjoy being a mentor in the World Bank Group’s Young Professionals Program and interacting with my mentees who are starting out their professional journeys. Travel has always been a big part of my work, though that is not currently the case as a result of COVID-19.

Do you have any tips for staying connected and committed in this time?

Growing up in Italy I loved to study caves, and I learned a lot from breaking new paths (literally!) to explore nature underground. I have been reflecting on these lessons in 2020, when the challenges of the coronavirus outbreak have forced us to forge a different way forward amid a lot of uncertainty. COVID-19 requires us to push ourselves to explore new ways to achieve our goals and uplift our partners – particularly recipient governments and communities who have been affected by the pandemic and shutdown in unprecedented ways.

In the past months, we have held the first-ever virtual GEF Council meeting and hosted a GEF agency retreat by video conference; we are also reshaping our engagement and capacity building programs with Operational Focal Points, Political Focal Points, Convention Focal Points, civil society organizations, and partner agencies so that we can keep the GEF partnership network connected and continue to provide responsive support. We also have an opportunity through technology to open up events to new partners on a global scale. We know that COVID-19 makes our work in support of global environmental benefits more relevant than ever, and we are committed to tackling challenges in an integrated way to ensure post-COVID recovery does not come at the expense of the climate and the environment.

On a personal level, I believe it is important to have a safe space at a time when we cannot do many of the things we love and were used to doing. I have reorganized my hobbies and replaced the gym with biking, traveling with gardening. Since I am home more than ever before, I am also doing more cooking with my family and backyard dinners with friends. I hope some of these new habits are here to stay.

What are you looking forward to over the coming year?

We are living interesting times at the GEF, as we welcome a new CEO and as we gear up for our next replenishment cycle, known as GEF-8, in two years. I am looking forward to continuing to engage with our partners and helping them share lessons and successes from our work together, and to building new partnerships in pursuit of the urgent environmental goals that we need to make headway on.