Now Reports

Srinivasa Popuri

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Srinivasa Popuri
Hometown: Hyderabad, India
In Japan: 11 months
Identity: Senior Human Settlements Officer, Regional Office of Asia and Pacific, UN-Habitat

After joining the UN in 1998, Srinivasa Popuri was appointed the Senior Human Settlements Officer of the UN-Habitat Regional Office for Asia last year. He’s worked in countless countries, speaks a host of regional languages, and has experienced enormous success, particularly using the “people’s process” as a tool for development. By establishing a mutual dialogue in a specific disaster-struck community to build cohesion, the “people’s process” works as a self-help mechanism for communities to decide their own priorities which the UN then helps to fulfil. In Myanmar, Srinivasa is proud of how this opened up communities to international agencies, creating trust in outsiders where there had previously been cynicism. The UN-Habitat Office, in ACROS building, has a staff of over 20 and enjoys a strong collaboration with Fukuoka Prefecture authorities, Kyushu academia, private sector and the broader international community in Fukuoka– regular lectures and talks are held in both English and Japanese. Srinivasa is convinced that the unparalleled efficiency of Japanese office environments is a central reason for the success of the office, plus financial support from the government and the use of Japanese environmental technology that can be adapted elsewhere.


Full interview by Mary-Rose Shand.

So where’s your hometown? How long did you live there for?
I was born in Hyderabad, India, and lived there from my birth until 1994.

And then you went on to study in Thailand?
Yes. I obtained a scholarship to study at Asian Institute of Technology ( with support from the Swedish government. It was a broad course, covering management, environmental engineering and science as well as, of course, a lot of economics.

Can you tell us about the path that took you from university to your job today?
I have always wanted to work in Asia and to help those countries, so my education in Bangkok was in a good location, centered in Asia. After that, I worked with the Swedish government for a project on regional environmental management issues. Since then I have been involved with regional environmental issues, focused on NGOs and civil society, and improving environmental awareness, different aspects of natural resources, and so on. This led me to a lot of research on urban issues, mostly related to sanitation and solid waste management. As part of this I went to Sweden, where I lead research regarding the role of formal and informal sectors in waste recycling in Calcutta, India. I then joined the UN in 1998.

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Two and a half years after graduating! Amazing!
I then joined the UNDP and was advising the Laos government on secondary urban towns urban development projects. Laos is a small country, with a population of only 5.4 million, so it was about how can you improve basic services in urban territory and secondary towns. We helped the local governments in terms of establishing urban development administrative localities, and generally with the government structures after the reforms started in the mid-90s. We provided a lot of training, capacity building, and financial assistance in constructing landfill sites and proper disposal systems. Eventually, we had people whose waste was being removed, and, of course, that resulted in a reduction of waterborne and other pollution-related diseases.

Then, until 2002, I was supporting Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on this task and in 2002 I moved with Habitat to Afghanistan in the immediate fall of the Taliban (although Habitat had been there for some time). This started a new phase of Habitat – we were providing basic relief, in terms of water, shelter, sanitation, and health-related services. Then, after the fall of the Taliban, we were part of the whole transformation of Afghanistan as a sovereign nation. As part of the broader framework, the UN had a key role to play. We established an entire UN assistance mission for Afghanistan, which was a large commitment. For Habitat, our mandate is clear – we want to provide safer and better human settlements, in services and as part of cohesion within communities, especially in areas where the people are divided. So, it’s quite a challenging job. We used a philosophy called the People’s Process, which we strongly believe in. It’s about letting people decide what they want, not as individuals but as a broader community. We want to know how they want to see themselves and their lives, and then we facilitate their wants by prioritizing their needs and their aspirations and, of course, we try to mobilize some of our resources to meet some of those needs.
So, now, we have quite a sizable program in Afghanistan, and the government of Japan also uses Habitat to support the government of Afghanistan. Our primary role is to ensure full accountability and transparency of taxpayers’ money, and in this case, it’s the government of Japan, but of course a lot of other donors as well. It was quite an interesting challenge.

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In 2005, after the tsunami, I was moved to Indonesia, basically to assist the government there advising on housing reconstruction. In all the tsunami-inflicted countries, Habitat played a key role in restoring their livelihoods, housing, and putting people back into their homes. But, we did not use contractors – we used to the people themselves to build or rebuild their houses. For centuries there, people have been building their own houses, but they did not know how to make them resilient. I think that’s where we learned a lot from Japan – we tried to transfer Japanese know-how and technology over. So, from our resources, we used technical-know how from Japan that could be adapted to local traditions. That was a challenging task, because we could not spend much money – it was a debate between whether you give some sizable houses to some, or you want make a “core” house for all, so they can slowly build and expand by themselves. We went with some for all – a core house concept, where, once you provide for livelihoods, for all the families to get on and earn income, they can accumulate some cash, and slowly they can expand their house. So that’s the philosophy that we call the People’s Process. It’s a self-help mechanism.

We also advise the municipalities and the cities in coming up with better revenue, better taxation we act as a bridge between the communities and the local government. We enable some dialogue – we know that there are some poor people often neglected by the government, in transition areas, whether its disabled people, women-headed households, or a socially deprived class. We create a criteria in terms of their poverty ranking, and asses their human security, and how to remove their freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The people’s process has helped as a tool, firstly to build cohesion. It forces them to work and to talk and to think together, as a unit, and not as an individual. So, then they say, “we want this road, we want a public toilet, we want better drainage, we want a school for our children, a hospital for our kids”. If they talk in other contexts, it’s all about “can I have my house renovated, can I have a toilet in my house?” – much more individualized. We used those community development concepts to construct a platform that we bring out of the community. These counsels can be used by any NGO, any UN, agency, and any embassy, because we cannot support outside our mandate. But when we enter into a community, we get that demographic, we get that data, we share it with some other UN agencies. It’s a collective UN-co-ordinated effort to assist people who are in need. In actuality, it’s a very interesting experience. In Indonesia it was, proudly, an unprecedented task of reconstruction in human history. It will never happen again and it had never happened before, because it was because the first time the government of Indonesia (or any post-disaster country) received close to $7 billion. Such generous assistance will never happen in future. So, the Indonesian government is quite successful in a way. There were interesting dynamics there. There was a conflict area, on top of which, a disaster struck, wiping out half of the population, so imagine the trauma of the people. But that’s where the broad-mindedness of the government of Indonesia came to help. You can compare the interesting dynamics between Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The tsunami in Indonesia has helped the conflict areas to talk to each other, settle their long standing differences and become a really integral part of Indonesia as a sovereign nation. The tsunami, in a way, helped to alleviate all of those tensions. But, in Sri Lanka, it has actually caused tension, between the north-east and the government – who will manage the tsunami funds was a bone of contention between Tamil groups and the government that has led to the fall-out – well, you know, the wiping out of the fighting Tamil group (LTTE). You see, disasters can not be avoided, it’s mother mature. But you can actually turn them in to some opportunities. There are some good lessons, as an opportunity to remove tensions.

So, from Indonesia, I moved to Myanmar in 2009. In between I was in the Maldives advising the government on some tsunami recovery co-ordination and, as the Maldives is quite similar to the Solomon Islands, I was also mobilized there to advise them on housing reconstruction as they were also affected by the tsunami. Myanmar in 2009 had also been affected by a disaster, the tropical cyclone Nargis. It took close to 350,000 lives (non-governmental sources), although officially they only said “over 100,000 people” but we know that there were problems with poor population data and demographic coverage. However, the assistance received was not on a par with other disaster-stricken regions at this time, due to the political sanctions and military government, despite similar levels of damage to human losses and human assets. So it took quite some time for Habitat, the international community, the UN, embassies and NGOs to negotiate access with the government of Myanmar. Habitat has no mandate restrictions – our role is to work with and to assist the government, sometimes directly through government sources or sometimes directly to the people. That puts us in a very good situation for advising the government of what needs to be done because we are not a political agency, we are a technical one, so it’s easy for us to relate, advise and assist – so we were quite successful in Myanmar. The military government saw us as helping them and finding some of the answers to their questions. They didn’t know how to go on providing housing to 100,000 families, and they didn’t know how to go about rebuilding the villages that were completely destroyed – so we gave them a plan, we gave them hope. Then the donors came forward, providing resources for Habitat and other agencies, of course, providing housing, water, sanitation, infrastructure. Again, it was a disaster that changed the Myanmar government. It forced both parties to come to the table and to talk about the Myanmar people that were affected, and it exposed the government to the international community. At the same time, there was an intense dialogue – there was a lot of suspicion and lack of trust because of the military government. This process, however, actually has opened up the government and moderated their attitude. That forced them to think that not all foreigners are bad.

If you had to pick a defining moment, or a turning point, from your career, what would you choose?
Myanmar, undoubtedly, because of the important opportunity that I had – to work with military government – and I played a small role in opening up the government. And also positioning Habitat as a technical agency there. Convincing the military government and also some of those ministers that not all are bad, and that there are people who are willing to help. In my career I see both Afghanistan and Myanmar as peaks that have provided me with a lot of lessons. Of course, every country and context is unique – whether it’s conflict and disaster, or just conflict, or only disaster, the dynamics are always interesting. You learn different lessons from different contexts. Obviously Afghanistan was an Islamic context, but you cannot simply say that all Islamic contexts will act this way. The actions, the resilience that people have, and their human expressions are very different. In Myanmar, a Buddhist country, there are so many ethnic conflicts and the country is going through political sanctions – it is one of the least developed countries, I would say (people call Myanmar and North Korea the “last frontiers”). Myanmar was quite fulfilling and I am so fortunate to keep supporting them at the moment. In Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Laos, I know their cultures, I speak their languages.

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How many languages do you speak?
A few regional languages… I have always felt that my heart is in Asia. Because there are a lot of developing countries in Asia, and because I was born in a developing country, I feel like my heart is here, I have an obligation to stay.

So being born in a developing country contributes to your motivation to working in developing countries – how does that compare with living and working in Japan now? Are there any uncomfortable cleavages or tensions?
Not at all – I don’t stay for longer periods but keep traveling. In June I was away for over two weeks – I went to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Myanmar. People think that Japan is a fancy location – well, it is for my family! – and our regional office is in Fukuoka for a reason, at least, but we are trying to keep going to our areas, we have teams on the ground there that we want to support based on our accumulated knowledge and experience. But, at the same time, there is so much that the government and people of Japan can offer – technical know-how, financial assistance. We act as a bridge. Although we work here, it’s not full time, and at the same time we also teach in universities here. We give lectures, based on our specializations. For UN Habitat, Fukuoka is hosting us, so it’s our obligation to inform them of what we are doing. The government of Japan is a major donor, so we want to explain how efficiently we are spending taxpayers’ money. Economies are under stress and rapidly changing and are increasingly under scrutiny, so there is obviously a need for information to be available in the public domain in order for government to be more transparent. We inform them of how their money is being used in Afghanistan – we showcase that in events, conferences and lectures.

We also take a lot of environmentally-friendly technologies from Kyushu to some countries in Asia. An example is eco-block technology, invented by a Japanese scientist – a small block made of bacteria, which costs about a dollar, and you can put it in the septic tank, and you don’t need to clean it. Laos is happily enjoying and using this technology, because some of their lakes are so polluted – so we facilitated that know-how. Then there are Fukuoka’s recycling methods – the solid waste method, which leaves probably zero waste at the end after treatment, that is now being used in some countries. We are also enabling some trade missions – we give lectures to the Kyushu Chamber of Commerce and we informed them of what’s having in Myanmar and our office has supported and facilitated meetings between members of the ministries in Myanmar and members of the Kyushu Chamber of Commerce. So, we reciprocate for Fukuoka hosting us. We try to build many bridges.

So, your office in Fukuoka – if this office could have any more features or resources, what would they be? Is there anything that would accelerate or enhance your aspirations for this office?
I think it’s already happened! The government of Japan has supported us quite a bit – that has changed the way the regional office works. All the UN offices in Japan – Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka – are liaison offices, but this one is a fully-fledged regional office, looking after 24 countries in the Asia-Pacific. We have over 20 staff, whereas other offices are much smaller. One of the more hidden reasons, as I believe, for the regional office to be kept in Japan is the efficiency. The staff here are so efficient.

So the efficiency of the office is unparalleled?
Though it is a developed country, there is so much that Japan can offer – the know-how and the technology as well as the efficiency. It just can’t be expected elsewhere. There are a lot of external factors that affect efficiency, too – the traffic, the health, the safety, the peace of mind, where your kids are – here, I know when my kid is out in the streets that he is still safe. And there’s no crime. People often neglect or ignore these external factors – so if you consider these factors you can see how comfortable we are in delivering to other countries. Even the time zone is quite perfect for us. But it’s tough for me – Afghanistan works on a Friday-Sunday weekend!

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Conversely: you’ve spoken about the advantages Japan offers (it’s practically perfect it seems!) – so is there anything that you would change?
No! You see, the social life – it’s not what you get in Bangkok or in Myanmar. So, no, we’re quite happy. We go out to a lot of provinces nearby, we follow Fukuoka Now. I recently took 40kg of unique ceramics from the Arita ceramic fair back to my country – far better gifts than any perishable ones!

What do you and your family enjoy doing in Fukuoka?
We like Ohori-Koen and Momochi beach. We also like seaside area of Uminonakamichi.

What’s your favorite nearby destination?
I like Saga and Oita. I mean, everywhere has its own flavor. My lack of my Japanese knowledge holds me back a bit but people are so helpful and friendly. Fukuoka International School also provides another network. As an expat, if you want to be comfortable in a city – I saw that Fukuoka was ranked in Monocle’s top 12 – you look for things like a good hospital, an international school. There is room for improvement – the school is providing services to the international community but why are they limiting themselves to only students there? They could help others in Fukuoka and likewise the Prefectural government could provide them access to a playground so that the kids can have more play activities.

So your children are learning Japanese?
My kids are learning Japanese quite fast – it’s not quite the same for me! The staff here speak excellent English. They’re spoiling us! Everything is so perfect here.

Does your office hire locally?
The Japanese staff are either seconded by the government of Fukuoka prefecture or hired through the UN. All the international staff are internationally hired – there are eight or nine from various countries. We provide internships for Kyushu university students – twenty students are off to Sri Lanka next week, for six to ten weeks. We are sending a couple of students to Myanmar. Some are interns in the office. It’s part of their research strategy. They are exposed to the UN’s work and it will help them to choose their major in their bachelors or masters. They come from a variety of degree subjects. Vacancies and internships can be accessed through

The office is also in a great location!
They (the government of Japan and Fukuoka Prefecture) provide this space and the facilities. We are trying to help to internationalize Fukuoka City. Every year we have several workshops, bringing forty to seventy UN professionals together from many countries to Fukuoka for several days. November 6-8 is the next one.

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How can we encourage involvement from our readership?
I think Fukuoka Now is an excellent platform for reaching ex-pats here. It would be great if more ex-pats and Japanese knew what Habitat is doing. I am also subscribed to your Facebook page. Any visitor that comes to Fukuoka, I point them to Fukuoka Now. As for Habitat, you can see snapshots of what we are doing globally on our website – – there’s also lot of information available in Japanese as well.

Any messages for our readers?
I will keep recommending Fukuoka Now, and please tell expats about the work at Habitat. We have monthly and bi-monthly lectures, some in English and some in Japanese.

Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn177, Sep. 2013)

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All text by Mary-Rose Shand for Fukuoka Now.

Fukuoka City
Published: Aug 30, 2013 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017

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