University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Push Back on Desertification

Gilles Amadou Ouedraogo works on a project related to the Great Green Wall Accelerator.

Gilles Amadou Ouedraogo, far left, on a field visitin Touba, Senegal, with colleagues from the Great Green Wall project.
Photo courtesy Gilles Amadou Ouedraogo

THE CHILD OF CIVIL SERVANTS, Gilles Amadou Ouedraogo (M.D.P. ’13) moved often during his childhood, attending school in Washington, D.C.; New York City; and in his hometown of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, before attending Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, for his undergraduate studies.

His interest in international development started during his college years when he studied abroad in Bangalore, India. While there, Ouedraogo took a course titled Social Justice, Peace, and Development. “We learned about what communities in Asia go through, how development really needs to happen from within, and that change needs to essentially include involvement from communities if you want to see lasting change,” he says. “It really needs to come from the grassroots level.”

After graduation, Ouedraogo studied for his master’s in development practice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. During classes, he learned about the importance of monitoring and evaluation work, later working as a Princeton in Africa fellow with the Lutheran World Federation in Burundi. The experience was life-changing, he says—even though he had to be evacuated to Rwanda at one point, when civil unrest erupted after the country’s president changed the constitution so he could run for office a third time.

"I've lived my entire life between all worlds. So wherever I go, it's not like I'm a fish out of water because I'm a stranger everywhere I go."
Gilles Amadou Ouedraogo

Today, Ouedraogo is the Programme Management Officer with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Based in Bonn, Germany, he manages a project related to the Great Green Wall Accelerator: an initiative to increase the amount of arable land in the 11 nations of the Sahel region, which borders the Sahara Desert in Africa. Founded in 2006 as a tree-planting program to prevent the Sahara from advancing, the effort has grown over the years to a mosaic of different forestry and agroecological initiatives, with projects ranging from improving soil conditions to using innovative farming techniques that save water.

Ouedraogo’s work involves meeting with different stakeholders in each country, from farmers to scientists to academics to civil servants. He helps advise them on communicating effectively with each other to improve the work they do and on submitting applications for funding from the $19 billion pledged to the Great Green Wall at the 2021 One Planet Summit in Paris. The work needs a person who is not only multilingual (Ouedraogo speaks French) but also grounded in sensitivity and respect for different cultures. “I’ve lived my entire life between all worlds,” he says. “So wherever I go, it’s not like I’m a fish out of water because I’m a stranger everywhere I go.”

Ouedraogo wants his fellow Gophers to understand something about the part of the world where he works. 

“The narrative about our countries in the Sahel is that our futures are doomed, and that’s part of the reason why you have all these young people fleeing their countries and going to the Mediterranean to cross over to Europe,” he says. “It is true that this happens. And the fact of the matter is that more than half of the population in these countries is under the age of 30. That’s unheard of in terms of manpower. The potential to instrumentalize these youth, to create jobs and an economy [here], is astounding.”

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