People Rita Sciarra

Helping the Most Disadvantaged Countries in the UN Uniform

, by Pietro Masotti
A CLAPI graduate, Rita Sciarra serves as regional Team Lead of the United Nations Development Programme – an institution “that draws high expectations and criticism.” “Social norms remain male-dominated,” she explains, “and this is felt in the field

“I have seen a boy be killed just a few steps away from me for stealing a Coca-Cola. I have pulled from the rubble mothers holding hands with their children. I have met families confined to their homes because of the shame associated with being too poor. Through my work for the UN, though, I believe I have also contributed to changing the circumstances for many people by sponsoring subsidies, rendering administrations more efficient and improving the quality of life – especially for women – by supporting, for example, thousands of women’s small businesses.”

After graduating with a degree in management of international institutions in 2004, Rita Sciarra’s international career immediately took off, landing in the world’s most disadvantaged countries. She has worked in India, Tanzania, Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico. She now works in Panama, as regional Team Lead for inclusive growth and poverty reduction at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) hub. “Becoming a UN official is something I wanted with all my might, but it is also a personal – as well as professional – commitment that is anything but insignificant. It means always moving around with the uniform on. In the countries where I travel to, I always represent an institution that draws high expectations and criticism; being Italian sometimes helps a lot, because many have a beautiful perception of our country.” It is a heavy load of stress and emotions that gives value to one’s days, but – every now and then – one needs to take a break from it all. “The first time it happened to me was after yet another hurricane in Haiti,” she explains. “I was exhausted and wanted to get back to doing something for myself. I sent in an application for a Yale fellowship and was selected for the Yale World fellow program – the first Italian woman to be chosen. For six months I went back to studying, lecturing and dealing with professionals from all walks of life. The second time, on the other hand, I was in Mexico and became pregnant. I needed to return home to Calabria to give birth to my son, and I wanted it to be in a public hospital. In Cosenza at the hospital, I saw in the personnel the same heroism of the health staff in certain poor countries, where they work in dire conditions. Here I had confirmation of the great importance of protecting public health to give quality service to all. It is a matter of rights, of dignity.”

Now Rita has two kids and leads a team of Panama-based experts who identify, protect and strengthen the potential of the most vulnerable communities in 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. “We try to look at poverty from more than an economic perspective and address it with a multidimensional approach, intervening on multiple factors – from social services to labor policies – that weigh on families’ status, especially that of women.” She feels especially fortunate when she thinks of her own situation as a woman. “Based on the statistics, a woman like me – born to two teachers in a small town in Calabria – should have had limited professional and social mobility. My redemption was possible because the UNDP is also comprised of many women, and – in this sense – I was able to perceive the existing inequalities less. However, social norms remain male-dominated, and this is felt and suffered greatly when moving in the field. Traveling around the world you understand how the role of women is unfortunately still associated with universal stereotypes, and a good example is not being set in many so-called advanced countries. For example, the economic and wage gender gap that still exists in Italy, or the lack of Care Economy policies, are huge injustices in 2024. There is a lot of work still to be done also in this respect.”


Translated by Rosa Palmieri