A Conversation with Ria Sen: An Expert in the United Nations Shares Her Journey and Insights

Ria Sen works in emergency preparedness at the United Nations (UN), where she contributes to delivering a global mandate. She has worked with various UN organizations like the UNDP, UNDRR and UNESCAP for almost a decade. She is currently working as the Global Preparedness Officer in the Technology Division at the UN World Food Programme, based in Rome.

Ria is passionate about Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for sustainable, climate-resilient development. In her work, she seeks to link research, innovation in technology, and disaster risk reduction with enhancing public services.  To this end, she works with national governments to build their disaster resilience in the technology sector. 

In this interview she gave to Pooja Bhatia, Editor, The Blahcksheep, Ria opens up on her professional journey, her experience of working in the UN, and her views on key global issues she’s passionate about. 

A Conversation with Ria Sen, a Disaster Risk Reduction Expert with the United Nations
A photograph of Ria at work.

PB: You are a Disaster Risk Reduction Expert. That is such a niche field. What does that mean and what does your work entail?

RS: Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a science. DRR is centered on identifying, assessing, and reducing the risks of disaster. It seeks to limit or eliminate the social and economic vulnerabilities to disasters, as well as responds to  interconnected environmental and manmade hazards.

My work entails assisting national governments to be better prepared for, and more efficiently respond to, disasters in relation to the telecommunications sector. In short: assessing disaster risks in the telecommunications sector, convening national or regional multi-stakeholder consultations to improve pre-disaster coordination, devise strategies and solutions for enhanced telecommunications resilience, and provide technical assistance to governments to be more disaster-ready.

PB: How has your experience of working at the UN and related international bodies been? 

RS: I entered the UN when I was 23. My Master’s thesis was also on the UN, exploring its intergovernmental mechanisms and policy processes within the telecommunications sector. Back then, I did not fathom a UN career! In hindsight, it is quite incredible that I entered the UN in a short-term capacity, but ended up working in this system for years.

I firmly believe that dealing with multinational issues is not limited to national borders. We need transnational cooperation. I am also proud of my international heritage, coming from a family of mixed backgrounds. I find this kind of cultural richness in the UN, and I thrive in multicultural environments.

I have had a great learning curve at the UN. I see its role as positive. In working with the UN, I feel like I am inching closer to the change I want to see in the world. I am grateful that I work with governments, and have been mentored by subject experts in this amazing journey. 

Change is not rapid. Rome wasn’t built in a day. But I know one thing for sure: I like working with  processes. Having a process in place to bring about change is important, and that faith gives me the patience I need to work within the UN system. I am an optimist, but a realist at the same time. There are challenges in the journey, but my passion for the work outweighs this.

PB: Have you faced any challenges as a woman in your career so far? If yes, what kind and how did you tide over them?

RS: The Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) sector is dominated by men, quite typically. There are a few studies that back this claim. Working as a woman in  STEM comes with its own set of challenges, but it isn’t difficult or impossible to make a career in this space! Being a woman should not be seen as limiting, but enabling.

I often reached out to women mentors from developing countries for advice when I was starting out in my professional path, and was always taken aback with their kindness and support towards a young professional. Their mentorship helped me make the right choices. And now I actively mentor young professionals from across the world. It makes me feel a sense of purpose beyond my work. 

PB: What are the three biggest challenges in the world according to you?

RS: The first is climate change, most definitely. I read somewhere that we would need 1.5 more planet Earths to sustain our lifestyles. That is the extent of the problem confronting us. Next, I think another challenge is the limited natural resources, whose capacity we are consistently exceeding. And lastly, we live in a fragile world where conflict is a seeming mainstay. We need all hands on deck for making the world a safer and more climate-resilient place.

PB: Time for a fun rapid fire round to get you know better!

A book that you’d like to recommend – In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

Your all-time favorite film – Top Gun.

A country you’d like to visit – Costa Rica.

An alternative career choice you would have pursued – Archaeologist.

A fun fact we don’t know about you? I adore ancient Egyptian archaeology and am an amateur expert in this field.

Note: The views presented herein are those of the interviewee alone and do not represent the views of the United Nations and/or any of its agencies. You can learn more about Ria’s educational background and her work here.  She’ll be happy to connect on Linkedin.  

Pooja Bhatia is the Co-Founder and the Editor-in-Sheep of The Blahcksheep. She is a public policy and advocacy professional who tweets at @theblahcksheepx You can find all her writings on The Blahcksheep here. If you’d like to discuss a story idea with her or just say hello, drop her a mail at theblahcksheep@gmail.com


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