Being Young at FAO: Martina Guerra on youth empowerment and representation

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ROME, DECEMBER 18 – Martina Guerra works at FAO as the Office and Team Assistant for the Office of the Director of the Markets and Trade Division, and for the Raw Material and Tropical Fruit Team. Born in Rome 32 years ago, she holds a Bachelor Degree in interpretation and translation techniques, a Master Degree in interpretation, and has so far mastered the languages of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian. In a conversation with OnuItalia, she speaks about youth opportunities and representation within FAO and how COVID-19 has affected her work. She also provides some advice for young people looking to work for FAO or the United Nations more generally. 

Why did you decide to work for FAO and the UN?

While I was studying, I travelled a lot and I can say that international languages and international cultures have always been my greatest passion. I’ve always wanted to learn more about different cultures and how they live, how they deal with life problems such as poverty and malnutrition, and I always wanted to help. FAO plays an important and essential role in this regard. What brought me here is a mix of hard work, faith and destiny. I was working as an interpreter at an international conference and I met a woman working as administrative assistant for FAO. She was looking for a talented woman willing to work for the organization and she found me. Fate was on my side, I was at the right time in the right place.

What is your role within FAO? What are your tasks, responsibilities and competences?

I am now currently working as Office and Team Assistant for the Office of the Director of the Markets and Trade Division and also for the Raw Material and Tropical Fruit Team. Among my tasks, I process financial, personnel and administrative actions as per established deadlines – I regularly monitor mine and I take action on the account of the Director, forward and flag to his attention the most urgent emails – I assist in the preparation of video-conferences, teleconferences, including the organization of official receptions and international meetings. I also support the organization of various meetings of the Governing Bodies of FAO such as the Committee on Commodity Problems (CCP) and FAO Intergovernmental Groups (IGGs). When required, I travel: for example, I attended the Joint Meeting of the Fortieth Session of the Intergovernmental Group on Hard Fibres; Jute, Kenaf and Allied Fibres held in Beijing in October 2019.

In your opinion, are young (and women) professionals given enough space and opportunities within FAO? What is the ratio between employees’ under-35 and over-35, has this changed in the past years?

FAO changed a lot during the past 5 years. With our new Director General we can breathe the fresh air of innovation where young people (and young women as well) are hired as consultants and/or as staff members. Women are now also holding very high and important positions in FAO. I think that the ratio men/women is equal. Gender equality is one of the essential goals to which FAO is committed.

FAO’s Youth Committee celebrates its first anniversary. Credits: FAO

Early in November we celebrated the first year of the Youth Committee established in 2019 by the Director General. The aim is to initiate fruitful discussions, motivating and further empowering FAO’s young employees, and providing a good kick-start for many youth-related programme ideas and concepts.

In your experience, what challenges do you face -if any- as a young, female person in a professional environment which tends to be dominated by older (and often male) figures? What do you think FAO, and the UN more generally, should/could do to increase the representation of young people and, more specifically, young women?

In my professional experience I was lucky enough to meet and work with Chiefs with great sense of professionalism. They were both men and women. They knew how to balance gender equality and so give opportunity to women, and young women, to be employed in their divisions. The advice that I can give to young women who would like to work for the UN, or more specifically for FAO, is to always keep up their professionalism. They should keep up on demonstrating their intelligent and smart skills, be self-confident and willing to work with no fear to express their opinion, also with a possible male chief figure they may have.

What advice would you give to a young person who wishes to work for FAO, or the UN more generally?

I would encourage young women who want to work for the UN, to apply to vacancies without being shy. To a young person who wishes to work for FAO, I would suggest to believe in themselves, believe in their abilities and talents. Enthusiasm is not enough: a young person qualified to work for the UN, should, of course, have studied a lot. Knowing English, and other languages, as for example Spanish or French, are among the top skills requested when applying for a UN job. Studying and learning a foreign language can be a good start.

I also think that showing happiness and joy is a cycle. The more you show and do, the more you will find it around you. Same with being always respectful for different cultures, always being kind and ready to listen to new and different opinions, religions and ideas.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted your work?

As for every one of us Covid-19 has affected my work. Due to the outbreak of the virus almost the totality of Governing Bodies meetings have been postponed to 2021. The standard organization of meetings that I used to carry out in the past has been turned upside down and I needed to get used to the new online and virtual way of working. Travels were suspended, which was a pity, because by travelling you get a chance to understand what really happens in remote areas, or meet stakeholders and counterparts to work on important agreements that help and support those who lives in difficult times.

There are also positive aspects from working from home. Learning new e-procedures will be useful for our next virtual future. Working from home, has also changed the timeframe spent on completing the job. Everything became more flexible even if working hours still exist. An additional important aspect concerns feelings and emotions: during teleworking all the relationships established in‐house have either been maintained or they became even stronger. Weekly virtual meetings have been regularly carried out. Teamwork continued to be the same as before. Because of the outbreak COVID‐19, each of us tried to keep alive the light that we had and let it always shine. (SB)