UN intern living in a tent reveals that UN internships favor those with money - and people are (apparently) shocked

Thursday, August 13, 2015

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while, but apparently most of the world was unaware of it: because UN internships are unpaid, only those with money (read: young adults with personal fortunes and/or rich parents) can take them. The BBC ran a story yesterday on an intern who was living in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva because he could not afford the city's rent, and the world was apparently shocked:
David Hyde, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, was delighted when he was accepted as an intern with a UN agency. He had hoped for a paid position, because, he says: "I think my work does have a value."

But he was happy to take the UN offer because of the prestige attached to working for such a renowned organisation.
"I guess my budget was not realistic in the end," he says. "It was way more expensive than I imagined. I thought I could find a really budget way to live, but to be honest I've ended up living in a tent."
He had not spent too many nights there before he was noticed, and soon his story was on the front pages of the Geneva newspapers.

Genevans were shocked that the famous and much-loved institution should be connected to such a case.

But inside the United Nations itself, there was little astonishment.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," says Sabine Matsheka from Botswana. Sabine is chair of the Geneva Interns Association. "We get desperate calls and emails from interns asking for couches, air mattresses, just a place to stay."
What astonishes me is that so many Geneva residents were unaware of the elitist practices of the world's largest NGO in their backyard. The inaccessibility of UN internships (not to mention actual jobs) is well-known among international development professionals and students. I can only speak for the US, but the internships with development organizations in DC or New York are not much better - they will usually pay a low hourly wage, but the high cost of living in the capital makes it likely that interns will spend a summer, or a semester, sleeping on the floor of an efficiency with five other young professionals in the same situation. I made a commitment after graduation to never work for free, which (in addition to being married) has limited my own job prospects. This is why I pick up so much freelance work (which I do in addition to my day job) to build up my resume.

The article goes on to partially justify the policy by explaining that a member state would have to draft a new resolution (which could take several years). Somehow I doubt that it would be such a monumental task to find the political will to fix such an easily correctable situation. An official from the UN staff trade union worries about it looking like slave labor, but that is not exactly the take-home message, in my opinion. it is Matsheka who really hits the nail on the head:
Meanwhile Sabine Matsheka points out that continuing with the policy of unpaid interns ensures that only candidates with personal funds can apply. Of Geneva's 162 current interns, Sabine is one of just two from Africa.

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