Commentary

Sleeping Rough in Geneva: What is behind Unpaid Internships at the UN?

by Alex Odlum

The international press have been quick to jump on the story of David Hyde — the 22 year old New Zealand intern found squatting in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva due the impossibility of meeting the city’s exorbitant rents on a UN salary of zero Swiss Francs (CHF).

As a law graduate with recent Master in Public Policy eager to start out on a career in international affairs, David’s struggle to afford the strangling prices of a city consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 most expensive is one to which I can closely relate.

Fortunately – for me at least – I am able to call a small apartment home and so far have not had to resort to a tent. Nonetheless, many a time I have found myself munching on nothing more than plain baguette after weighing up the horrendous prices of a more traditional bakery lunch – a humble ham sandwich (forget about the cheese!) will set you back nearly 10 CHF in many places.

Of course it is not fair to him but, in some respects, David has had it easy. At just 22 with only four years of study – and presumably four years of cumulative student debt – under his belt, David’s finances are potentially a lot healthier than those of many graduate job seekers today.

Many of the UN’s other unpaid interns have spent five, six, seven or more years scratching out master’s degrees and doctorates at the world’s best (and most expensive) universities, only to find themselves working for free.

I have known qualified medical doctors with public health master’s degrees to be on the World Health Organization’s books as unpaid interns. Sadly, such stories of over-qualification and under-valuation are more common than they are unique.

The point I am making here is that the discourse on David Hyde’s dilemma, whether justifying or scandalising unpaid internships looks only at snapshot in time and fails to grapple with the further issue that ambitious and talented young people often undergo years of financial sacrifice just to be eligible for a coveted internship at their dream institution.

Of course, students will always be poor.

That is a truism that one cannot challenge. Being a student is as much about learning about life outside the classroom as it is about books and grades.

There is nothing like a couple of weeks of a lavish indulgence followed by a couple of weeks of acute poverty to teach us the finer points of monthly budgeting and personal finance.

But whereas obtaining a good bachelor’s degree peppered with a bit of work experience over the summer breaks used to be a pretty fail-safe launching point to a junior position, the hard truth is that today over 5 years of study, a master’s degree or two, and a host of paid or unpaid internships is no ticket to employment.

At the UN, for example, entry-level professional positions – “P1” – simply do not exist. You’ll need to miraculously summon two years work experience from the day of your graduation just to qualify for a P2 position.

Ultimately, the problem here is not that the UN requires highly trained and experienced entry-level candidates – after all, this is a highly sought after employer operating in a competitive, global market. Rather, the problem is that such reasoning ignores the fact that just getting to graduation day costs vast quantities of students’, parents’, or even the government’s precious savings, leaving highly qualified graduates in a precarious position.

Although US tuition fees are at the high extreme of the global spectrum, the fact that average graduate loan debt in the US hit $35,000 in 2015 is indicative of the predicament young job seekers face around the world.

Investing three, six or even 24 months of your time to make contacts, demonstrate your skills and learn the ropes is not simply a matter of roughing it for a few nights, akin to pitching a tent on your new plot of land before you are able to afford the bricks and mortar.

Instead, it is more like sleeping rough deep in an excavated building site. Sure, you might have some pretty solid foundations lying around that in theory could support a skyscraper. But without the money to buy construction materials, you’re not going to be able to build the home you dreamed of. What is worse, with just a bit of rain, you will soon be up to your neck in mud.

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2 thoughts on “Sleeping Rough in Geneva: What is behind Unpaid Internships at the UN?

  1. Pingback: Course Reviews: Master of Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance | Development Intern

  2. Pingback: The Internship Grind: An unpaid act one year later | Development Intern

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