Experiences

4 Ways Unpaid Internships Undermine The UN

The author has requested anonymity

Last month, there was a stir in international development circles when the Tribune de Genève reported that David Hyde, an intern working for UNCTAD, had resorted to living out of a tent due to the high cost of living in Geneva.

Later, in an article Hyde wrote for The Intercept, it transpired that this was an elaborate and deliberate stunt, which aimed to kick-start a debate about the prolific nature of unpaid internships within the UN system.

Generalisations are often made that lump all organisations, agencies and specialised agencies together and fail to disaggregate the various components that make up the UN system[PDF]. Resultantly, each interns’ experience will undoubtedly be different, but, as I draw to the end of my own internship at the UN, there are some problems that I have come to think may be applicable more broadly.

1. Over-reliance on interns

Ever since the 2008 recession and arguably even earlier, internships within the UN have proliferated. To me, this model seems unsustainable.

In my section, temporary staff (interns, trainees and consultants) outnumbered staff with permanent positions by a ratio of 2:1. This meant that there was an extremely high turnover rate and very little institutional memory. What is more, a substantial portion of time was spent training and familiarising newcomers.

2. Bureaucracy

I never fully understood the inefficient nature of UN bureaucracy until I had to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. The time devoted to mundane bureaucratic tasks like drawing up contracts or complying with financial invoicing regulations, rendered it more efficient to work around the system rather than complying with it if you wanted to get anything done. Getting to grips with this as an intern is very time-consuming.

In my first week, I was made to attend a branding meeting. At first I thought this was a joke and couldn’t believe it was someone’s job to deal with something so ridiculous but by the end, having spent enough time in the UN bubble, I began to understand how this could become normalised.

3. Chasing funding and due diligence

The part of the UN I was working for lived a hand-to-mouth existence, which theoretically was meant to make it more innovative in seeking funds and more responsive to new donor priorities.

The reality was quite different and often this translated into a need to regularly fund raise from questionable sources using dubious methods. Consequently, internships and consultancy contracts become bargaining tools.

The manager of my section calculated that by giving an unadvertised, short-term consultancy contract to someone from a Gulf country with questionable qualifications, it would eventually pay off in the long-term when we signed a financial agreement with a University in that country. It just so happened that the father of the newly hired consultant was high up in the University and held considerable sway over decisions taken by the institution.

Having incompetent individuals such as this in my section, meant I found myself in the bizarre situation of re-doing the work of somebody who was being paid.

4. Internal competition

Related to the last point is the problem of internal competition, both between different UN agencies and even within agencies between different programmes. Since everyone is chasing the same funding, other programmes will often poach proposals and simply tweak them to make them relevant to their programmatic priorities. This leads to an environment where ideas are often recycled and very little creative thinking takes place, partly because very few people are around long enough to do so.

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So what can be done about it?

Previous attempts by interns in Geneva to organise a protest on May Day or online campaigns rallying around the slogans such as “UNpaid is UNfair” and “Pay Your Interns!” have failed to gain traction or media attention, but Hyde’s stunt brought renewed scrutiny to an issue that most within the UN would prefer to ignore.

In particular, Hyde has prompted a discussion about representation of interns from developing counties within the UN, whilst simultaneously highlighting the inherent hypocrisy that lies at the centre of the UN’s new post-2015 agenda[PDF], which claims to be “inclusive” and to “leave no one behind”.

In some cases, it is not only member states that have to implement the lofty rhetoric of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but also the UN itself. While these problems are by no means unique to the UN, from conversations with people working with other agencies I get the impression these are common problems across the UN.

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Experiences, Learning

Last Day

On my last day at work, I was handed a box. It was understood that by five fifteen the contents of my cluttered desk would be in it and my ten months working for Oxfam International would have come to an end.

I started with the paper tray which since the first day had slowly piled up giving visual evidence of the poor organisation the placement was supposed to cure. The stack was helpful, therefore, in giving a chronological journey through my time at Oxfam and an opportunity to reflect.

I found CONCORD Europe’s paper on policy coherence for development from my first week underneath posters I had designed for the European Development Days, where I saw celebrities from the development world debate the post-2015 agenda. I came across my press pass from the EU-Africa summit and mountains of media reactions, erratically scribbled on by my boss. It was only ten months, but everything seemed so long ago.

I remember in September I had been anxious. Unpaid internships, I had often been told, could range from the tortuous expectations of coffee runs and anti-social hours to the twiddling of thumbs waiting for the boss to pass down even the smallest menial task. I had been misguided.

At the age of twenty-two and new to the office environment, it would’ve been unreasonable for me to expect a large amount of trust from day one. It is because of this that, at times, I did feel underused. As my placement went on, however, it emerged that rather than being unappreciated, I was simply being lazy.

At the half-way point in February, I was effectively told that; if you can’t do the menial very well, you probably won’t be asked to do the more creative jobs. First lesson learned.

Around that point, my work load started changing. No long was I solely scribbling synonyms for press reactions or watching over the office’s social media. I was given more freedom on more traditional media work, penning a number of opinion pieces and blogposts. Policy advisors started asking for help with research on issues including tax justice and climate change. Work started to feel diverse and I actually started, well, learning something.

And the back drop to this was the ever-changing Brussels life. The bureaucracy which often bores the British started making sense and actually become quite exciting. Brussels, which presents itself as a mundane, very European political centre, started to seem like the centre of the world: Obama visited, as did the heads of state of almost every African nation. The world’s second largest elections were announced there and European diplomacy seemed to be based around its institutions. The work I was doing was directly entwined with this.

The pile of reports and papers was eventually placed in the box, which in turn is now stored, out of sight in my attic. Although hidden, they represent the most notable change that has occurred since September: knowledge. Corny, yes, but true.

I do not believe that Media & Communications is the best fit for me, but I believe work in development or the European Union (or both) is. Internships offer that opportunity.

The development world is intriguing, particularly large non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam. At times you may find yourself confused with internal politics; even I – the young, inexperienced intern – felt disenchanted with some of the issues they followed. But I have been lucky to work with passionate professionals who were always willing to debate my concerns. And now, I return to university to finish my degree with the a heightened feeling of good karma and a brain filled with opinions on Europe’s role in the developing world.

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Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

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Experiences

Reading European Development Policy

One of the great perks of being a communications intern is reading. Each morning I enter the office in a trance, drawn in by the thought of a cup of poorly brewed filter coffee and tepid pain au chocolat, before slumping in front of the mornings headlines. For somebody whose body clock still hasn’t adapted much from the ‘sleep-till-noon’ university one, this job can often be pure bliss.

Of course, ‘media monitoring’ isn’t purely designed to satisfy the occasional hangover. For an office which, in theory, focuses on coverage in twenty-eight different countries on issues as broad as climate change to tax evasion, it is a role which serves to keep policy-makers informed with opinion, trends and media moments.

The job offers an interesting lesson in how different Member States view the European project, ranging from the thoroughly miffed British tabloids to the delightfully Europhilic French Liberation paper. One thing that might not come as much of a surprise, however, is – regardless of political stance – the relatively sparse coverage of development issues from a European perspective.

Nationally, international aid continues to be a small, yet consistent topic. Countries are either, in the case of the UK, standing their ground on the budget despite hefty media pressure or, in the case of Spain, cutting their budgets considerably. In France, the complete restructuring of foreign aid led by the devilishly handsome Pascal Canfin has been lauded by some as a revolutionary approach to aid.

The way the European Union approaches aid is, however, largely ignored; a peculiar fact considering the €53 billion at EuropeAid’s disposal.

Since the Lisbon Treaty, a basic tenet of Europe’s aid policy has been Policy Coherence for Development. It is, in theory, a fantastic idea. No policies in agriculture, tax or climate should disregard the fundamental goals of the EU’s development agenda. Taxation should not encourage evasion from the global south; agricultural subsidies should not drive down prices in Africa – and so on.

In adhering to these goals, PSD can save billions and promote everyone’s favourite buzzword: synergy. Yet, for anyone who has even glanced at other aspects of EU policy, they will realise international development is far from ingrained in the mentality of EU policy-makers; a concluding remark in the damning 2013 report on EU aid by CONCORD Europe.

The fact is, for many international development issues the Europe Union decision-making structure defines many of the key policies we have as a regional bloc. It is of course vital that national governments stick to their 0.7% of GDP targets, but member states’ foreign aid budgets are only the tip of the iceberg in what the EU can achieve if it pushed harder on ensuring better coherence in trade and agricultural policy.

So why, when I sit bleary eyed behind my computer each morning, does it appear national media ignore many EU-based development stories? The truth is they don’t. A lot of the time, it is simply failing to fill in the gaps or, when they do, only paying lip-service to its importance. More likely however is, particularly in the British press, a general underplaying of the important role Brussels plays in our lives and the lives of others.

Ensuring all policies have a broader, holistic approach to the world is an important step in accepting the no-borders, globalised world we live in. With Europe expected to be pushed towards the isolationist right come the May elections, it is unlikely the more populist aspects of the European media will begin to endorse such an important idea. That isn’t going to make my cheap morning coffee any easier to swallow.

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Experiences

Down & Out In Brussels

Last week I found myself making a rather difficult decision: do I buy a pack of cigarettes or do I instead invest it on a new scarf. It really was a ‘one or the other’ situation. My debit card had run dry and I had, for around twenty-four hours, just €7 to my name. I rationalised the situation in my head. Brussels is cold, and I scarf would alleviate that. But so do cigarettes, plus they give me the nicotine my body needs. It was a no-brainer.

Needless to say, my life in Brussels is far from glamorous. After work I return to a crowded house with a maggot-infested kitchen and tepid heating. I have moved from Sainsbury’s to Lidl and meticulously count pennies to pay for laundry. Much like university, everything is an investment, but without the student deals and ability to head home when you need a decent meal.

But Brussels is, for obvious reasons, an interns city, something which makes the feeling of relative poverty somewhat more bearable. You might not be able to afford that new pair of shoes you wanted, but there will always be someone else with even less than you.

You very quickly learn that ‘intern’ is a little more than just title, but an entire umbrella term which covers everything from the Twitter-savvy communications intern working at an NGO to the assistant of an MEP or Permanent Representative.

My house bears evidence of this. The dilapidated town house manages to squeeze in thirteen people. In the mix I find myself living with James, my British compatriot who works at Concord, an umbrella organisation of NGOs with whom my office works closely with, and Ana, a Portuguese girl whose agricultural lobbying group actively endorses biofuels, the product Oxfam spends a large amount of time campaigning against.

Naturally, the diversity of nationalities (my house alone has eight different ones) and range of jobs creates a very active intern culture which culminates every Thursday night for happy hour by the European Parliament.

Naturally, the event is a key opportunity for ‘networking’, one of the Brussels Bubble’s favourite words.

Upon first glance you can make key assertions as to what business people intern for. Suits with ties is emblematic of the private sector intern (almost always paid at least 800 euros a month), whilst slightly worse-fitting suits might represent the Brussels institutions. Then there are the NGO, think-tanks and small business interns, a significant minority within the city, wearing their shirts and jeans.

Rumours about the levels of debauchery these gatherings of interns can reach are far and wide, but I am yet to see it myself. Another intern in my office tells me the stories, but notes that – given the ambitious, dog-eat-dog world of interns – those who work in NGOs rarely find conversation with the expert networkers. “We stick to our own kind”, he said.

And so, come Thursday night, I find myself again with only loose change as I attempt to buy my half-priced beer. I watch as the private-sector lobbyists pull fifty-euro notes out of their wallets, laughing with glee as they had out another business card. As you sip your beer, you might even frown a little and wonder why, as a development intern working for an NGO which makes a considerable impact on the world, you feel like the bottom of the heap.

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Commentary, Experiences, Learning

Advocacy, The EU & NGOs

The Brussels we are often presented with is a rather depressing image; a dystopian bureaucracy riddled with over-paid civil servants and wasteful spending. It is a Daily Mail-esqe atrocity within the miserable “non-country” of Belgium. Just the other day, the far-right French politician Marianne LePen predicted that, like its Eastern counterpart, the EU would unravel very quickly akin to the Soviet Union’s collapse twenty years ago.

One of my jobs in the EU-lobby office of Oxfam only strengthens this impending sense of failure. As I browse the inbox of the office’s ‘general’ account, I am constantly reminded of the great evil we are committing by working with “the €U”. Anonymous emails flood in complaining that “they are appalled their money is supporting Brussels fat-cats” and that they don’t want to “support those rotten institutions”; that they are “misled” as to where the money is going.

In August I co-wrote a blogpost highlighting a very similar idea about the salaries of charity bosses. I said that the 21st Century NGO is far different from how the public perceives it and that it would be more helpful to look at charities such as Oxfam and ActionAid as ‘non-for-profit businesses’. Like any business, you have to work with governments to get the policies which will most suit your goals and ambitions.

For anyone who is concerned with real development, the European Union epitomizes what a regional organisation can achieve. The EU-28 is, by far, the largest donor of international aid, a leader in climate change action and a peace broker in war-torn areas such as the OPT and Somalia. If you take away the public face of in-fighting and often confusing decision-making processes, you find a Europe Union which is increasingly happy with this ‘soft power’ touch.

As a media and communications intern with little knowledge of the EU before joining a month ago, my education has been swift and eye opening. The on-going biofuels battle bears witness to this. The EU has the incredible power to limit how much of the environmentally damaging, land-rights violating fuel comes into the market. If biofuels are diverting so much food from the poorest in the world, it is the NGO’s responsibility to work hard to ensure that policy-makers place the lowest possible cap on them, ergo putting a halt to entirely preventable poverty.

To claim that NGO’s are misleading the public is misguided and to make the accusation that they are propping up the EU is ignorant at best.

Policy causes poverty, but if done well it can also alleviate it.

NGOs budgets are limited and by circumventing the causes of poverty, they are able to save both money – and lives – now and in the future. If NGOs didn’t have a presence in such an important arena, as well as others including Geneva, New York and Washington D.C, we would, in fact, be letting down those we endeavour to empower.

As an intern, you are able to experience the invisible face of development. NGOs work hard to highlight the work they do on the ground as well as the campaigns they support. In Brussels, you will see very little of that; we do not directly hold demonstrations neither do we send activists to the developing world. Rather we strive to give the EU the ‘positive’ face that is often ignored by the European press.

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Experiences

Press-ure Release

Within minutes of finding my new desk, my inbox is flooded with emails. ‘Here’s your password’, ‘Induction meeting with Angela’, ‘Biofuel protest Wednesday’ etc. I smile; my main worry was having nothing to do and it certainly looks like they’ve thought of some things to keep me busy for my first couple of days at least.

Biofuel Protest

Then I frown. Biofuel protest? I click on it and read that Oxfam – the organisation who has led the charge for climate change refugees – is against biofuels.

Maybe it’s the name or perhaps the media coverage these ‘sustainable’ miracle-crops received when they were first seen to be the answer for tackling car emissions, but I had always assumed (and please excuse my ignorance any climate change veterans out there) that they are a Good Thing. A quick read of the Oxfam report The Hunger Grains quickly corrects my misdemeanour. Not only do can ‘first-generation’ biofuels be accused of distracting a vital source of food from the world’s hungriest and causing human rights violations via ‘land-grabs’, but they are also actually bad for the planet. My education couldn’t be more perfectly timed: September 11th would mark an important vote in the European Parliament and the target of months of lobbying from Oxfam.

It is a little intimidating, of course, coming into an office with its war-face on. I have no experience – and clearly little knowledge – of this kind of environment. After a hour-long induction with the Media and Communications Officer, I’m excited but I feel that I won’t be too much of a help in a vote which, seemingly, is all to play for.

My first week and a half (the run up to the vote) is admittedly, a tad boring. My responsibilities are limited and everything is gently scrutinised by my boss. I am put in charge of media monitoring, highlighting important coverage of both sides campaigning. I tweet several times a day, carefully watching which #hashtags are trending. Hardly exhilarating work, I admit.

I am one of the lucky development interns though. Everyone seems to suggest that the first few weeks are tough, especially for a newbie whose only education of the subject comes are the few odd essays on ‘structural adjustment’ and Amartya Sen who finds themselves in some faraway corner of the developing world. I, however, am in Brussels, living with a handful of close friends in a country remarkably similar to my own (bar the on-going Flemish/French turf-war). Try the chips and mussels, they’re pretty good.

The day before the vote, however, my boss asks me to put together the press releases for the vote. Four different reactions for the four different scenarios the office’s ‘biofuel expert’ envisages. Having been a bit mopey for the past week about ‘not enough responsibility’, it all becomes very daunting. I research previous examples, penning several different options for each situation just in case she doesn’t like my favourite. Eventually I email them to her and, after a light bit of editing, she forwards them on to the head of Oxfam EU who, in effect, the quotes will be referenced to.

We don’t win the vote, but we don’t lose it either. Proposals don’t simply get accepted or rejected, but rather the ‘bill’ is scrutinised to the point of every amendment decided in committee. Biofuels are capped at 6% and ILUC will be acknowledged from 2020.

The next day I am doing my usual ‘media monitoring’, searching for articles which affect the myriad of issues Oxfam covers. And there it is, near the bottom of a Guardian article.

My very first press release credited to a man far more respectable than a lowly intern.

My boss says “you must be very proud”. I try to brush it off, but I am a bit. “Well,” she says, “Oxfam is releasing the austerity report tomorrow, and we expect a lot more press coverage than we got for biofuels”. She sends me a wad of papers to proof read with the instructions to make any changes I see fit. I make a number of changes, all are accepted. The report makes it into newspapers all over the world from the Telegraph to the front-page of Cuba’s La Granma and I like to think I had a part, albeit absolutely tiny, part in that.

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