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.


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.

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.