More than two dozen current and former United Nations interns formed a human chain outside of the organization's Secretariat building in New York on Tuesday, protesting against the UN's largely unpaid internship program, which they said limited opportunities to the wealthy and well-connected.
The question of the UN's policy of not paying interns has been under intense scrutiny since a 22-year old from New Zealand was reportedly found living in a tent in Geneva, unable to afford rent in the Swiss city. Though the intern, David Hyde, later admitted to partially staging the encounter, the flurry of press coverage that followed has reinvigorated efforts among interns to organize around the issue.
In Geneva, intern associations have staged multiple protests, but those in New York have kept a lower profile until recently. A group calling itself the Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internship Initiative planned Tuesday's human chain, and called on Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to address the issue. Last month the group wrote a letter to Ban, but is still waiting for a meeting with his staff.
Many of those joining hands outside the UN stressed that they were, in essence, advocating for those who can't afford to be there – those in developing countries who are interested and passionate about the UN, but don't have the means to enter it at the bottom. Last month, VICE News spoke with several such young people. One of them, Alfonso Abularach, spent over a decade in Model UN in Bolivia, and said, "it was very difficult to see that this very big institution, one that I believe in and love very much, wasn't willing to pay people that believe in it."
"It was very disappointing," said Abularach, referring to his inability to afford an internship in New York or Europe. "I don't think it was fair."
Alex Kucharski, a Polish-British intern working at the UN Secretariat and one of those protesting outside, told VICE News that internships, particularly at the UN or other prominent international organizations, are practically a prerequisite for a career in international fields.
"I really think its unfair that the internships are unpaid, not just because of my personal reasons, because I had to save up for eight months for this and I'm going to be living in someone's lounge," he said. "The problem is because they are unpaid, people from developing countries can't come here, unless they are from really rich families. It excludes big social groups from being able to participate."
Claire Maizonnier, from Australia, was able to obtain funding through Rotary International to study in Sweden, and to cover her expenses and lodging in New York. Other interns receive scholarships or stipends directly from Western governments, like Germany. Critics say this support, while well meaning, only exacerbates existing inequities.
"There are many talented people that don't have that opportunity, or that option," she told VICE News. "It's not feasible for them, particularly if you are coming from developing countries."
Though some UN agencies do pay their interns a stipend, the vast majority, and most of the largest ones like UNICEF and UNDP, do not. The Secretary General's office, referencing past resolutions, says the General Assembly must authorize the payment of interns before they are able to.
Two former interns from Germany who are now employed as contractors at the UN, said in their experience the UN couldn't function without unpaid labor. The annual meeting of world leaders at the General Assembly, which begins next week, would collapse without interns, they said.
"During the GA, there are a lot of UN officials that speak," said Tjorven, who asked that her full name not be published. "They have speaking points and the first drafts often come from interns, so interns have a lot of responsibility."
"They are actually producing content, and they are producing background notes and concept notes and reports, so they have a very crucial part in keeping the organization going and running," she told VICE News. "I'm pretty sure the UN would not be able to function without interns."
The other former intern and current contractor, also German and in his twenties, said "the biggest problem is we are trying to raise voices for people that are not even here… what we would like to have is a more equal system."
"Global inequality is one of the freaking SDGs," he said, referring to the soon to be adopted Sustainable Development Goals. "This is about socioeconomic background and imbalance."
Watch VICE News' documentary The Worst Internship Ever: Japan's Labor Pains: