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The UN’s Unpaid Internships Are Screwing Young People From the Developing World

The case of an intern who was forced to live in a tent in Geneva has brought renewed criticism that the UN is effectively limiting its internship program to the global elite.
Imagen vía Flickr

The UN's unpaid internship came under fire this week following reports that a 22-year-old intern from New Zealand was living in a tent in Geneva because he couldn't afford to pay rent in the Swiss city.

Critics say that by not paying interns, or at least reimbursing them, the UN is effectively limiting the program to the global elite, predominantly from developed countries, often in Europe. As news of intern David Hyde's plein air residence spread, UN officials were quick to repeat, as they have in the past, that it's up to the General Assembly to fix the program. After a flurry of media reports, Hyde resigned from his internship. He copped to lying on his application, which asked if he had the means to support a stay in Geneva, and said he had tipped off the press.


VICE News first spoke to current and former interns about the lack of payment early last year. In more than a dozen interviews, the interns unanimously recognized a fundamental unfairness in the current setup. A three-month internship in New York or Geneva could easily cost more than $5,000 in expenses, a prohibitive total for the vast majority of young people in the world. Wealthy countries like Germany, which offers funding for potential interns, are already overrepresented in the UN's intern program.

Interns in Geneva have organized around the issue and held protests, including one on Friday. A similar intern-organized initiative, called the Quality and Fairly Remunerated Internships Initiative (QFRI), which describes itself as "concerned with the status quo and current organization of internships across the UN systems," has taken shape in New York. In a statement to VICE News, the group said "the current organization of internships at the UN is not in line with the values the UN stands for, including the UN Charter, the UN declaration of human rights, and Sustainable Development Goal 8 on decent work for all." Other interns in New York have floated the idea of a sit-in on Monday.

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Though a small number of specialized UN agencies, including the International Labor Organization (ILO), do offer small stipends to interns, the vast majority do not, Ian Richards, executive secretary of the UN Geneva Staff Council, told VICE News. Among those that do not reimburse or pay interns are larger agencies like the UN's children's fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the UN Secretariat, which maintains offices in New York, Geneva, and elsewhere. Richards said covering the expenses of interns at the UN could cost as little as $4 or $5 million each year — a drop in the bucket for member states.


On Tuesday, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the UN would like to pay its interns.

"It's too bad in a way, because I think it does limit the opportunity to those who are able to pay their own way and house themselves," Dujarric told reporters. "Unless the General Assembly changes those rules, there is no change in sight."

Officials have pointed to 1997 resolution on "gratis personnel," that states "the programme of work and mandates approved by member states must be financed in the manner determined by the General Assembly." But the resolution itself is mostly concerned with gratis personnel used at the time by the Department of Peacekeeping, and does not explicitly mention interns.

"Very few people have the institutional memory to remember when the General Assembly," discussed the topic, said Richards. "It's almost been an urban myth."

Whatever the reason, the bulk of the UN's agencies are apparently awaiting approval by the General Assembly.

"What that means is there are a lot of really good people from different parts of the world who can't come and don't apply because the requirement is to finance your entire stay," said Richards.

'There are a lot of really good people from different parts of the world who can't come and don't apply.'

Information provided by the World Health Organization to the Geneva Interns Association exemplified the trend. Of 247 interns based at its offices in the Swiss city since 2014, nationality was given for 196 of them. Of those who provide their nationality, 147 — 73 percent — were from developed countries. Only 53 were from developing or the least developed countries (LDCs) — precisely the places that WHO does much of its work. The disparity, said UN officials who talked to VICE News privately, speaks to a split in how the UN is viewed in different regions: It's a source of jobs for the highly educated and internationally-minded in the developed world, while most people in the developing world interact with the UN as a service provider.


Though current and former interns have advocated for reforms, the voices of young people in developing countries have been conspicuously absent from media coverage. If the UN is at times viewed cynically in wealthier countries like the US, the young people that spoke with VICE News in lower and middle income regions described it as a beacon in their lives — a fact that made denial of entry into the lowest rung of the UN's staffing system that much more bitter.

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A view of the General Assembly Hall at United Nations headquarters in New York. (Photo by Justin Lane/EPA)

Alfonso Abularach, a 27-year-old from Cochabama, Boliva, told VICE News he first participated in a local model UN programs at age 12, and continued to do so until 2013.

Through his involvement in model UN, Abularach was able to travel to conferences in Malaysia, South Korea, and New York. But in nearly all the Model UN travel that VICE News reviewed, participants received assistance, either from the host city or from private donors who supported the program. Once Abularach reached his 20s — the point at which many Model UN participants see an internship as the logical next step in pursuing an interest in the official UN — he found that funding didn't exist.

"I've supported myself economically since I was very young," said Albaruch, who studied international law in both college and law school in Bolivia. "I was unable to do an internship under the conditions the UN gave me."


The minimum wage in Bolivia is $239 per month, and Albaruch said it could take years for some Bolivians to save enough for a plane ticket to New York or Europe.

"It was very difficult for me 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," he said. "I don't think it was fair."

Other young people in the developing world shared similar stories.

Nasra Nandha, 24, is the former Secretary General of Kenya's Model UN. Like Abularach, she was able to travel to conferences in several countries, generally with financial assistance that covered some or all of her expenses. Now a law student in Nairobi, Nandha told VICE News she also looked into parlaying her experience into an internship.

"The Model UN looks at international relations, it looks at international law, which is something I was really interested in," she said. "An internship was a good opportunity to transition from just being involved in a student run club or society and venture into an actual organization."

'The opportunity seems like it's there, but it really only exists on paper.'

But in a story that is all too familiar to Model UN participants in developing countries, Nandha ran into a wall. Not only did she face visa requirements that are higher for those in poor regions, she was also asked to come up with at least $8,000 to pay for a six-month internship.


"If you are lucky and well connected, then yes, maybe you can go," said Nandha. "The opportunity seems like it's there, but it really only exists on paper."

Adrian Martinez, 31, received his masters, specializing in climate change policy, at the United Nations University for Peace, a school founded by the UN in Costa Rica. Martinez told VICE News he was one of the few Costa Ricans that attended the school.

Martinez watched colleagues from places like Sweden and Canada leave for internships at UN agencies in Europe. "It's smart because when you apply for a job at the UN, the sense is they are reserved for the people with such experience," he said. "I compared with my colleague who went to a UN agency; she got far more experience in an international context."

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The United Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo by Henry Mühlpfordt/Wikimedia Commons)

Martinez had taken a loan out to pay for school, and couldn't afford to stop earning money while also supporting himself in some of the world's most expensive cities.

"I guess what's disheartening is it's so disconnected from the economic reality of your country, especially my country where young professionals are really underpaid," he said. "To ask such a thing is kind of unreal. They [The UN] aren't talking the same language."

Some at the UN have privately expressed concern that paying interns would reduce the number of internships available, meaning there would be even fewer opportunities for people in the developing world.


"Were there a cost implication, there would have to quotas/limitations on the quantity available," one UN staffer wrote in an email to VICE News. "The UN is a political animal, and like it or not, our hiring process is influenced by political affiliations.

"Countries go to great efforts to ensure their nationals are placed in UN agencies, because that is one way of exerting influence on the issues presiding over the UN," the staffer added. "Contrary to popular belief, paid UN internships would not be more accessible to everyone, but instead limited only to a privileged few, mainly members of countries' political elite."

For Albaruch, the UN has to do something, otherwise it risks alienating the very young people it claims to want to get involved.

"Maybe it's already too late for us, but there's a new generation that could have a chance to work at the UN," he said. "Youth from the developing world will help change and model a better UN, but they have to be able to support themselves in New York, Paris or Switzerland. The UN has to open its eyes and see that youth are their best asset."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford

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