The United Nations is perhaps one of the most well-recognized global entities in the world. For better or worse, they have influence in nearly every country in the world and fund research, development and policy work.
It makes sense, then, that aspiring students of international relations or foreign affairs would look to the U.N. to get practical experience in their field. Internships with the U.N. are flashy. They look great on a resume and they could make or break someone’s chances to really launch a career in international diplomacy.
There’s just one catch. Internships with the U.N. are unpaid.
The U.N. isn’t shy about this fact. They know that they can still attract plenty of talent without having to worry about paying them. And every year they do attract plenty of talent — rich talent.
The U.N. operates primarily out of two major cities: New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. Neither of them is especially famous for their low cost of living. In fact, the U.N.’s unpaid internships first came under fire in August, when it came to light that a 22-year-old intern from New Zealand was living out of a tent outside Geneva because he couldn’t afford anything else.
U.N. interns rely primarily on their parents or other outside sources of funds to live in New York or Geneva for the duration of their internship. And that’s where the problem lies—it effectively cancels out the opportunity for students from developing nations or impoverished backgrounds to get involved in issues of international diplomacy.
The U.N. claims that it can’t pay its interns because of a resolution passed in 1997 that prevents payment of non-staff. However, their intern intake has also increased from 131 in 1996 to more than 4,000 in the 2014, according to an intern for the The Economist. Clearly, they benefit from the free labor.
The interns who can afford to work for free don’t exactly embody the workplace diversity that the U.N. should ideally strive for. Moreover, those interns from developing countries who can afford to live without pay for two to six months may not be the cream of the crop. Rather, their employment could reinforce nepotism or elitism, in particular if their internship allows them to later get a position in international diplomacy.
The U.S. Department of State offers paid internships — while the job isn’t necessarily financially lucrative, it helps interns afford to live in Washington D.C. or commute there. There are many similarly compensated programs in various developed countries.
It’s a shame, then, that the U.N. unabashedly avoids providing a living wage to their student staff. Moreover, they seem to reject any attempts to change this — multiple protests by current interns have been broken up and ignored. U.N. security even demanded that VICE News delete their photos of the most recent protest.
It may be expensive for the U.N. to pay their interns. It would certainly be inconvenient. But it could provide an opportunity to attract even more talent to the organization and, more importantly, avoid the nepotism that can result from only permitting the privileged to get involved.
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