By Otto Spijkers
Every spring, summer, and fall, around 200 students come to UN Headquarters to do an internship there. I guess that with each season, and each session, the same question comes up at some point: namely, whether the United Nations – or someone else – should pay for the expenses etc. of the interns that come to New York. At the moment, the United Nations does not pay for anything (the website refers to some opportunities for financial aid, but those are outside the UN family, and the UN does not assist in obtaining that financial aid). In fact, interns even have to find their own accomodation, which can be quite difficult if you know nobody in New York (some interns use craigslist, others end up, at least for the first few weeks, in a youth hostel or YMCA). It is obvious, when you look at the intern community, that the ‘unpaidness’ of the internship causes the European nations to be overrepresented (especially Germany, but that may be true for ‘my’ session (Spring 2008) only). There aren’t that many Americans, Australians, and Canadians here. Those interns that come from lesser developed nations (a terrible expression, but I do not know a better one), have all – as far as I am aware – studied, or are currently studying, in European or North-American universities. In this post, I would like to list a few arguments/points that were made when we discussed this issue of payment among the interns. I do not share all those; in fact, I may disagree with most of them. My personal view is that the system now in place is not a perfect arrangement. Perhaps some special fund could be created, within the UN-framework but consisting of voluntary contributions by member states (clearly, it is nice publicity to be seen as a nation supporting ‘the next generation of UN staff, scholars and diplomats’), to support interns that need such support. Here are some of the other arguments (not mine):
The internship programme is structured in an unfair manner, as only people from rich Western countries and some elites from the developing world can afford to perform it.
There are many ambitious and competent people who cannot come to New York because they cannot sustain themselves – and sustaining here means putting food on the table.
With the UN based in New York, it may be that the US cultural tradition of doing lengthy and unpaid internships prevails. However that does not mean it is right or should be acceptable.
If the internship is to honestly represent the core values of the UN, then there must be better (if not complete) geographical representation at the intern level. The UN makes a very big deal about this at the professional level, so theoretically it should be insisted upon at intern level.
It is a violation of the human right to dignity not to pay interns. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, para 3: "Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection."
It is really not convincing to claim that there is any interference with your right to human dignity or any other provision under international law by coming to New York to work as an intern.
There exist many more important issues for the UN to finance than paid internships or free lunches in New York.
A paid internship will cause VISA problems for those who are not allowed to work legally in US (that is why money is not a good solution).
A paid internship will cause bigger competition, and will invite those with an interest in money instead of UN goals.
The idea of giving stipends only to students from developing countries (as some have suggested) is in principle great, we all wish to see a diverse and representative workforce. However, we must not kid ourselves that by suddenly doing so we are going to see an influx of students from such backgrounds, or that they will be from the sections of the populations most in need of financial assistance. The UN will still recruit from the best schools, the best masters programmes, as it should to ensure the highest professional standards. In doing so, students will be recruited for internships who, whether they get fulltime employment at the UN or not, will eventually find well-paid and rewarding employment elsewhere, and by the fact that they are on such educational programmes in the first place are likely to be financially stable.
Of course the unpaid condition implies discrimination. That’s a fact. And not only for people from less developed countries, it’s for people from all over the world with lesser resources. This is a solid argument to handle, but the UN has the opposite argument that each country should provide support for their national interns.
To give a stipend to all will mean spending UN money on students spending time in bars and restaurants etc., as most European or North American students here are from comfortable wealthy backgrounds and need no assistance.
The direct effect of paying interns will be a higher number of applicants, some of them applying not so much for the benefits it will have to their formation, or because of a sincere interest in the UN organization, but rather because they’d like to live 2 or 3 months in New York, walking around with a blue UN ID and a modest – but convenient- salary.
The principles of the UN involve bringing countries together, etc. etc., and arguably some UN interns may become the next generation of UN staff. Thus to have an internship program that is arguably though unintentionally elitist may have some impact later if interns become staff who then may help develop UN priorities.
A paid internship programme at the UN would cut the numbers of places available by half and enforce backdoor recruitment.
As I said before, these are not my arguments. Even the formulation is not mine. They are arguments I have come across in the discussion on the ‘unpaidness’ of UN internships. – Otto