Do you want to change the world? Join the United Nations for an unpaid summer internship in New York City. Work for six months. Spend $21,000 on rent and living expenses. Alternatively, if you prefer to live in a cheaper location, you can apply to the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland, where a flat, food, and transportation will cost you only $19,500.
With a full-scale war raging and global tensions rising, the purpose of the UN — “to maintain international peace and security” and “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems” — seems more relevant than ever. Like many aspiring policymakers, I wish I could make my small contribution to this noble endeavor. But while I am more privileged than most, applying for an unpaid internship at the UN is not an option.
Who can afford to go without an income in one of the world’s most expensive cities? Not many people. The UN says it aims to attract diverse talent from around the world, including from developing countries. But in Tunisia, where my parents were born, $21,000 represents 12 years of work at the minimum wage.
I am a graduate student at Harvard, which is among the handful of universities that provide some financial support for students who seek unpaid internships with nonprofit organizations. But even the most generous grants wouldn’t cover more than a quarter of the living expenses in New York. For me and many other students, the only way to intern for the UN would be to take out a loan.
Other multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, pay a more-than-decent hourly wage to their interns. They also offer short-term contracts for positions that require more work experience. The UN does offer short-term paid positions, but they are mostly reserved for former interns and staff.
Internships are the most effective way to set foot in the UN’s door. Interns develop useful connections and acquire insider knowledge of the organization. This gives them a head start in the race for full-time jobs — which is especially significant given that the UN’s hiring process can take up to a year.
How can we expect the UN to promote socioeconomic equity and global cooperation if the organization hires its interns based largely on their ability to pay? From 2009 to 2015, the most recent period for which I could find statistics, 40 percent of the UN’s interns came from Europe. Western Europe and North America have about 10 percent of the world’s people, but that’s where 39 percent of UN staff comes from. The UN needs more people from the populations it claims to help and protect. Race and gender quotas are not enough to ensure true diversity. Providing financial support to interns is necessary.
In 2015, the UN faced criticism when one of its interns in Geneva slept in a tent to reduce his living expenses. He resigned and other interns protested, but nothing changed — even though it would cost the organization less than 1 percent of its annual budget to cover all interns’ living expenses.
It would require a vote in the General Assembly for the UN to pay its interns. If the UN cannot reform its remuneration scheme altogether, it should at least offer some need-based financial assistance. Private foundations looking to foster change could also step in and provide funds to support UN interns, the same way alumni associations provide scholarships at most universities. Another option would be to establish some remote internships so students can skip the move to New York or Geneva. The UN would need to ensure that remote interns get enough opportunities to interact with staff members; the ongoing pandemic provides an opportunity to test this approach.
Diversity matters. Only by employing interns and staff who look more like the whole world can the UN properly address global challenges such as climate change that have the greatest effect on the most vulnerable populations.
Randy Kotti is pursuing his master’s degree in public administration in international development at the Harvard Kennedy School.