U.N. Internship: Peasantry Need Not Apply

By Ryan McNamara

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The United Nations: a beacon of progress, a symbol of what we can all do when we work together, an image of the most enlightened ideals humanity has to offer.

An intern exploiter.

That’s right, the U.N. does not pay its interns. Instead, they are made to bear “all costs related to travel, insurance, accommodation, and living expenses.” All while U.N. staff has come under criticism in recent years for what some call its excessive salaries and benefits.

Interns are required to work full-time for a minimum of two months. Being an intern for the U.N. in the United States means that you’re working and living in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world. A U.N. internship F.A.Q. page, using slightly outdated numbers, estimates the average monthly living cost at around $2,500.

Compare this to the six-figure salaries, cost-of-living supplements, rent subsidies, tuition coverages for children of staff, and other generous benefits given to those at the top of the institution, and the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” at the U.N. becomes clear.

In addition to the contrast between the compensation of staff and interns, the reality of who can take on an internship and who cannot brings to light another elitist aspect of the policy. In practice, the prohibitive costs associated with this internship are unmistakably discriminatory against working and middle class people.

It should be noted that these internships are targeted for young adults in college, and as such, the interns would likely depend on their parents for financial support. In this respect, the policy makes it look a lot like the U.N. is interested only in working with the offspring of the aristocracy.

The U.N. is ostensibly dedicated to making the world a more just and equitable place. But considering that the global average annual household income is about $10,000, for the vast majority of the world, an unpaid internship for the U.N. is out of the question. This is especially true for those who live in poorer parts of the world, where only the extreme elite can think of enrolling their children in the program.

Well, the U.N. must have a scholarship program to help qualified but less economically fortunate applicants, right?

“Unfortunately, the U.N. cannot provide financial support to interns,” states its website.

Unpaid internships appear contradictory to the foundational documents of the United Nations. Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all are entitled to the rights set forth in the declaration regardless of their economic class, among other statuses. Article 23 states, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration.” If the U.N. does not consider its interns as “working,” it is at least allowing the wealthy to exchange money for the sizable career boost U.N. work experience provides those fortunate enough to claim it.

And the U.N. isn’t exactly a startup or non-profit scrounging to make it by. Its 2014–2015 budget is $5.5 billion.

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