Opportunity or Cost?

By: Shruti Manian

A few years ago, the plight of 22-year old David Hyde made headlines around the world. Hyde, an intern at the United Nations in Geneva set up a tent by Geneva Lake because he could not afford accommodations in such an expensive city. His internship at the UN was unpaid and he pitched his tent by the lake both out of desperation and to draw attention to the UN’s questionable internship policies.

The same holds true for the hundreds of interns who traipse into the UN’s offices in the middle of Manhattan each morning. Attired in their best formal wear with their UN badges slung around their necks, many have traveled for over an hour and a half from outer boroughs and New Jersey because they cannot afford the rent in Manhattan. As a part-time intern at UNDP last semester, I met full-time interns who had moved to New York from places as near Connecticut and as far as Canada and Spain for an opportunity to work for the UN with no expectations of even a stipend for taking the subway.

The UN is certainly not the only organization that runs an unpaid internship program. However, as an institution dedicated to justice and fairness, the UN’s choice to not compensate labor is more problematic. Specifically, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that "everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  It seems odd, then, that the UN would ask to be the exception to the mandate of its own document. The UN maintains that it is not allowed to pay non-staff according to a policy adopted in 1997. The standard response has always been that all sections of the UN depend on member countries to provide them with their budgets and current levels of funding are simply insufficient to pay interns.

In 2015, the UN employed 4,475 interns. As a result of the UN’s insistence on unpaid internships, these positions are only accessible to those who are able to afford the costs. The costs associated with an unpaid UN internship are particularly crippling for those from far away developing countries. Had I not already been a student at SIPA, flying to New York, finding accommodations and commuting everyday would have been financially impossible. The opportunity costs are also incredibly high because the UN does not allow interns to apply for full-time positions at the UN until six months after the completion of their internship. Thus, students cannot hope for full-time employment even if they distinguish themselves.

This is not to say that interning at the UN is not a valuable experience. I learned an enormous amount in the course of my internship and met many interesting people. There is also no denying the prestige that a UN internship adds to your resume. But the UN cannot claim to fight inequality and lack of opportunity around the world when it makes its own offices so unreachable to those who do not already have the economic or socio-political means that enable easier access.