~Written by Mikael Ashorn (Contact: email@example.com)
Last March I had the chance to be part of a team representing our graduate program in the annual Emory Global Health Case Competition in Atlanta. We were given the not-so-easy task of transforming the World Health Organization (WHO) to the 21st century (http://www.globalhealth.emory.edu/what/student_programs/case_competitions/pdfs/2014_international_cc_case.pdf).
As we pondered this thrilling case among our group there was a lot of discussion around the fundamental core structure of the WHO and about the politics surrounding it. How could it serve better those in need – and as equally as possible? Among other things the WHO, as well as other United Nations (UN) branches, try to promote equity among the world's population. Health is listed as a fundamental human right, which everyone should have equal access to, already in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But do these large organizations promote equity also within their own system?
A Swiss newspaper writes (http://lenews.ch/2014/11/20/the-united-nations-more-consultants-fewer-rights/) on how the UN has started to save by using short-term consultants on a long-term basis. The Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) has already noted this negative trend. According to the JIU this trend creates inequality and a two-tier structure among the workers: consultants with next-to-none social benefits and full-time employees.
About half a year later I was attending Youth & Student UN-days in Finland. The theme was human rights. No one seemed to be talking about the equal rights of the employees within the UN. Among other presentations, I heard a former intern give a talk on how much she had learnt during her internship in the UN. However, in the same breath she spoke about how hard it was to make it through this unpaid internship financially.
Yes – you heard me right. Unpaid.
The UN does not pay any of its interns, nor does it help them financially in any other way. Does this provide equal opportunities for everyone to participate? Brilliant students from developing countries already struggle with tuition fees more than students coming from more prosperous countries. However in this field of work a good education is usually not sufficient to land a job. All employers expect work experience, which is usually gained through internships.
Some organizations, like the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), seem to have noticed this. For instance the IFRC claims to be “an equal opportunity employer”. With almost identical competences required as for internships for the UN, they pay all the interns expenses as well as a nominal salary.
A Washington Post article claims, that poor kids who do everything right are still worse off than rich kids who do everything wrong (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/18/poor-kids-who-do-everything-right-dont-do-better-than-rich-kids-who-do-everything-wrong/). They claim that this is because of the different opportunities they get in life. These are the kinds of differences the UN promotes with non-paid internships. My fellows and I from developed countries are fortunate enough to have social-networks that we can rely on during the internship without a salary. However others are not so fortunate.
When the JIU published its report, the UN responded that changing the systems is very much in their interest, as they “need to have the best people possible”. By continuing these unpaid internships, the UN not only creates inequality between candidates but also might rule out some very competent prospective employees, whom are not fortunate enough to be able to work unpaid.
As an employer, the UN seems to pay rather high salaries (https://careers.un.org/lbw/home.aspx?viewtype=SAL). Could these be scaled back so that at the very least, interns' living expenses can be paid? This way, the UN would also be promoting equity within the organization. It would give more people the opportunity to get their careers kick-started through an internship, which future employers would appreciate.