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International Geneva Interns poll finds ILO offers best UN work placements

Exterior view of the building of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva

The ILO, which has paid interns a monthly stipend since 2011, was ranked highly for equal opportunities, financial support and work conditions. 

(Keystone)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers the best internships in the United Nations system, according to a global survey of over 700 interns. The ranking comes amid growing pressure on the UN to make all internships paid so a wider range of people can access these career-making opportunities. 

Overall, the Geneva-based ILO scored 3.99 out of 5 (‘good’) in the ranking. The 100-year-old international organisation, which has paid interns a monthly stipend since 2011external link, was ranked highly for equal opportunities, financial support and work conditions. 

It was followed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which all scored highly in the first-ever global ranking of internships at 21 UN organisations published on Monday by the Fair Internship Initiativeexternal link (FII). 

The classification was based on indicators taken from a 2018 review of internships by the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), an independent oversight body of the UN system.external link These included: the job application and selection process; work conditions; career development; and equal opportunities including financial support to cover basic living expenses. 

UN Women and UN Volunteers came last. The UN Secretariat, which includes numerous agencies at the Geneva and New York bases, was ranked ‘mediocre’ overall, but fared worse when it comes to equal opportunities and lack of financial support. 

Over 700 interns from around the world took part in the questionnaire this summer. 

Unpaid workers 

There are an estimated 2,500 UN interns working in Geneva. Around 80% of UN internships are unpaid, according to the Fair Internship Initiative (FII)external link, an advocacy platform of interns and young professionals leading efforts to reform UN internship schemes. 

Unable to expand budgets and recruit staff, the UN and other organisations have increasingly used young graduates who are willing to work for free or low pay for two to six months to gain valuable professional experience. Critics say only graduates from wealthy families can afford to live as interns in Geneva without a salary for long periods.  

The UN strategy towards interns remains piecemeal. The UN Secretariat is governed by an administrative instructionexternal link, where interns are considered “gratis personnel” and not staff members. The UN says it is up to member states to change things. However, neither the UN nor individual member states have made any commitments.  

Improvements 

In the absence of a shared protocol, several UN agencies have tried to improve their own internship policies. In November, for example, UN Women introduced a stipend for all interns; UN Development Programme (UNDP) and World Health Organization (WHO) will do so from January 2020. The ILO has been steadily increasing intern salaries. 

The FII plans to use the new survey results for future lobbying and discussions with human resources departments with a view to improving UN internship schemes. 

“I think they are making progress,” JIU Inspector Jean Wesley Cazeau told swissinfo.ch. 

Some organisations, he added, are waiting to see what the UN New York Secretariat is doing. But since the JIU report was published last year at least four organisations have taken steps to improve the lot of interns. 

“We are getting there slowly but surely,” he says. “Where there is a will there is a way.”

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