Don’t be a UN intern

This text is aimed at you, young student or recent graduate, inspired by the world of international affairs and humanitarian work, thinking of seeking an internship with the United Nations in Geneva. I want to convince you not to do it.

Background

There has been much noise lately about the case of the tent-dwelling intern. The story goes that he could not afford lodging in Geneva so he lived in a tent while working as an intern for the UN. The original narrative in the media was that of an unfortunate young man, motivated to help the UN improve the world, but disadvantaged by the callous practices of the organization when it comes to (not)paying interns.

There followed an uproar of solidarity from the local intern community and beyond. The Guardian, the New York Times, Vice News and other weighed in. Messages of support and offers of accommodation flooded in; demonstrations took place at Place des Nations the other day – “Pay your interns!” was the slogan.

We have since discovered that the intern may have orchestrated his media exposure somewhat, that he has left the organization following the commotion, and that the United Nations organization actually apparently “wants to” pay its interns but cannot, not without a resolution by the General Assembly in New York. That is where we stand as of 21 August 2015, the day I am writing this.

Scrutinizing the the intern’s motives is one way to proceed; another is rising up to put pressure on the UN to start paying its interns. Both of those miss the big picture, I believe. One should not want to be a UN intern in the first place.

UNCTAD as an emblematic example

I have never been a UN intern, but I used to work for the same organization that the intern in the news worked for – UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. I was there for just under two years before leaving for a saner place to work. I met dozens of interns from UNCTAD and elsewhere (I was about their age), and I meet new ones regularly here in Geneva.

As UN agencies go, UNCTAD is an extreme example of incompetence and overall insignificance. Its first Secretary-General eventually found the organization had become too “bureaucratic and sterile” for his liking and moved on; that was 50 years ago, and things have only gotten worse – reports nobody reads, meetings nobody relevant attends, and a very polluted interpersonal atmosphere.

Raison d’être of the UN

First thing’s first. You should understand the objectives of the organization you’re trying to join. There are three primary objectives of the UN system today. The first one is to pay the salaries and the perks of its employees. The second is to give them a microcosm in which they can walk around in suits, look important, use buzzwords, and basically find some, however contrived, meaning. The third one is to make it seem like there is an international political system out there, a framework of rules that everyone respects. This last one is increasingly optional in the post-Cold War geopolitical climate.

Why interns are needed and what the work is like

There is a myth that interns only do menial work, such as filling out Excel sheets and printing stuff. For some, this is true. Most, however, get assigned to a particular project, and then work on it, with some freedom. In other words, they do the work their supervisors can’t (due to lack of expertise or otherwise) or don’t want to. This sounds great in theory, but the practice is that you’re working in a chaotic environment: the project is often meaningless, there are no clear directives, and most of your effort ends up wasted. You either spend long hours at the office needlessly or have nothing to do, or both at different times. Your experience depends largely on the character and management skills of the supervisor, and the latter are likely to be poor if the boss is a seasoned UN employee.

Staying in

Let’s assume you don’t heed my advice, and you get the internship. Now you want to stay in the system.

The first thing to understand: rules apply only to the powerless. In my experience, at least three quarters of all job announcements are allocated in advance (i.e. there is a preferred candidate or an incumbent), even though selection committees are forced to justify their decisions at length – the act just makes it easier to create a smokescreen of impartiality. If a protégé with the right connections, or backed by the right country, needs a job things are arranged with surprising speed. If, however, we’re talking about an unfortunate short-termer or an intern (i.e. you!), then stern HR officers are always at hand to remind one that “procedures take time,” “rules must be obeyed,” or that, for that matter “we really want to pay the interns but we need the General Assembly to allow it.”

Contracts

The short-term contracts, by the way, are a whole separate topic. You might be tempted to apply for those, so I’ll elaborate. The UN put in place a limit of 12 months on the duration of short-term contracts a few years back. Ostensibly, this was in order to protect the short-term staff, some of whom would, in the past, spend years on that status; the idea was to bring some order to the matter – you can hire someone short-term for up to 12 months and then you have to give them a fixed post. In reality, however, the 12-month rule has often been used as a way of depriving such employees of any power, getting rid of them when necessary, and keeping them obedient in the hope of landing the Holy Grail – a fixed-term contract. Of course, the 12-month rule can also be bent and twisted as necessary, with all sorts of consulting contracts and otherwise, if you have the right support. But you, likely, won’t.

I mention fixed contracts as the Holy Grail. This is no exaggeration. The UN had in the past such a thing as permanent contracts. Getting one meant you had a contract until retirement. You could get a mortgage, put your feet up, stop working and stop learning. When you have, for example, IT people walking around on such contracts, people who last read anything on the subject before there was internet and now run IT departments, things can get tough. Fixed contracts are not permanent, but are almost as good. You basically can’t be fired. So in most agencies this old guard of people on permanent and fixed contracts runs the show in an environment where competence matters little and politicking is ubiquitous. That’s why short-termers and interns are useful – they come in, do the work that nobody else can or wants to, and then conveniently leave without disturbing things much.

Employment prospects afterwards

Even if you do get in, and spend a couple of years in the UN system, you will become practically unemployable anywhere else in Geneva (and beyond), particularly in the private sector. The recruiters know the score – typically one or more of the following is true: you got the job through a rigged procedure, you stopped learning on day one, and the little that you know is UN-specific, you are not a hard worker, you lack creativity, you are happy with a meaningless, paper-pushing-style job, you are motivated by hierarchy as opposed to achievement, etc.

People

I should make a distinction between the system and the people living in it, of course. I’ve met nice people in my time with UNCTAD; some have become very good friends. They have long lost their professional ambition, and spend days in the office working on private projects, writing music, taking long lunches and in general killing their time until retirement. Most others are just average people, like you and me, that got trapped in the system and started drinking its Kool-Aid, over time becoming poisoned with it. The very top echelon, at least during my tenure with UNCTAD, were very dark characters, with a habit of publicly humiliating people, sexual harassment, occasional shoplifting and similar pastimes. The majority of “normal” people simply let them run amock without ever raising the voice. This pattern is common.

The overall system

Some work gets done by the UN, no doubt. Some people get fed, some conflicts get prevented from escalating. The point is that this happens with huge wastage along the way, where most of the effort and money invested get squandered, and with some outright horrible practices. Arguing that a 5% effectiveness rate is better than nothing is like treating frostbite on the patient’s toe by cutting off the entire leg – no patient would agree to that.

So with wastage so rampant, every now and then the UN system goes through the talks of a “major reorganization,” “cutting the red tape,” “modernizing the organization,” etc. This brings about fear. The initiative gets announced by someone in New York, and then starts getting slowly watered down. What starts as an immediate cut of 10% of the budget turns into a “first phase,” that “starts in five years,” and “involves cuts of 1-10%,” etc, so that in the end the only thing that happens is that the post of someone who retires gets removed from the pool, and that ends up sufficing as a symbolic sacrifice to the gods. Of course, in the meantime a dozen other informal posts spring up elsewhere, under the carpet, since the bureaucracy only swells, never reduces.

Salary

For someone who doesn’t earn anything, any money is good money. And UN salaries in Geneva are not bad, particularly at higher levels. You should consider three things though:

First, these salaries are still average, or below average, in terms of what you could be making in the private sector.

Second, they haven’t been growing on par with the cost of living lately. My colleagues used to whine that “back in the day” the parking lot of the UN featured exclusively Mercedes and BMW, “now it’s all Hyundais and Renaults.” This trend is likely to continue.

Thirdly, some perks, such as the $30-40k grand per child per year to attend private school, sound fantastic (and can practically double your salary in real terms) but are likely to be phased out as time goes by.

So the trend is unfavorable, and you’ll be there to pay the price, since you’re just starting out and are looking at a 40-year career. You’ll see your salary dwindle, perks disappear, and status deteriorate, all the while becoming totally unemployable anywhere else and condemned to the UN system.

Summary

If you’re already a UN intern I have much understanding and sympathy for you, but you ultimately accepted the rules and agreed to work for free. If you are, however not a UN intern, you shouldn’t ever want to be one. You will work for a crumbling organization crippled with incompetence. You will learn very little. You will spend a lot of money living in Geneva, a not very vibrant city. Sure, you will make some friends and contacts, but that would happen anyway, wherever you go and whatever you do. The internship will mean nothing on your CV – fewer and fewer employers have any illusions about the UN; in the worst-case scenario, the experience can be held against you, since it shows poor judgment.

Your globetrotting, world-saving dream job doesn’t exist. It hasn’t existed for a while. The world has been explored – it no longer needs explorers, and especially doesn’t need faceless bureaucrats. It needs people who do things. Even if, through blackmail, magic rituals or blind luck, you land a UN job somehow, you will not be part of the world elite – far, far from it. You will push paper watching your years go by; your sole obsession will be sucking up to your neurotic supervisor in the hope of seeing your grade increase by a small notch five years down the road; you will wake up at 55 wondering where your professional life has gone. And that’s even discounting the remote possibility that the funding countries come along and say “Ok guys, the show’s been great, now pack it up and go home, you’re not needed anymore.”

You can still be privately happy while being professionally miserable and unfulfilled, but it’s damn hard. It becomes easier with time, with marriage, kids, other things to think about. Yet the sorrow of a wasted career will never leave you, and I see that on the faces of my pre-retirement friends daily.

What to do

It is better to do almost anything else. Join a startup in the non-profit space, or start one. Join an organization in which field operations run the show and not the bureaucrats in the remote HQ. One example is the ICRC: they pay their trainees CHF3,000 per month, which is something. Or go work for a private sector company, in the philanthropy space or otherwise. You might learn a bit about work ethic and the bottom line. Avoid organizations that don’t really have a mission or produce nothing relevant to the world, such as banks, consultancies and luxury brands.

To do something real with your life you have to get into a habit of doing things that you believe in, and which have a direct effect, from the start. This attitude to work becomes a habit over time, and in turn becomes your professional destiny. Choose this destiny wisely. Don’t be a UN intern.