‘For those who couldn’t afford it’ – my time with the Fair Internship Initiative

In November 2015, I joined the FII.

In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a movement of current and former interns at the UN advocating for fair, more accessible quality internships (Quality and Equality) within the UN system. It is a relatively young movement in the phase where there’s a lot to be done, prioritites to be set and the survival to be secured. When I started, the Initiative did not even have a website and little knowledge about the possibilities to actually induce change. Now, it is much more organized, has joined forces more efficiently with the partner organisation in Geneva and has a well set-up website and social media presence, all due to the efforts of dedicated people who were willing to take up bits and pieces here and there and in total make it more coherent and efficient. However, there are many problems with the organisation of a small and constantly fluctuating initiative advocating at one of the biggest organisations with a high degree of institutional inertia – the UN. Although, I’ve withdrawn mostly from the FII since my return to Europe, I’ve learned a lot when I did my bits and pieces –  about the UN, youth activism, and more.

It all started with the shoes. A girl from my floor at the UN told me to bring an extra pair of shoes to work the next day – for ‘Interns Day’ on 10 November. There would be a protest outside of the UN with media presence, interns holding banners and a bunch of empty shoes. I printed some flyers and posters for her with the slogans of the protest: ‘UNPAID IS UNSEEN‘ and ‘It’s not for us, it’s for those who couldn’t afford it‘. After handing over the flyers to the other intern, she said: “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain!!!”

It did rain – of course. But I was in. It took me a while to take up speed with my bits and pieces. In hindsight I think this was mainly because of the feeling that I didn’t fully understand the structure of UN internships yet. But, other than a lot of interns, I had the luxury of six months to get accustomed to the role of the FII and my role in it.

What does the FII want?

The FII has three main goals. While the short term advocacy goals are flexible and have been redefined, the three main goals were decided at a strategy meeting in December and haven’t been changed since. They are:

  1. Equal and fair representation of interns at the UN 
    The ‘It’ in ‘Those who couldn’t afford it’ stands for ‘being here’. The FII had set its goal to be to advocate not only for its members (a small percentage of interns within the UN system) but also for those who couldn’t afford living in New York or Geneva, those who do not come from affluent backgrounds or elite education, which enables them to secure funding from sparse scholarships or the support of family and friends. This is a divide which is mainly socio-economic but also geographical with the highest percentage of interns to the UN being from (Western) European countries.
  2. Establishment of an intern living allowance
    This goal serves the goal of equal representation and also the quality of internships. In ‘Our stories‘, a project launched in March 2016 by the FII Geneva and New York, many current and former interns tell stories from their internship experience. Some, like my friend Henry, talk of major problems surviving in New York on – what was it again, the UN is paying? – NOTHING!
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FII meme

Two years ago I published a post on the high living cost in London, but now I have to admit that New York is actually worse regarding this aspect since not only rent is unaffordable but also groceries are incredibly expensive. A living allowance would help with the representation of different socio-economic backgrounds, and would increase the quality of internships as you can dedicate more energy and time into database work or writing speeches if you’re not constantly thinking of that sandwich you couldn’t buy – or where to sleep the next night.

  • Establishment of an intern focal point
    Over the time the FII has undertaken a lot of research on the position of interns within the UN. We know now who is responsible for them – no one! Theoretically, every department manages their own interns, while respecting the limit of interns they can have at a given moment. This leads to a lack of oversight (which made it hard for us to even find out the exact number of all interns at the UN) but also to a lack of rights. Interns are not part of ‘staff’, they therefore do not get the same rights regarding visa, healthcare services and protection, for example in the case of sexual harassment, where there is no clearly identified point of reference to turn to. An intern focal point would also help with the relationship between interns, and provide possibilities for career development and information on the recruitment processes and further advancement opportunities.

 

What does the FII do? 

Before I arrived, a lot of energy of those involved in the FII had flown into conducting research on the rights of interns and their position as well as those responsible for changing the situation. This sounds like it should be easy but it cost them a lot of nerves and persistance once they realized that most people they turned to tended to send them to someone else, stating that they were not responsible and – possibly honestly – didn’t know. They were also quite busy understanding and nailing down the major challenges for interns, which they did and continue to do through surveying the interns at different locations. At the same time they were connecting with outside partners, media representatives and organizing a panel discussion and the shoe protest on Interns Day. They also found an interesting and depressing correlation between the rise of internships at the UN and the decrease of entry-level positions, meaning that for most interns the only option to stay on is a rather precarious consultancy contract (or many).

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At the time when I started, the declared goal was to lobby the members of the 5th Committee. Remember, the General Assembly has 6 Committees  of which the fifth deals with budgetary and administrative questions under which interns fall. The Committee session started in March 2016 – perfect timing to make some people interested in internships. Under the lead of the intern from my floor, the FII contacted all permanent missions and tried to set up meetings with Fifth Committee Delegates. But it wouldn’t be the UN if it was so easy… in fact, what is being discussed in the Committee session is predefined; of course internships were not on the list. So our chances were to get individual member states to propose the topic under the respective agenda item and demand a Report by the Secretary General, which then could be incorporated into the next predefined agenda and thus discussed in the next session…… pretty complicated…

In March for the start of the Committee session, we coordinated with the initiative in Geneva and me and another intern set up the MarchCAMPaign in New York to increase the public awareness of this rather complicated issue. To mirror the difficult living conditions of interns we chose to CAMP outside of the UN and pitch our goals to UN staff and press representatives.

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What are the chances? 

This year, the FII has not been successful in their mission to put internships on the agenda of the Fifth Committee. The whole agenda item was postponed to the next session in fall. However, the Initiative itself has been more successful than many have anticipated. In fact, we got a lot of feedback stating that UN staff had expected the FII to quickly die down after the initial momentum which was created in Geneva in 2015, when the press was alerted to the living conditions of an intern actually camping in the city. However, the FII has survived since then and successfully broadened the range of its partners and developed a coherent but flexible strategy. There has also been a lot of cooperation between the initiatives in Geneva and New York, even across an ocean and six hours of time difference and a base of full-time working people (yes, I mean interns).

However, the FII is facing major challenges, which are not probable to change within the next months or years. The main one is to keep the base of active interns up and running when the average time period for interns in New York is between 2 and 3 months. A time which is needed to settle in a new city, conduct the daily work of interning at the UN and for many also to figure out what comes after the internship, which rarely offers any perspective to stay at the UN. Another challenge is the lack of political will. At a time of major complex emergencies the UN has a lot to do and decreasing funding from member states. Gathering support for a cause that offers little reward to those in power except for the coherence of their agenda (the SDGs and the ILO advocate against youth unemployment and of course for equal chances for people from all backgrounds and youth empowerment becomes more and more important with the Resolution of Youth, Peace and Security), is a hell of a task.

internship meme

It is all the more impressive that there has been a lot moving, that there is always an active base of interns of the FII, who are willing to sacrifice their free time in New York (and Geneva) for the cause of those who might profit from these efforts in a year, a decade or more. I am glad that the girl from my floor asked me for an extra pair of shoes in November last year. And I am glad that I was part of the FII, that I did my bits and pieces. To anyone who is starting an internship at the UN and to those who are still there – in New York, Geneva, Vienna, …. Keep it up! For those who can’t be there! 

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