Could COVID-19 make the United Nations Internship Programme more inclusive?

Could COVID-19 make the United Nations Internship Programme more inclusive?


The aftermath of the crisis is re-shaping aid and development workforce, including its future leaders, by paving the way to new HR practices that open the programme to applicants who were excluded by default. 


The title is thought-provoking. But it could help reopen the debate on a heated topic – to what extent the United Nations Secretariat could welcome interns as diverse as its staff members, especially in its major locations. Securing an internship at the United Nations Secretariat and its Agencies, Funds, and Programmes has been the catalyst for the career of thousands of aid and development professionals. On the UN Careers website, the programme is itself qualified as the ideal start for anyone interested in fields such as diplomacy and public policy. For years, it has indeed provided students and young graduates with the opportunity to get a first-hand experience of humanitarian aid and development work in the UN major locations such as New York, Geneva, Vienna, and Nairobi, to name a few.


However, the UN internship programme is built on unpaid experience with limited exceptions, which have discouraged many young talents to merely submit an application. While numerous public- and private-funding scholarships exist to support applicants, who may not have the resources to commit to a three-month internship duration on average - and sometimes with entities based in one of the most expensive cities in the world - the offer cannot simply cover the demand.  Many young talents who meet all the eligibility requirements and beyond have, therefore, not try their luck. Others went to great length to save up for a first UN experience or resolved to live in basic accommodation, practices which have triggered various lobbying campaigns pushing for paid internships. As a result, the programme might give the impression to be opened to a selected few who have both a stellar resume and sufficient financial resources.


But would the challenging times we are going through allow for a long-term transformation of the UN internship recruitment practices and, ultimately, for increased diversity?


When UN staff members were asked to work remotely as a result of the lockdown, so were interns. To respond to this new, temporary normal, HR and managers have redoubled efforts to support interns so that the remaining part of the internship programme remains as relevant as possible to their learning and professional development. But, most and foremost, the new working arrangements have demonstrated that remote internships at the UN Secretariat do work. Such realization represents a game-changer for future leaders' outreach and management as it paves the way to a new HR approach. Until a few weeks ago, many young talents, including from developing countries, were de facto 'prevented' from applying despite meeting all the eligibility criteria and possessing a resume that would have made them a great asset to the organization. Today, the programme has the potential of becoming increasingly merit-based and diverse, since all applicants irrespective of their financial means could contemplate the possibility of jumping start their career in aid and development, serving this world-renowned organization.


Below are some thoughts and considerations on how the current UN internship program could change in the coming future:

  • Increased program value. As exciting living in major cities and/or working in prestigious offices may be, the bottom line for identifying a high-value internship is the duties and responsibilities attached to the position, as well as the learning and development support interns would get throughout the programme. This factor could prove increasingly decisive for many applicants, should the UN Secretariat put the focus on home-based internships.


  • World-wide war of young talents. With more internships completed remotely across the aid and development industry, the UN Secretariat could face increased competition to identify future young leaders. Simultaneously, the pool of applicants could expand dramatically; this is also likely to trigger an increased competition between applicants, which would require a better strategy to set them apart from their competitors.


  • Targeted profiles. Many interns participating in the UN internship programme do not necessarily have an education or professional background related to the office or unit area of work. With the constraints of remote onboarding, managers could request for more 'knowledgeable or experienced' interns to accelerate the learning curve.


  • Project-based internships. While a long-term internship with a minimum of three months is helpful to develop a broad understanding of the organization’s work and culture, the completion of specific tasks as part of a short-term internship, which will also enable the acquisition of a specific set of skills, could significantly increase the impact the internship may have on junior professionals’ profile and expertise.


  • Broader use of Online UN Volunteers. With UN offices temporarily closing down in major locations due to the crisis, the UNV online platform has never been more relevant than ever. As of now, the current list of volunteering opportunities comprises a balanced pool of openings between NGOs and UN organizations (e.g., UNDP is an important source of online volunteering opportunities within the UN organization, as well as UNITAR and ITU). More departments of the UN Secretariat could follow the trend and increasingly rely on volunteer resources to help them fulfill their mandate.


This transformation is ongoing and advancing more rapidly than expected: while curating jobs opened to young professionals, we were pleased to come across an internship opened at the UN Secretariat on a remote basis. If this becomes a long-term trend, it would be great news for many talented young professionals around the world as it would certainly level the playing field for all.