‘Home Alone’ – How Covid-19-related measures have impacted UN internships
How Covid-19-related measures have impacted UN internships. Benjamin Child
Posted on 7 Aug 2020
Categories: Inside view
Study for a British university degree in Geneva

From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Fair Internship Initiative has been monitoring the impact of this unprecedented situation on UN internships.

In March 2020, we launched a survey among UN interns to disclose how Covid-19-related measures have impacted their internship programs. By introducing the survey, we have enhanced our advocacy for a better protection of interns’ rights during the pandemic and have informed UN decision-making in this area.

Between March 28 and April 20, the survey collected the voices and experiences of over two hundred interns from close to 40 UN entities in 16 countries. The survey shows that Covid-19-related measures have exacerbated the unfair character of the current internship systems.

“There has been a lack of information about whether any type of support will be extended to interns. Regarding intern-specific support, there has been total silence. It simply reinforces the sense that the UN does not care about basic support for its interns” (UN-Habitat Intern)

Based on the responses, two thirds of those surveyed stated their UN entity had not implemented any kind of resiliency preparedness plan for their interns. Most UN entities further failed to timely inform interns about their legal status in the foreign country they are stationed in. More than 11 per cent had their internship terminated abruptly, often at the request of – or under pressure by – the UN administration, and 40 per cent were forced to relocate, mostly without any guidance on repatriation matters:

“We had some informal discussions with our supervisor and staff members […] however, these conversations were initiated by us and took place rather late” (UN-Habitat Intern)

Analysing more in detail how different UN entities have been supporting interns during the pandemic, most paying entities such as ILO, UNDP and WHO, were also the ones which provided specific equipment and tools to continue internships remotely: 57 per cent of interns working for paying agencies received tools such as corporate laptop, headphones and VPN access against 32 per cent of non-paying agencies.

“Since interns are economically constrained, normally we have living arrangements that are not well suited for teleworking. Bad access to the internet, crowded apartments, no computer that works well, etc. This should be considered by HR and support should be provided.” (ILO Intern)

Non-paying agencies were leading with the highest percentage of internships that ended abruptly: 14 per cent of interns from non-paying entities had to terminate the program against seven per cent of interns from paying entities. Additionally, only 57 per cent of interns from non-paying entities compared to 79 per cent of interns from paying entities, were provided with guarantees concerning the continuation of their internship contract.

Both paying and non-paying agencies failed to implement resiliency preparedness plan for interns, with only 13 per cent of interns who were included in resiliency preparedness plans such as a one-time payment (UNEP) or the reimbursement of repatriation expenses (IFAD).

Covid-19-related measures also impacted the provision of stipends: 10 per cent of interns from paying UN entities such as WHO, IFAD and UN-Women reported that their stipend and, where provided, health insurance had been or would have been interrupted if they decided to leave their duty station to work elsewhere.

“I was advised to return to my home country to work remotely and told that I would be supported to work remotely. […] Several days after I arrived in my home country, I was informed that my stipend would not be paid because I am no longer in the duty station. I was not informed before I chose to return home.” (UN-Women Intern) 

While switching from an office-based to a remote internship, a substantial number of respondents reported feeling overwhelmed and left to their own devices. Remote internships have been linked with a loss of learning, mentoring, and networking opportunities for many interns whose learning experience has thus been transformed into an (unpaid) consultancy. The Fair Internship Initiative has reached out to the human resources departments of various UN entities requesting information on their internship policies during the pandemic. Even where policies were in place, survey findings revealed that some provisions have not been adequately communicated to interns and supervisors, resulting in a gap between policy its implementation. Multiple survey respondents also reported a feeling that intern-specific measures had not been sufficiently considered.

Overall, the survey reveals a considerable disparity between UN entities in providing support to interns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Issues related to unpaid and underpaid internships have been magnified, accentuating the disparity between interns who benefit from substantial support from their entities and interns who do not.

Although the current pandemic has presented the UN with unprecedented challenges, which prompted UN entities to take unforeseen measures, we believe that increasing the involvement of interns, and interns representative bodies, into decision-making processes is essential to ensure that interns’ needs and views are adequately taken into account and their rights protected. Furthermore, the UN administration should improve its channels of communication with interns to ensure that relevant information is shared and discussed in a clear and timely manner.

* The Fair Internship Initiative is a group of former and current UN interns advocating for quality and accessible internships in the UN system.