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Written by Nafisa Abdul Razak, JPC

The privilege of being able to undertake an unpaid international (or even an unpaid local) internship is still very much a Western, developed country and a wealthy family phenomenon. Individuals from developing countries, and from disadvantaged or marginalized circumstances, still cannot afford to undertake such endeavours. This is a problematic issue, in my opinion, because it manages to give more opportunities to the “haves”, the individuals from more privileged situations and countries, and effectively manages to bar a good range of “have-nots”, individuals from lesser privileged situations, from engaging in international work such as the work of the United Nations (UN). Yet, the inclusion of people from developing countries and disadvantaged situations is quite essential in civil society organizations and international organizations such as the UN. Without proper inclusion of people from developing countries, and of disadvantaged and marginalized individuals, the UN may be missing out on different and crucial voices, perspectives, and ideas that are oh-so-important for the type of work and projects we undertake. For example, in Kosovo, many of our projects places much importance on helping more youth and ethnic minorities. However, most of the people designing and implementing the projects were not youth nor ethnic minorities. While disadvantaged populations are always consulted about issues in their communities and how they would like to resolve it, they still struggle to qualify to work in jobs that can involve them more directly with issues that concern their communities.

We must also consider the educational factor of being able to work in organizations such as the UN. An individual needs to demonstrate quite a bit of educational attainment or have extraordinary work experience in order to qualify even for unpaid internships these days. This effectively manages to limit so many individuals in developing countries or individuals that come from disadvantaged and marginalized communities from partaking in internship opportunities they may be interested in because their educational attainment and their work and life experiences may not be deemed to be as worthy as the educational/work experience of more privileged individuals who went to, perhaps, more esteemed and world-recognized institutions and may have been able to afford many more years of education compared to many underprivileged individuals.

Most of us unpaid interns at the UNDP office in Kosovo (I am speaking from my personal experience here so I cannot speak for other UNDP offices) were from North America, Europe, or Australia. We came from relatively comfortable financial situations that allowed us to live in a foreign country for long periods of time without an income. We have to acknowledge the privilege we have to be able to say “Yes, I can” to unpaid opportunities such as this. The UN, and many such similar organizations, at the end of the day, are a whole lot more accessible to people from Western and developed countries compared to others. But this runs the risk of further turning the UN into an imperialist institution where Western “saviours” are essentially going into developing, and war- or conflict-stricken countries, to help them in paternalistic ways, and this is a problem because we are not adequately addressing the root causes of the issues that run rampant in these countries and are only exercising our saviour-complex without actually considering the situation of locals and how to truly improve it. The UNDP does have job opportunities open for locals for certain positions (its paid positions, thankfully). And this is great. However, it is quite unlikely that the local individuals hired could undertake unpaid internships in foreign countries, they just wouldn’t be able to easily afford that.

The UN is a worldly influential organization that is situated around the world, that helps disadvantaged and marginalized populations. And it is a sough after organization which is why it is understandable that it has unpaid internship opportunities. However, there are many problematic aspects to this organization as well which must be addressed for it to continue to be successful in its future endeavours. We must acknowledge the privilege of individuals that are able to undertake unpaid internships and realize it further widens the inequality of opportunities between the haves and the have-nots in society.


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