Paying UN interns: What to push for and whom to push?

Photo by Konstantin Kleine -

Photo by Konstantin Kleine –

The case of David Hyde, an unpaid intern in the United Nations Conference for Trade and Development, living in a tent on the shores of Lake Geneva still lingers fresh in our minds. David is one of the more than 4,000 unpaid interns working in the UN system worldwide every year. The story went viral on social media and drew attention from major news media around the world, criticizing the inconsistency of a system that on the one hand promotes human rights and the fight against inequality, and on the other implements a contradictory non-remuneration policy for its own interns.

It is easy and clearly logical for people and for most of the UN interns to point the finger at the UN Secretariat for this unfair policy. Responding to the criticism, Ahmad Fawzi, the Spokesperson of the United Nations Office at Geneva, suggested that the only way to change the policy would be through a General Assembly resolution passed by Member States. Stéphane Dujarric, the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General, expressed the same attitude and suggested that the UN budget should always be reviewed and approved by Member States.

It appears that everyone at least agrees to pursue the cause of a fairer UN internship policy. The people of Geneva showed sympathy by offering the ex-intern housing and a means of transportation; fellow interns organized a series of protests in front of Geneva’s UN Headquarters, Palais des Nations, and recently penned an open letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and even UN staff are willing to advocate on this issue. “We are not allowed to (pay interns) even if we want to and believe me, we want to,” Fawzi said.

If what the UN spokespeople say is true, then pointing our finger solely to the UN Secretariat will get us nowhere. What we need is a better understanding of the UN’s complex budgeting and administration mechanism, least we want this issue to be batted around like a ping pong ball.

In an official UN press briefing, Fawzi mentioned that there is a General Assembly resolution that prohibits the UN Secretariat from paying their interns. This statement was corrected and he referred to an Administrative Instruction (ST/AI/2014/1 on United Nations internship programme) instead to base the policy. It is stated in the instruction that interns are not financially remunerated by the United Nations (section 7). However, an Administrative Instruction is promulgated and signed by the Under-Secretary-General for Management: Member States do not have any direct involvement in its creation.

Internship policy in UN Resolutions

UN internship programme has been active since the 1950’s, and where first implemented by the Office of Public Information of the United Nations, as authorized by the General Assembly.

The rationale of the internship programme at the UN has always been educational, as mentioned in an expert committee’s report on UN public information A/3928 (par. 158). The objective of the programme was to provide the participants with an opportunity to acquire a deeper understanding of the principles, purposes and activities of the United Nations by using the facilities for work and study available at the United Nations.

At the inception, the UN Secretariat allocated a budget to provide stipend but not (always) travel expenses. The General Assembly accepted the Fifth Committee’s recommendation to approve a limited amount of $72,000 for the internship programme in 1958 to finance the stipends of 60 interns and travel expenses for 20 guide-interns working in the UN Headquarters at that time.

However, Member States passed the resolution A/RES/1335(XIII) on public information activities of the United Nations during the same year and mandated the UN Secretariat to carry on public information activities with the maximum of effectiveness at the lowest possible cost (par. 1).

This seems to be the turning point where the UN Secretariat started to decrease their budget for the internship programme and finally stopped financing their interns until now.

There was at least one effort of the UN Secretariat to revive the programme. This time the term “internship programme” was clearly stated in a resolution clause. Dated back in 1994, the General Assembly decided to postpone the implementation of internship and fellowship programmes proposed by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, because of a lack of resources (A/RES/49/222 on human resources management, par. 7).

Interns as gratis personnel

Since then UN interns have always been explicitly considered “gratis personnel” as documented in the “Secretary-General’s report to the General Assembly, on gratis personnel provided by Governments and other entities”, A/51/688, in 1996. Gratis personnel can be understood as personnel whose financing is not borne by the United Nations.

Together with associate experts and technical cooperation experts, interns are considered type I gratis personnel, differentiating them with the non-conventional type II gratis personnel such as gratis military officers in peacekeeping operation and gratis personnel dedicated to tribunals and humanitarian programmes.

The salaries of all of these types of gratis personnel are, essential, paid by the institutions of their home countries, except for interns. Interns are responsible for their own financing, or must find sponsoring institutions who will support them.

Following the 1996 report, Member States passed (without voting) the first resolution on gratis personnel in 1997 (A/RES/51/243). It doesn’t specifically address type I gratis personnel nor does it mandate a review of the policy of considering interns as gratis personnel. The latter removes the obligation for the UN to pay their interns and eliminates the chance for a specific budget allocation to remunerate interns, hence putting the UN Secretariat in a cul-de-sac with the non-remuneration policy.

Photo by Konstantin Kleine -

Photo by Konstantin Kleine –

Changing the policy

General Assembly resolutions dictate how the UN Secretariat should work, but do not prohibit the Secretariat from proposing policy change.

Switching the financing responsibility to donor Governments is not preferable, as it would likely worsen the already imbalanced geographical distribution of interns in the system. It risks increasing the number of interns coming from the already overrepresented developed countries.

What is needed today is the removal of interns from the gratis personnel classification to enable the UN to allocate budget and finally pay their interns. Unfortunately, passing a new policy in the UN system with 193 Member States is usually complex and takes years.

The 1997 resolution on gratis personnel stresses that the programme of work and mandates approved by the Member States must be financed in the manner determined by the General Assembly, based upon proposals of the Secretary-General (par. 2). Secretary-General proposes a programme and the budget it entails to be reviewed by the Advisory Committee of Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) and to be recommended by the Fifth Committee to the General Assembly for approval voting.

Hence, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can always submit a new internship scheme and a new budget proposal including remuneration for 4,000 UN unpaid interns worldwide, which would accumulate to $29 million a biennium. That is almost 0.53% of the UN budget for the ongoing biennium. It seems that, with that amount of budget, the Secretary-General need to find an argument stronger than to promote better understanding of the activities of the United Nations, as it is the purpose of the UN’s internship programme, to justify this expenses to the General Assembly.

However, realistically speaking, knowing that interns’ issues have never been raised as a main discussion in the General Assembly, the proposal would become an unlikely prospect if the commitment from Member States is not there.

A different approach to pursue the cause

Pushing for a policy change in the UN system, one should not only focus on lobbying the UN Secretariat. Looking at the dynamic between the UN Secretariat and the Member States especially on the issue of internship policy, the advocacy should be targeted also to Member States. At the end of the day, as the resolutions and Spokespeople suggest, Member States are the ones who have the decisive role.

And it is such a great timing, as the General Assembly will open its 70th session next month, that the backers of this cause should put more focus on approaching all Member States so that they discuss and pass a resolution to remove interns from gratis personnel classification and improve the situation of UN interns.

It will be of course another challenge with another level of difficulty, i.e. how many country missions implementing remuneration policy for their interns? But once the commitment from Member States is acquired, the UN Secretariat will have no choice but to implement a better and fairer UN internship policy.

Amri Priyadi is a student in the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and currently an unpaid intern in the United Nations Information Service, Geneva.