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Why do an UN(paid) internship? One young humanitarian’s perspective on the benefits of interning at the UN

This blog is part of HAG’s 5th birthday series. To see our story, check out our 5-year timeline.

Entering the humanitarian work force can be more than challenging. Truthfully, it can be ridiculously difficult! To secure a job you need a university degree to hang on the wall, as well as field and professional experience you can casually discuss in your job interview. Understandably, it can be easy to lose faith as a young professional when even entry-level jobs require a master’s degree and a minimum two-years relevant work experience. So how exactly do you get the experience that will help score you a job?

One path to professionalism is to undertake an internship or traineeship that will give you direct insight into the work of an organisation, and valuable expertise in a certain field. However, for many young graduates an unpaid, or very-little-paid, internship may not seem like it’s really worth it, or might not even be financially possible. Many will wonder if they’ll even gain enough experience to validate working for free, and whether they’ll really be given any real responsibility.

The answer to these queries is not straightforward, and is ultimately dependent on personal circumstance. Writing as a relatively privileged young humanitarian who can afford to slave away for little-to-no money, I will share with you some of the reasons I am more than happy that I chose to support the Emergency Services Branch (ESB) of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, as an intern.

In the Midst of Action

The UN makes up an integral part of the humanitarian system, and thus makes a valuable starting point for anyone wishing to enter the sector. If location is key, being in the central hub of international humanitarian action simply cannot be wrong. Taking on a short term role at the UN has allowed me access to many interesting forums and discussions, which have not only opened my eyes to the many alternative career paths I may take, but also provided me with great networking opportunities. By simply being at the UN you meet a wide range of interesting people, representing everything from the N to the G to the O, as well as national representatives, intergovernmental bodies and individual consultants. At the least, Palais des Nations is a door-opening environment, where you may very well meet your future employer.

Speaking the Lingo

During my short stay here in Geneva I have been immersed in the nitty-gritty details of Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) efforts, and can now proudly announce that I can fluently speak in abbreviations and actually find myself using rather technical language when referring to USAR practice. I have learnt much of the intricate coordination that takes place off field, in the background of humanitarian crisis responses, and am certain that this will prove more than useful for my future deployable self.

Cheat Sheet of the System

If you happen to nail casual everyday networking and meet your future employer while scouting the corridors of the UN, your insight into, and knowledge of, the UN system will be useful both within and outside the organisation. You will know who, what and when; it’s like having a cheat sheet on the core functions of the international humanitarian system. And while you’re still in the system you have access to a range of online learning opportunities, which are an excellent way to boost your resume with courses ranging from field security to how to prevent sexual harassment.

Inside stories

Perhaps the most exciting part of being at the UN is the depth of experience that you will be surrounded by. The colleague to your right might have deployed to Syria, the Nepal earthquake and managed the Peru floods, while the colleague to your left might have been stationed in the Middle East region for several years. Everyone has been somewhere, and has plenty of stories to tell. It’s as if you’re surrounded by adventure junkies, each new story you hear being a little crazier than the last.

… So do you get any real responsibilities?

The nature of your tasks will depend on your background and in which section you end up. Ultimately it is up to you to show interest in, and ability to, take on responsibilities, which in my experience, staff are more than happy to give you. Trust is a two-way thing, prove that you are capable, and you will get to do the fun stuff.

Finally, the Golden Question

The answer to ‘is it worth it?’, ironically enough, can only be answered after you decide to do, and have finished, an internship. There is of course much value in entertaining any opportunity to gain professional experience, however in the case of interning without pay, it often is the flexibility of our wallets that decides whether we choose to say yes or no. Although, what we should actually be asking is what we expect the outcomes of our internships to be. If it is to glean experience and a better understanding of the system, then the answer is a straightforward YES – ‘it is worth it’! If you want a job, then the experience will up your chances – but as with anything in life, nothing is guaranteed. Ultimately, you are in charge, so make whatever you choose to do worth it!

Emma Jidinger is a former Humanitarian Advisory Group intern, a current intern at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, and will soon commence a position as an Analyst at a Security & Risk Management company in Stockholm.