Call for Action from Delegates to the 5th Committee

[2016 October ] This email was sent to Members States requesting them to call on the Secretary General to issue a report on the current internship policy during the Fifth Committee. 

Distinguished delegates to the Fifth Committee

The upcoming 71st United Nations General Assembly of the Fifth Committee consultations on agenda item 139, “Human Resources Management”, represents a historical opportunity for you to address the concern of thousands of young people around the world.

Interns represent a key component of the United Nations’ workforce; as figures in the most recent report of the Secretary-General on gratis personnel (A/71/360/Add.1) show, in 2014-15 there was a 10% increase in the number of unpaid interns compared to the previous biennium, amounting to a record-high 4,534 units in the Secretariat alone (compared to only a few hundred in the 1990s).

However, available official data show that the current unpaid internship policy fails to achieve a sufficiently diverse interns’ workforce, with developing countries being greatly underrepresented. At the same time, socio-economic diversity among current interns is also of concern: in the absence of official data, a survey carried out by the Fair Internship Initiative shows that only 29% of interns were able to secure at least some financial support from a sponsoring institution, while 76% would not have been able to do their internship if their family had not been able to provide some assistance.

As highlighted by the 2009 report of the Joint Inspection Unit on internships in the United Nations (JIU/NOTE/2009/2), the current policy not to provide any financial support to interns represents “a decisive factor” for otherwise highly-qualified young graduates not to participate in the programme, “simply because they could not afford to sustain themselves for such a period”. This equally affects both youth from developing countries, as well as an increasingly high number of graduates from developed economies, faced with rising levels of youth unemployment and mounting student debt.

By being accessible only to the few who can afford to live without any income in some of the most expensive cities in the world, unpaid internships foster inequalities among young people both between and within countries.

The lack of diversity among interns translates to the body of UN consultants and potentially impacts the pool of qualified candidates for UN staff positions. It is therefore important to ensure that access to the internship programme is granted on a fair, meritocratic and equal-opportunity basis.

Change is possible and examples of good practice exist. Some UN organizations (ILO, FAO, WFP, IFAD, UNOPS, WTO, WIPO, IAEA and others) already provide living stipends to interns. Policy coherence is needed across the UN to ensure that this becomes common practice.

The Fair Internship Initiative, on behalf of thousands of young people from all over the world and with the support of the Secretary General´s Envoy on Youth and dozens of youth organizations, kindly requests Member States to take action by requesting the Secretary-General to produce a report on this issue for consideration by the General Assembly. In our view, the report should:

  • Provide information on the demographics and conditions of service for interns in the Secretariat. No such report has previously been submitted by the Secretary-General to the General Assembly.
  • Provide possible options as of how a basic living allowance for interns who are unable to support themselves could be introduced and financed, including by reviewing the practices of other UN agencies and other large public sector organizations.
  • Propose a plan of affirmative action with concrete measures on how to increase the diversity of UN interns, by increasing the participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and from developing countries.
  • Propose a plan to increase the quality of internships including through the institutionalization of work plans that clearly define the goals, professional tasks and learning objectives of the internship, periodic reviews and guarantee of a minimum number of leave and sick days.
  • Consider providing interns with access a formal system of administration of justice (UNDT & UNAT).

We hope you will find our proposal reasonable and that you will be willing to support the voice of young people in this very important moment.

The linked background note provides further information and we stand ready for any questions you might have. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.


The Fair Internship Initiative