Fighting for Pay: The Fair Internship Initiative

"The most confusing aspect of this is that these unpaid internships stand directly in opposition to the fundamental values of the UN and its major movements such as the Sustainable Development Goals - particularly SDG10, which calls for “reduced inequalities”."

By Samuel Pennifold, Editor in Chief

Geneva routinely comes out closer to the top end of global rankings of the world’s most expensive cities. Rankings from 2022 placed Geneva as the 7th most expensive city in the world to live in, only losing out to Zurich as the most expensive European city. Even 55-cent Prix Garantie lager and trips to Lidl can do little to offset this, and yet hundreds of UN interns face the prospect of not being paid.

It is commonplace to see unpaid internships advertised at some of the most prestigious international organisations and major companies around the world. Unpaid internships, especially among academic and international organisation circles, have become a right of passage for young professionals. 

The effect of this is leaving hundreds of young people in precarious and stressful situations, where only those with the financial resources to be able to support themselves can take advantage of these opportunities. This system blocks those from low-income backgrounds from gaining an often vital early foothold in such competitive fields.

Whilst a letter of recommendation may be a valuable reward for working hard at an internship, it doesn’t put food on the table or a roof over your head. It can be such a struggle to afford accommodation in Geneva that in 2015 one UN intern was found sleeping in a tent on the shores of lake Geneva.

The Graduate Press recently spoke to Pippa from The Fair Internship Initiative (FII), who fights for fair compensation for UN interns. She told me of her own experiences as a UNHCR intern, having to rely on the support of a partner when the small stipend provided did not come close to covering her basic living costs in Geneva.

Pippa spoke of how fortunate she felt for the invaluable experience she gained from being able to complete the internship; however, Pippa, who does not come from a wealthy background, told me that had it not been for her partner there “was no way I would have been able to do that”. Through her experience, Pippa also become aware of people who were “the best candidates according to the procedure but could not do the internship as they would not be able to afford it”. 

One of the most profoundly confusing aspects of unpaid UN internships is that they stand directly in opposition to the fundamental values of the UN and its major movements such as the Sustainable Development Goals – particularly SDG10, which calls for “reduced inequalities”. One of the reasons it has been so difficult to create meaningful change has been that UN intern salaries are tied to a UN general assembly vote and therefore would require another one to overturn the rules preventing UN interns from being paid. 

In the face of this, the FII still believes they can make a positive change. The UNHCR has recently worked with the FII to improve stipend conditions for interns, to increase access to their organisation. Many other UN organisations who have independent control over their budgets are also taking steps towards opening up their organisations and making their internships more financially inclusive. But this is not universal and the UN secretariat itself has been less open to change. 

Nonetheless, groups like the FII are continuing to attempt to establish a fairer and more open UN – one that does not perpetuate class divides but looks to alleviate them. The UN should be a symbol of the future, not the past. 

To get involved with the FII you can look at their website here and follow them on social media @fairinternshipinitiative.

Whilst you are here!

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If you can, we are currently accepting donations via our GoFundMe page.

And if you would like to be involved with The Graduate Press and the 5th-anniversary edition you can email us at or via Instagram.

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