My alternatives to unpaid UN internships and staff positions

The past days, two separate yet related news have been going around in international development circles: the unpaid UN intern living in a tent in Geneva, and short-term consultants (STC) working long-term at the World Bank. These two career pathways could open doors to international development professionals. Both can parlay into much coveted long-term staff positions and a rewarding career in these development organizations.

One can’t deny the ‘wow’ factor an internship at the UN could give a fresh graduate’s CV, or the networking possibilities of working at the World Bank headquarters even as an STC. But at what cost, and in the intern’s case, even literally? And are there alternatives?

As an undergrad, I enlisted to the Oblation Corps, which is part of the extension arm of the university which deploys volunteer students and professors to provide community service. They initially told me that I would be assigned to teach high school students over summer in a far-flung village in Quezon province, which is anywhere between three to six hours south of Manila, depending on where the village is exactly located. At the last minute, they re-assigned me to Negros Occidental, an island province in the mid-western part of the country. Together with two university associate professors and three other volunteers, we travelled overnight by ship, and spent two weeks teaching junior public high school students in preparation for their college admission tests as part of my university’s affirmative action program. The hosting municipality housed us right beside the classrooms, which the school must have used for its home economics classes. Every day, a local caterer brought food which served a simple meal and fed us including the students. Looking back, we were pampered, and the experience is quite luxurious for a volunteer work.

Fast forward two summers later, I volunteered for a month for a coastal resource management project with WWF-Philippines. I got a call from them telling me that a volunteer had to cancel at the last minute and they were looking for a replacement. They asked if I was interested, and I said yes right away, even if I had started volunteering for a non-profit in the business district. My new volunteer work was in Anilao, a coastal town known for diving. One of the perks then, was that our lodging was just a few steps away from the sea. Here I went snorkeling for the first time.

We were four volunteers, each working on different project functions. I was assigned with general day-to-day operations, from collating project documents to drawing maps of project sites on Manila paper that were used in community consultations. I bunked with another volunteer, and occasionally, we had free leftover food from official project gatherings. The organization also reimbursed our weekly travel expenses to and from the project site when we would go home on the weekends (coincidentally, the WWF headquarters is located in Gland, not too far from the UN in Geneva).

On my two internships during my stint in Germany, at Deutsche Welle in Bonn and the World Future Council in Hamburg, I received an honorarium of 400 Euros per month. There must be a German law somewhere there that encourages firms to pay their internships however meager. Deutsche Welle gave me a peek into a media organization where I sharpened my writing skills. It has served me well even in my current job which entails translating technical documents into bite-size information. Meanwhile, the highlight of my other internship was being sent to Copenhagen to assist in the UNFCCC COP meeting back in 2009.

The recent report on the ‘long-term short-termers’ also makes me think about my own situation as a local consultant in an international organization similar to the World Bank. Do I want to be a national consultant long-term, earning less than my international counterparts? Sure, I am conducting research and communications work, maybe not as exciting than directly working to turn around a faltering Asian economy, or assembling a cutting edge econometric model that will predict the flux of labor in the garments sector in India. I’ve made amends with my professional strengths and limitations. What matters to me now is the flexibility of my job (work from home!) and its relaxed pace which allows me to do things that I love after office hours.

There are other viable opportunities out there to build your skills and your profile beyond that much-coveted UN internship. Meanwhile, any less than perfect opportunity, like short-term contracts, should have an upside to it, whether monetary or otherwise, such as flexible work hours (I chuckled when the auto-correct function changed it to “workhorse” – not that different, I guess), telecommuting, or level-headed supervisors to allow you of these little ‘perks’.

What about you? Would you intern for a non-UN and less renowned organization which offers a meager stipend, or maybe take on a short-term contract knowing you’ll be in such position long-term? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



  1. I received a 6 months internship offer from UN in Geneva last year but I rejected it because my Erasmus Mundus savings/allowance will not be enough to cover the monthly living expenses there. Moreover, even if I did the internship, I will not be hired afterwards because of the 6 months non-hiring rule.

    Anyhow, these NGOs have various projects tied up with government agencies in developing countries where you can apply as a Consultant or Project Staff. I have a World Bank brand on my resume because I worked for a World Bank Project being implemented by a Philippine government agency. Even if you are directly hired by the government agency, all your details will be sent to World Bank. The Project is a good opportunity not just to get inside contacts but as well as to build your profile and skills. Moreover, familiarity with the NGO’s procedures would be an advantage. The high salary would just be an added bonus.


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