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WHO internships: what is the way forward?

By Oyetayo Akala
on April 30, 2018

Getting an internship with the World Health Organisation (WHO) was a very exciting opportunity for me. Prior to coming to Geneva, I started doing my research as to what working at WHO would entail. During my research, I stumbled across pictures of interns demonstrating outside the United Nations (UN) building carrying placards that read “Unpaid is Unfair” and “Pay your Interns”. The issue of unpaid internships at UN organisations is an issue that has been going on for decades. Some organisations such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF have created stipends for their interns but unfortunately, most have not headed in that direction.

On the 1st of July, 2017, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus took office for a five-year term as the Director General of WHO. Since resuming office, he has made efforts to speak with interns (the summer interns and the current winter interns) and also made mention of changing the internship experience during the Executive Board (EB) meeting that took place from the 22nd-27th January 2018 with all the member states in attendance. A lot of interns were pleased that he explicitly mentioned this issue at the EB meeting and so this pushed efforts for a Q&A session to be held with Dr Tedros.

At the Q&A session, Dr Tedros started by addressing interns as the seeds of the future, emphasizing that our interests help in mobilising young people which is important for the sake of partnership, participation and ownership. He further went on to speak about how we should own and help in shaping our future. The lack of remuneration is sending a different message around the importance of interns’ roles, however.

A question was asked to Dr Tedros on how he plans on tackling the issue of underrepresentation of interns from low and middle income countries (LMICs). He started off by saying “Talent is universal but opportunities are local” and that previous interns have proposed ways in which this issue can be resolved (see below).

He further went on to ask us to come up with our own ideas, combining the ideas from the current interns with those of previous interns in order to find a solution. He acknowledged that the main reason for this phenomenon (i.e. LMIC internship underrepresentation) is the lack of payment. Currently, WHO is discussing with some of its partners to see whether they can finance the costs of the internship for those from low and low-middle income countries while those from upper-middle and high-income countries would finance themselves.

Somebody else then asked if the 3% pay cut to WHO staff salaries could be used to fund interns. Dr Tedros responded by saying that WHO prefers the financing of the internship to come from other sources as the core funding (flexible) for WHO is only 20%, while the rest (80%) is earmarked funding. When the core funding is so small, it is difficult to cover anything outside the workforce that is fixed term, he said.

At the end of the Q&A session, Dr Tedros gave us a task as interns to form a working group on resource mobilisation to come up with ideas on how funds can be raised for future interns. It is quite alarming that WHO as an organisation still maintains that they cannot fund their interns and want to rely on interns to come up with ways to get money.

It seems like the voices of interns are being listened to but only in select areas. Current work being carried out by the Human Resources (HR) department based on issues raised by previous interns includes: (1) Recruitment: starting from the 15th of March, WHO has now launched a global call for all interns as opposed to having different regions/countries/headquarters having different calls for applications at different times. There is now one centralised system (Stellis) where each country, regional and HQ office will indicate how many interns they can take, for which area and when. (2) Orientation: currently, interns are just left to go with the flow once they arrive at the headquarters (HQ) but from now on, WHO plans to have 2 introductions every month where information will be provided on what WHO is about, its mission and its vision. (3) Accreditation: giving a certificate at the end of the internship. (4) Spreading the opportunity for diversity: they aim for shifting the current proportion (of 75% of interns from high-income countries and 25% from low-income countries).

However, it is important to note that spreading this opportunity in order to get more diversity is directly related to paying interns as most people from low or middle-income countries cannot afford to come for an internship.  The issue is most pertinent for LMIC internships in Geneva, obviously, given the cost of living in the Swiss city, but ideally, internships at regional and country offices should also be paid, even if they are more affordable.


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