A few years ago, after my Masters in the UK, I was interested in a career in human rights and diplomacy. In these fields, the United Nations is what Lehman Brothers was to MBA graduates. An internship is the tried and tested way to become a UN official. I applied for one and got an internship from among 100-odd applicants at a UN office in London.
Our office dealt with refugees and was severely understaffed. I was the only one in charge of statistics. I had to come up with projections for the number of asylum seekers in the UK the next year. I had no idea how to get those numbers. So I just made them up. When you see trend reports and numbers by United Nations bodies, it is quite possible they have been cooked up by an intern like me.
Fundraising was another department I handled. One fund-raising event for civil-war ravaged Darfur cost more than the funds it raised. I complained about it and never got a response. My job also involved sending a personalised letter to every person who donated even a penny. I realised that a lot of lonely old people donated small amounts simply to get the letter.
I was overworked. On the other hand, I was not paid. Most UN interns have to do another job to support themselves. I stayed with people I knew to save on rent. In one overzealous moment, I quoted to the human resources head a guideline by another UN body, the International Labour Organisation, about universal minimum wages. The response I got was, “There were 100 other applicants. If you didn’t want it, you shouldn’t have taken it.”
I was also disillusioned. The United Nations is always at the mercy of governments which fund and host its offices. For example, the US and UK were supporting the war on Iraq and they wanted to say that it is peaceful out there. So why would they accept refugees from a peaceful country? And, therefore, they were refusing asylum applications.
Once the internship gets over, usually interns apply to a UN related job anywhere in the world and they get it. I packed my bags and came back to India.
(This young woman did an eight month stint with a UN body)
As told to Madhavankutty Pillai