03| Why paid internships aren’t the answer.

This summer, I have been interning in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the WWF regional office. The building bustles with activity, the beautiful trilling chatter of Khmer drifts daily through the air, wafting around to reach me in my assigned cubicle. I am home early in the evenings though, a habit that any female alone in a strange city is prone to fall into. As I pass my nights quietly, safely ensconced in my temporary home, I have begun to pay more attention to the news.

The latest scandal that caught my eye is one you may have heard about – the infamous UN intern in Switzerland who was living in a tent because he lacked the funding to pay Geneva’s steep rental prices. I cycled through a dizzying slew of emotions while following the story. At first, it was outrage. Why wouldn’t they pay him for his time and efforts? That he would have to live in a tent to The dedication of interns like David Hyde and myself is fueled by a pressing and very real fear that without prior experience, we will never break into the highly competitive world of international affairs and development cooperation.

I have always wanted to pursue a career in the international field, and to do so it seemed that an internship was necessary (or at least highly desirable).

But unlike other times of the year, when I might have stopped there and gone onto another topic, my mind continued to twist and turn. Delving deeper into the topic, I quickly discovered Hyde’s interview with the Intercept, admitting that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. While that in itself has problems, I chose to ignore them, in favor for writing of his actions instead. In defense of himself, Hyde said:

There is nothing extreme about what I hoped to achieve: a recognition of the rights interns deserve.

A noble ideal. But there’s a problem.

If Hyde is trying to advocate for “people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds [that] are unable to do these internships in the first place”, as he so claims in the article, a simple blanket ban of unpaid internships doesn’t benefit anybody. 

The argument for a blanket ban goes something like this –

“Sure, if companies had to pay interns, there would certainly be less internships available. But this allows for meritocracy rather than financial ability to have a larger role in the selection process! Internships would become less of a must-have resume item for job applicants and more of a way to recognize excellence. Everyone wins!”

Theoretically, this might work. Realistically? Never in a million years. I’m not trying to shoot down the idea of a paid internship, as they are a mark of achievement for those who do qualify, but reducing the number of unpaid internships simply doesn’t make sense. Are companies going to pay someone to sort through literally thousands of applications for a very limited amount of internships? No. Much more likely, larger organizations would quit allowing interns entirely, and use that same money to hire consultants (that they certainly have more control over contractually) instead.

A law like that would also mean interning at organizations like charities and activist groups that don’t have the funds to spare would just be completely out of the question. With internships, those kinds of organizations get hardworking labor for almost no cost. Hyde criticizes the UN in specific, as it is a prolific advocate for equal rights and livable pay. However, if the UN wanted to pay its current number of 4,018 interns, The Economist notes that it would “struggle to find the money to do so. Paying 4,000 of them would cost up to $14.5 million USD per year, yet the UN has been cutting staff owing to budget shortfalls”.

More importantly, interning is a great way to gain experience and a key tool in helping the intern to decide if it’s really a field they want to spend the rest of their life in. Being able to add the symbol of a high-profile organization like the UN to one’s resume certainly helps their chances of a better position later in life anyway, so it isn’t as if interns aren’t getting anything out of the deal.

Rather than an across-the-board mandate that everyone should be paid, shouldn’t we simply give aid to those with less privilege? What about those from developing countries? The same Economist article points out that 61% of all interns are from developed countries, despite only making up 15% of the world’s population.

Let’s get all these other people a foot in the door first, David Hyde, before even protesting what interns deserve or not. Whatever solution we do arrive at simply needs to be flexible, as there are a wide range of industries that offer internships and an even wider range of people who would like to intern.

The featured image was found on The Guardian’s website.

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