Correspondance of the Fair Internship Initiative with Mrs. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO


E-mail received by the Fair Internship Initiative from Mrs. Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, on August 31, 2016:

Dear Fair Internship Initiative,

Thank you for your follow-up mail on UN internships; effectively I would have like to have had more time to discuss and expand on the many questions and issues raised at the Global Leaders Series event hosted by the International Peace Institute on 21 June.

With regard to your specific question on accessibility and diversity of UN internships, I could not agree more on the importance of offering students from all over the world and from diverse backgrounds the opportunity of being emerged in a multicultural international workplace, learning and gaining knowledge and understanding of the UN environment, its mandate and programmes.  For information, last year alone, UNESCO had over 500 interns from various different nationalities assigned to either programme sectors (education, natural sciences, culture, communication/information, social and human sciences) or programme support areas related to their field of study both at Headquarters and in the Field Offices.  The Organization fully recognizes the needs and benefits of a diverse workforce hence is fully committed to building an inclusive workplace for all types of employees including internships.  Ensuring that internship programmes are open and accessible to all students from all walks of life is essential towards building such an inclusive workplace.  This is the underlying principle behind UNESCO’s internship programme which is, in fact, currently under review with the goal of further promoting an inclusive and appropriate framework for interns.

With regard to the issue of unpaid internships in the UN System, I am aware that there are different provisions amongst the UN agencies with regard to financial stipends and/or other forms of financial assistance.  UNESCO is also looking into this issue in the context of its review.  However, as you know, many agencies over the last years, including UNESCO, have been faced with major financial constraints in their budget which resulted, in some cases, in post abolitions and staff separations, hence, it is more difficult for some agencies who are faced with real-term budgetary constraints to consider providing or pronouncing on the issue of financial remuneration to interns.  This being said, this is an issue that merits further discussion amongst all agencies to ensure harmonious frameworks are applied across the system.  To that effect, I have asked UNESCO’s Director of HRM, to follow closely this issue with her HR Director counterparts.

Last, let me share with you some encouraging news on UNESCO’s quest for an inclusive, youthful and diverse workplace:  last year, UNESCO succeeded in relaunching the Young Professional Programme which had been suspended for some years and which resulted in the appointment of 16 young qualified graduates from under- and non-represented countries; the highest intake to date.  UNESCO hopes, in the coming biennium, to be able to hire more young qualified professionals from diverse backgrounds who bring with them fresh innovative ideas, skills and perspectives and who will contribute to the overall development of the UN’s workforce.

Thanking you once again for your mail,

Yours sincerely,


Irina Bokova

E-mail sent by the Fair Internship Initiative on August 30, 2016:

Dear Director General, Ms. Bokova,

The Fair Internship Initiative wishes to express its appreciation for your participation and availability to answer questions during the discussion  hosted by the International Peace Institute. We enjoyed the event and found your positions and ideas very informative.

We are writing as we would like to come back to the question of providing basic allowances to interns at the UN to make the internship program more accessible and diverse, which was raised at the event. Unfortunately you did not answer this question. We would like to inform you that we compiled all the different answers to that question, which we received from the different candidates for SG. This collection was published on the Fair Internship Initiative website. The link to this page has been published as part of an article on the issue in the Guardian and will soon be in the BBC Magazine, Le Monde and some other medias. We would like to offer you the opportunity to clarify your statement on this issue or express a change of opinion, to help us update our website in this regard.

We believe that the question of paid UN internships is of crucial importance for the UN to be recognized as a credible actor being coherent with all  principles it stands for, especially in light of  the 2030 agenda vis-a-vis, such as SDGs 8 and 10.

Internships at the UN provide a valuable experience for young people to improve their skills and  career prospects, but also to train new generations of leaders who will bear the responsibility of implementing the SDGs. However, as highlighted by the UN’s Joint Inspection Unit in its 2009 report, due to their largely unpaid nature, UN internships remain inaccessible to young people coming from an underprivileged  background.

The discriminatory effects of this policy are demonstrated by a recent survey, according to which 74% of all interns at the UN come from high-income countries, while only 3% come from low-income countries. Moreover, 78% of the interns would not have been able to afford the internship without the support of their families, which clearly indicates that household’s income constitutes a major element of discrimination for prospective applicants.

Furthermore, as internships constitute a main entry-point to a career in the UN, the lack of regional and socioeconomic diversity among interns also has a direct impact on the diversity of the UN staff in general. If, as the motto says, “the UN is about everybody”, then this situation should not persist.

Fortunately, some of the UN specialized agencies, such as the ILO, FAO, WFP, UNOPS and WIPO, already provide their interns with a stipend to cover basic living costs, while UNICEF has recently started a similar pilot program. This shows that a solution to the problem is possible.

We hope that you can take into account these arguments, when formulating your position on this important issue.

We wish you all the best for the upcoming Secretary-General selection, and look forward to your answer.

Best regards,

Fair Internship Initiative (FII)