27 Aug

The elephant in the room: Unpaid internships in international development

If unpaid internships in international development are so wrong, why is so little done to make things right?


Source: Untitled 1969-1970, The artist’s uncle Adyn Schuyler Senior with his assistant Jasper Staples in Cassidy Bayou, Mississippi, by William Eggleston

I recently went to the exhibition of William Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London (highly recommended). The photograph above drew me in for two reasons. Firstly, Eggleston’s artistic eye is iconoclastic. He composes the image using a series of lines (diagonal, horizontal and vertical) while still allowing the two men to take centre stage.

Eggleston’s talent is what drew me in but what made me stay is the relationship between the two men. Despite the space between them, their mirrored body language connects them hinting at a form of relationship between the two.  The man to the left is Eggleston’s uncle, Adyn Schuyler Senior and standing on the right is Senior’s assistant Jasper Staples. The ambiguity of their relationship makes me questions whether their relationship is framed by mutuality or an imbalance of power.  Who is emulating who? If Staples emulating Senior, is he doing so out of closeness or respect to Senior’s presumed authority? Eggleston did not like people interpreting his work; he wanted us to take everything at ‘face value’ yet ‘face value’ in my opinion is a form of subjectivity itself.

The relationship between Staples and Senior in the image above is simultaneously hypervisible and invisible. The mirrored body language and the central place they take in the image hints at a connection but the lack of contact and little knowledge of the two men, all we can do is speculate about the nature of their relationship.

Much like the relationship between Senior and Staples, the issue of unpaid internships in international development has become one that is marked by hypervisibility and invisibility. Despite being a notorious issue in the sector, almost every detail we know about this trend of work is speculative. Aside from data about the number of unpaid interns in the United Nations or the estimates on how much it would cost to pay them not much more is available to explore this trend of work. There are so many definitions of unpaid internships, however, I specifically refer to arrangements of non-remunerated work where an individual works at an organisation for the perceived benefits of professional experience, skills development and professional contacts.

Earlier this week, the Guardian published an article by the Fair Internship Initiative Geneva calling for the United Nations (UN) to pay its interns. Their recommendations echoed an earlier post by Elodie Sellier, a member of the Subcommittee of the European Parliament Stagiaire Association on Fair Internships, who also advocates for a systematic reform to the endemic culture of unpaid internships in Brussels.

There are two principle issues which make unpaid internships in international development problematic.  The first issue is access of opportunity. Critics of unpaid internships argue that the perceived benefit of unpaid internships as an entry route into the sector, is not legitimate because this option is only for those that can afford to work for free (i.e. the economically privileged). According to Ian Richards, Executive Secretary of the UN Staff Council, this assumption is also shared by decision-makers with the authority to end the practice of unpaid internships. Richards reportedly stated that one of the reasons UN General Assembly are slow to institutionalise paid internships within the UN are due to ‘concerns that so many interns are from developed countries’.  In addition, the correlation between unpaid internships as an access route is optimistic at best as, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), ‘there is limited evidence that this type of job {part time and temporary employment} improves young people’s chances of transitioning to full-time open-ended employment.’

The second issue regarding unpaid internships is the quality of opportunity. If we compare the idea of unpaid internships in international development, they are in opposition to the standards laid out in International Labour Organisation’s definition of decent work.  According to ILO, decent work provides ‘opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.’

Unpaid internships are productive work that do not deliver income or job security due to the nature of the temporary work arrangements. There are no standardised social protections for families and the perceived prospects for personal development and social integration are potentially outweighed by the insecure and low pay nature of the work. However, opportunities for people to organise are growing with the rise of civil society initiatives.

Why does this trend exist and why is the progress to reform it so slow?

I have two theories. Lack of funding has been cited as the reason why interns and entry level positions are not paid or paid insufficiently for the individual to live off the income. This type of thinking has led to a race-to-the-bottom scenario, where the conditions of remuneration are increasingly worsened under the justification that funding is not available to pay people fairly.

The prevalence of unpaid and vulnerable entry level work in international development reflects wider trends in youth employment globally. On Wednesday, The World Social Employment Outlook report on Youth Employment Trends was released, revealing some astounding figures on the situation of youth employment globally and regionally. Youth unemployment rates are increasing with an estimated 71 million young people now unemployed. The ratio and absolute number (156 million) of young people in working poverty (people with a job but not earning enough to live off the income) has increased and so has the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET). Furthermore, as the age bracket increases so does the number of young people classified as NEET, highlighting the long term effects of not being able to secure stable work.

Young people are now the age group most at risk of working in low pay, low security job arrangements ‘often associated with lower wages, limited access to training, slow career advancement and lower levels of social protection, all of which combine to undermine youth prospects in the labour market and their income potential.’

Moreover, young people are increasingly working in jobs that they are over-qualified for due to a shortage of opportunities matching their educational qualifications. This not only depreciates their prospects in the labour market in the long run but can affect their psychological well-being and sense of agency.

The long-term consequences

Unpaid internships in international development have long-term consequences for the sector which must not be underestimated.At the ideological level, the systemic practice of unpaid internships normalises us into thinking this is what should be expected. This is why the most active voices on the issue of unpaid internships are lobby groups and advocates working to disrupt the status quo. According to Elodie Sellier, the prevalence of unpaid internships also distorts the labour market in the long run, as it reduces the incentive to create paid positions which are currently being filled for free.

On a micro level, unpaid internships impact the capability of work to be an enabler of human development. In international development, people often undertake several internships, some or all unpaid, before making an entry in to their profession. Long periods of casual and insecure work have negative effects on one’s professional development, personal development and overall well-being.

So how do we move forward in challenging this?  Lack of political will within the sector is a huge barrier and is the first step to acknowledging and addressing this type of work as a problem.

I propose a few strategies, to be done in conjunction:

Advocacy and lobbying

At present, there are several organisations working to change the practice of unpaid internships within the sector and other industries in the work force. They employ a series of really informative tactics to raise public awareness, engage senior policy decision-makers and develop citizen-led accountability tools to monitor organisations. However, with little research and data available, building a case often relies on anecdotal evidence or high profile stunts to bring the issue back to public discourse.

Research and data

The missing link to address this issue is the availability of sector wide research and data on unpaid internships. There is no agreed definition of what unpaid internships are in the sector. Definitions used to describe similar work, such as ILO’s measurement of ‘volunteer work’ discount unpaid internships on the basis that they are ‘compulsory’. In addition, research on decent work can help us to define the new norm of entry level work opportunities. Beyond remunerated work, what qualifies as entry level decent work in the sector? Should the responsibility lie at the institutional/organisational level or with national government agencies to implement and monitor these frameworks? Actively advocating for funded research into this issue should be a key agenda.

Diversity of voices within the movement

There are few contributions from young professionals from ‘emerging’ and ‘developing’ countries and the conditions and challenges they face breaking into the sector. A movement calling for equality in access should necessarily foster diversity within its movement to gain a more representative understanding on how unpaid internships affect the development of the individual and the sector across the world.  Even though the most active (= high profile) advocacy and lobby groups are based in the Global North i.e Geneva and Brussels, they cannot be the only ones noticing the elephant in the room.


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