Good internships can launch great careers, so it’s easy to imagine the excitement David Hyde, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, must have felt when he got accepted as an intern for the United Nations. Too bad the internship was unpaid and based in Geneva, one of the world’s most expensive cities.
“The UN was clear about their intern policy from the start: No wage or stipend, no transport help, no food allowance, no health assistance,” Hyde told AFP. Undeterred, he decided to move to Geneva for six months, only to find that he could in no way afford rent. So he bought a tent, set it up by the lake, and lived there during the first two weeks for his internship. During the day, he stored his belongings in a backpack kept under his desk at work.
On Aug. 10, a local paper (link in French) wrote about him, and outrage about his situation quickly escalated.
People offered support and places to stay in Geneva, while pointing the finger at an unfair system that requires interns to work for free—at an organization that declares in its charter an intention to promote, amongst other human rights, “higher standards of living, full employment.”
While acknowledging the situation to be unfair, and personally sharing the belief that interns should be paid, Ahmad Fawzi, the UN spokesperson in Geneva, said Hyde was aware of the economical condition of the internship.
“Please don’t portray them [interns] as if this is forced labor,” he tells Quartz. “These graduates come here because they want to.” Further, he says interns are openly warned about the costs they will have to face once in Geneva—or in any other UN post where they are filling unpaid internships. “There is a questionnaire that has to be filled in,” said Fawzi, “and we trust them to give us the right information.”
Hyde admitted lying in the questionnaire about his ability to support himself during the internship: “I have to take responsibility for taking the internship in the first place,” he was quoted as saying, while adding he still thought the system to be set up in favor of those from privileged backgrounds.
“I hoped simply that my story could contribute to changing the situation of interns,” said Hyde to the Tribune de Genève.
“This was a good publicity stunt,” agreed Fawzi. But he says UN employees already were well aware of the situation of the interns, and that even high-level civil servants agree it needs changing. “We have been trying for years to change the rules, there have been demonstrations.” Given the large representation of interns in Geneva (there are 162 at the UN office alone, plus others who work at affiliated offices and related NGOs), the issue is hard to ignore.
There is, however, a question of funding. ”The members states need to agree—193 member states have to increase the UN budget so interns can be paid,” Fawzi told Quartz.
While Hyde’s story might not change the UN system, it at least helped his own situation—he received several offers of hospitality in Geneva, and ended up accepting the generosity of a fellow New Zealander. The internship didn’t go as hoped, however: amid all the media attention, Hyde quit on August 12, only two weeks into the job. “It’s my own decision and I chose to resign because I felt that it would be too difficult to continue to focus on my work as an intern at this stage,” he told AFP.
Update: Writing for The Intercept, Hyde admitted to sleeping in a tent as a publicity stunt, rather than as a choice dictated by necessity. Hyde wrote: “It seemed that in doing so I could hit two birds with one stone: It was an affordable way to live in Geneva with my limited funds — and the fact that a U.N. intern was living in a tent could help to raise awareness on the issue.”