By Michael Chong, MIPP Graduate (2017)

There’s a point in Geneva where the cold and murky river Arve, which comes down from the French Alps and the glaciers of the Chamonix valley, joins the clear and calm Rhone river flowing from lake Geneva. You can walk out to the point where they meet and watch a distinct margin dividing the two rivers gradually dissolve as they merge into each other.

In my first month settling in as an intern at UNICEF Geneva, I’ve had the chance to reflect, both on a personal level and more broadly, on the meeting and mixing of interns into the “Geneva Ecosystem”. Geneva is a city that plays host to the headquarters of 32 international organizations and over 250 non-governmental organizations, not to mention the diplomatic missions of member states, and academic and research institutions like the Graduate Institute and CERN. Geneva has the highest concentration of UN personnel in the world. It also has a lot of interns, many of whom (particularly at the UN) are unpaid.

On a personal level, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ll take from this internship, how I am able to bring value to the organization, and how well my education has prepared me for this work. Working in the Children’s Rights and Business Unit, as part of the Public Fundraising and Partnerships Division, I work within the division’s global headquarters. This gives me a broad (if distant) perspective into UNICEF’s structure and operations.

In my first weeks here, I’ve had to be able to pick up on the particularities of how UNICEF operates – something I hadn’t learned about coming from academia. For example, one of the first things I needed to understand was the structure of the organization: UNICEF’s representation at a country level is divided into Country Offices and National Committees. Country Offices carry out UNICEF’s operations and implement programmes at a national level, and generally are located in developing countries. National Committees are usually affiliated NGOs registered in the (typically industrialized) countries where they operate, and are not  part of UNICEF or the UN. National Committees primarily carry out fundraising and advocacy work. As a result of this structure, UNICEF is one of the more successful UN agencies at gaining recognition and raising funds for its programmes for children. However, it sometimes means that aligning funding and programme priorities can be a challenge (more on this in a later blog, probably).

While coming from academia to the field has meant there are things I still need to learn, I do appreciate having experience in picking up a new topic and being able to quickly dive into it, and then being able to structure and produce a brief on the issue. For example, recently I was asked to put together a brief on a company’s sustainability strategy to inform potential new avenues of engagement with UNICEF. While there were a couple of challenges at first – understanding the audience for the brief within the organization and their prior experience on the issue; and getting used to using internal reports and sources outside of strictly peer-reviewed articles – being able to critically identify key issues and then produce recommendations was a process that felt pleasantly familiar. Writing policy briefs on a broad and interdisciplinary range of topics was something we were asked to do constantly in the MIPP program, a practice that definitely helped me to develop this skill.

In addition to reflecting at a personal level on settling into my position in UNICEF, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with other interns about how they are settling in to life in Geneva. It’s well known that the majority of interns working for the UN in Geneva are unpaid, and you’ll often hear about the story of an intern who lived out of a tent by the lake in order to protest unpaid internships. The cost of living is pretty high here, and a number of intern associations have formed to advocate for pay. The unpaid intern life provides something of a contrast to the paid staff you might meet working in the financial sector, diplomatic missions, the international organizations, or elsewhere in the “Geneva ecosystem”.

But at the same time, it is true that these internships provide unique opportunities and insights into the organization that are not available to others – quite a few staff that I’ve met have been interns at some point in their past lives (though this is much less common now). Of course,I still think interns should be paid – but not paying interns disadvantages those who don’t have access to the resources needed to make an internship possible, even if they are much more qualified. Those like myself who are able to make it work are impacted less so. So while you could say there is a margin between the flow of unpaid interns and the paid staff of the ‘Geneva ecosystem’, there’s an even further gradient of opportunity for those who are not even able to join the flow.

So as I peer down over the river after one month, I’m looking forward to settling in further to my position at UNICEF and to life as an intern in Geneva. There’s also been a lot to enjoy here – in addition to keeping busy at work and attending events hosted at international organizations and academic institutions, I’ve managed to go on some beautiful hikes in the area. And with the arrival of the snow, soon it will be ski season.