With lots of new experiences and contacts, I went home from my internship in Moçambique. Five months of unpaid internship, however, stings the wallet. But I could afford to put this sought-after internship on my CV, which is a direct result of socio-economic privilege - and I think it needs to be noticed, writes Ellinor Berglund, former intern at the Swedish Embassy in Maputo.
In recent years, the number of unpaid internships increased exponentially, and so also the questions about the ethical aspects surrounding them. This development is noticeable in, among other things the international aid and development sector – where the UN plays a norm-defining role with their significant use of unpaid interns. IN mid 90s the UN had a few hundred unpaid interns a year. By 2014, this number had increased to 2 trainees per year, representing over one million hours of unpaid work.
In response to unpaid internships, several campaigns have been launched in social media. Already in 2015 created a UN intern headlines when he lived in a tent at the headquarters in Geneva during his internship to draw attention to the problem of unpaid internships.
Unpaid internships prevent people from economically marginalized backgrounds from accessing and benefiting from its opportunities, ultimately leading to less diversity in the sector. A kind of double standard that is hard to ignore plays out when the lack of diversity resulting from unpaid internships occurs in the same sector that proclaims its commitment to reducing global inequalities and promoting justice.
My internship was connected to Sweden's aid agency, Sida. In theirs plan for diversity, equality and inclusion can be read that it is "of course to strive to be a leader also when it comes to internal diversity". But how much diversity is there really among interns at an embassy like the one in Maputo when the interns themselves have to finance plane tickets for around SEK 10 and up, accommodation, food, visa application and vaccinations? For me, it does not rhyme with being a leader in internal diversity. As a Swedish student, there is usually the possibility to take out CSN in connection with an internship course, but this is money that must ultimately be repaid and the loan can only be taken out for a limited number of years.
Unpaid internships in the development and aid sector are often defended with an organization's "non profit" title. And why spend a limited budget on roles they can get young people to do for free in exchange for experience? Especially when these organizations encouraged to reduce the operating costs of grant funding. Arguments like these may seem logical – until one considers the fact that the ability to perform these practices is reserved for a certain privileged group, which is not in line with the mission of an organization designed to help people.
Many also believe that the purpose of unpaid internships is to offer experience, without the demands and responsibilities of an official position. This becomes contradictory as most of the trainees perform qualified tasks, something that was clear when my classmates and I went through what we had to do during our traineeships. In a thank-you speech during my last day at the internship, I was told, among other things, that "it's like saying goodbye to a colleague". When I think of that speech in retrospect, I can't help but think of the UN General explanation about human rights who mentions that “veveryone is entitled without discrimination to equal pay for equal work” and how ironic it is that this sector still offers unpaid internships.
Perhaps it is time for major international actors such as Sida, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the UN and others to also look inward and tackle the lack of diversity that the unpaid internships entail. The question is how much untapped skills and potential is lost with those who cannot afford to be unpaid. Can't we do better than that?