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What the UN's unpaid internship drama says about inequality

Flickr: jareed

Last week, a 22-year-old from New Zealand became the world’s most famous intern.

All he had to do was sleep in a tent for nine days.

David Hyde resigned from his internship with the United Nations in Geneva amid an international media firestorm after a local paper revealed that he had been camping out after work each night, unable to afford rent in the sixth most expensive city in the world.

The reason David had to go to such lengths? His internship was unpaid.

Needless to say, David’s plight raises some thorny questions. For starters, how could someone working for one of the world’s foremost defenders of impoverished people find himself stuck in such a lousy situation?

That, David says, was the plan all along. He knew full well when he accepted the internship that he wasn’t going to be able to afford rent in Geneva—but instead of turning it down, he saw an opportunity to make a statement.

As David told the Intercept, “The hypocrisy was so clear to me — here are organizations like the United Nations, dedicated to human rights and fighting against inequality. Yet, the UN’s internship policy seemed to clearly contradict the values it claimed to stand for.”

If you ask me, David deserves a lot of credit for putting himself out there like this. It takes some serious chutzpah to accuse an organization as powerful as the UN of hypocrisy.

But David is just the latest player in a growing movement against unpaid internships. And the UN is by no means the only entity to run afoul of intern rights activists—just look at the Olsen twins’ company. Full disclaimer: even Global Citizen struggles with this issue.

The fact is, unpaid internships in every industry creates inequality by limiting the types of people who can accept them.

For every intern living in a tent (and I sincerely hope there aren’t anymore out there), there are a thousand candidates who turned down the job because of cost—or didn’t even bother applying.

The UN’s own internship numbers back that up: a UN representative in Geneva told the New York Times that the vast majority of the 275 interns working there are from developed nations.

For an organization that claims to represent the interests of the global community, that’s a pretty sorry statistic. Honestly, if a guy from New Zealand has to live in a tent to afford working for the UN, what chance does an aspiring intern from disaster struck and impoverished nations like Haiti or Nepal have?

Granted, this is a complex issue for candidate and company alike. I don’t doubt that a lot of companies, including the UN, would like to have a more diverse group of interns or pay their interns better—but there are real costs associated with that idealism.

Here at Global Citizen’s New York City headquarters, our interns do amazing work day in and day out, but technically they are unpaid (they get a stipend that reimburses travel expenses but that is obviously nowhere near what you’d call a living wage). The good news is, none of them are pitching tents in Central Park every night. Don’t worry, I checked.

Having done my time as an unpaid or underpaid intern for a variety of organizations, I understand the frustration that comes with feeling like your work is undervalued. But I have also reaped the rewards of internships that actually did what every internship should—namely, give people that oh-so-crucial first experience in the field of their choice in a way that actually builds their skill set, instead of just exploiting it.

And working at a company that has unpaid internships, I understand some of the economic realities that mean organizationseven as big as the UNcan't always afford to pay full wages for interns.

At the end of the day, David Hyde’s activist camping sparked a much-needed discussion about how something as small as a summer internship can contribute to structures that privilege the ambition of those with means, and neglect the potential of those without. For that, I applaud him.

I just wish I knew the answer to the prickly intern problem. What’s your take on unpaid internships? A necessary evil? Inexcusable no matter what? Share your thoughts in the comments section!