World Health Organisation Announces Decision to Pay its Interns for the First Time
WHO Office in Geneva, Switzerland (Photo: MightyCasey media)

Three years after the story of a UN intern living in a tent on Lake Geneva made global headlines, one arm of the UN has announced its decision to begin paying its interns. The World Health Organization (WHO) is to offer paid internships for the first time to boost access for those applying from developing countries.

The WHO with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland employs almost 1200 interns every year across its offices in six other countries. These interns are not paid and are expected to fund their own boarding and expenses to work with UN’s health arm. Similarly, the UN had more than 38,000 interns between 2009 and 2017, but more than 80% (about 30,400) were unpaid.

The UN says that it would like to pay interns, but claims its hands are tied by a resolution passed in 1997 that forbids the payment of non-staff. Yet unpaid internships existed for decades before. The resolution in fact simply acknowledges an old, ad hoc practice.

According to the BBC, for the average internship duration of six months with the WHO an intern would have to shell out $5000 dollars to live in Geneva – one of Europe’s most expensive cities. This obviously eliminates international students from developing countries who do not have access to such funds apart from funding their own education.

But after a campaign led by a former intern, the UN agency has agreed to provide full financial support for its young workers by no later than 2020. It said that funding for 50 interns per year had already been secured from the Wellcome Trust, a London-based medical research charity, but said "more support was needed".

A representative of the organisation told the BBC that targets are also in place to ensure that 50% of interns come from developing countries by 2022. "It's unacceptable that 80% of WHO's work goes into supporting people in developing countries, yet only 20% of their interns come from them," says Ashton Barnett-Vanes, 29, a British doctor of English and Jamaican heritage from Wolverhampton, who started the campaign after his internship in 2012.

More than 100 UN states have no participants each year, while 50 countries - including Angola, Barbados, Cambodia, Cuba and Libya - did not have a single WHO intern between 2015 and 2017, according to WHO data.