12 Aug Paid vs Unpaid Internships
Last week, I asked my followers on twitter to weigh on whether human-rights NGOs should offer unpaid internships. The poll offered three choices: (1) paid only; (2) unpaid is okay; (3) NGOs should offer a mix of paid and unpaid. I expected position 2 to be unpopular, but I thought position 3 would garner the most votes.
I was right about the former and wrong about the latter:
I am surprised that respondents preferred position 1 to position 3 by a 2:1 margin. I take it as a given that international organizations like the ICC and the UN should offer only paid internships — and am happy to see that, as a result of the deservedly terrible publicity the UN has received over the past few years, at least some of its agencies are reversing course. (The WHO, for example, will begin paying interns in 2020.) Moreover, I think a strong case can be made that the largest and best funded NGOs — HRW, Amnesty, ICTJ — should offer at least some paid internships.
Unfortunately, most don’t — including our beloved partner, the ICJ. (Though I know from experience ICJ does its best to find some funding for interns, particularly when they are working outside of Europe.) Most don’t even offer financial support when they are based in incredibly expensive places like Geneva, New York, and London.
To be sure, there are exceptions. Open Society Foundations pays graduate interns $18/hour in New York and £12/hour in London. (It is not clear whether student interns are paid.) Moreover, although the ICRC offers students three-month unpaid internships, it pays its graduate interns an impressive €2,700 per month for 3-12 months.
More powerful NGOs clearly need to follow the lead of OSF and the ICRC. Nevertheless, I still think that position 1 is too uncompromising. There is no doubt that unpaid internships, to quote the UN High Commission for Human Rights, “exclude de facto the most marginalised.” An NGO that offers only unpaid internships is an NGO whose interns will all come from privileged backgrounds — disproportionately white and disproportionately from the Global North.
But I think it is also undeniable that there are many NGOs, particularly smaller ones outside the traditional corridors of power, that simply cannot afford to pay interns without compromising their core work. And I imagine even the more powerful ones that I mentioned above would have to substantially reduce their number of internships if all interns had to be paid.
That would be regrettable — especially given that some interns don’t need to be paid, whether because they are still students and are being supported by their law school (which is often the case in the US) or because they do indeed come from a privileged background. We certainly don’t want to discourage rich kids from choosing to promote human rights instead of the “rights” of capital, but there is no reason for an NGO to waste limited resources on them. So I would argue that NGOs should offer as many paid internships as possible, while still making available a few unpaid ones for those who can afford to pay their own way.
This discussion, however, begs a critical question: how much should an internship actually pay? I ran a second twitter poll on that question, offering four choices: (1) a stipend, (2) travel, (3) travel and housing, (4) travel, housing, and stipend. Here are the results:
Respondents again gravitated toward the maximal position. That’s understandable, because an internship that pays only a token amount isn’t much different than an unpaid internship — you might get a few less privileged interns, but the demographics will be basically the same.
Once again, though, I think the maximal position is too uncompromising. I seriously doubt even powerful NGOs can offer travel, housing, and a stipend to all of their interns, or even to a significant number of them. And I imagine most less-powerful ones, both within and without the Global North, would reluctantly choose not to offer internships at all if they had to pay all of those expenses for every intern they hired.
A weakness of the poll is that I could not ask respondents to specify what they think a fair stipend should cover. Presumably, most would endorse an amount that goes beyond paying only for travel (position 2) but does not pay for travel, housing, and daily expenses (position 4). My own sense is that a stipend should cover either travel or housing and still be enough to cover most daily expenses (living frugally). And I think a lump sum is best, because then interns can decide for themselves how to spend their funding. Some might want to use their stipend primarily for travel (when the NGO is located far away and flights are expensive); others might want to use theirs for housing (when the NGO is located in a very expensive city, such as London or Geneva).
To be clear, I don’t have all the answers. These are just some thoughts inspired by my two rather off-the-cuff polls. I am opening comments, so I hope readers will weigh in with their own thoughts and experiences.