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Opinion

Meritocracy for sale

As a UN internship mistakenly goes up for auction, focus must be given to the nature of unpaid UN internships.

Last Modified: 04 May 2013 09:30
Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
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Thomas Friedman continues to champion the supposed virtues of globalisation as a leveller [GALLO/GETTY]

On April 24, 2013, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights announced it was having an auction to raise money to “carry forward Robert Kennedy's dream of a more just and peaceful world”. Through the auction website CharityBuzz, bidders could compete for a variety of prizes: a visit to the set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a personal meeting with Ryan Seacrest, a tour of Jay Leno’s car collection.  Or a six-week unpaid internship at the United Nations, where the recipient will “gain inside knowledge of just how the UN really operates.” Current bid? $22,000. 

“This truly is the ultimate internship opportunity for any college or graduate student looking to get their foot in the door,” the ad proclaimed. For more than what many colleges cost in annual tuition, the highest bidder receives “tremendous opportunities to make invaluable connections.” 

One would suspect that a college student who can pay $22,000 to work 25 hours a week for free in one of the most expensive cities in the world needs little help making connections. But that misconstrues the goal of unpaid internships: transforming personal wealth into professional credentials. For students seeking jobs at certain policy organisations, the way to get one’s foot in the door is to walk the streets paved in gold. In the post-employment economy, jobs are privileges, and the privileged have jobs.

Unpaid and ”pay to play” internships have long dominated policy fields, but the $22,000 asking price signified a barrier to entry so galling the UN issued a statement in response. “Internships at the United Nations are not for sale and cannot be put up for auction. We are trying to find out the details of how this came about and have contacted charitybuzz.com,” a UN representative wrote to Inner City Press, who reported on the case. 

When the story broke on Wednesday, I contacted CharityBuzz, who confirmed the auction’s existence and said they would speak to their “contact at the UN” for details. The Robert F. Kennedy Center continues to list the auction under the tagline “Spend six weeks as a United Nations intern with Bruce Knotts and the UN Committee on Human Rights” while the UN continues to deny it without offering details. It is difficult to tell what is going on. Whatever the end game, someone is willing to drop $22,000 to play it.

Barriers to entry 

UN internships may not be up for auction, but they are, in essence, for sale. The United Nations does not pay its interns, making it very difficult for someone who is not independently wealthy to take an internship. The only thing that distinguishes the alleged auction from the UN’s normal practice is that the unspoken class discrimination is made blatant. 

“Given the high cost of living in key UN cities, such as New York and Geneva, undertaking a UN internship is an experience that few can afford, especially those from the very developing countries the organisation strives to serve,” wrote the group UnPaid Is Unfair in a 2012 petition calling on the United Nations to stop using free labour. 

Their call went unheeded. The United Nations’ website includes a form for calculating the personal expenses an intern incurs – expenses the UN conservatively estimates at $2500 per month, not counting travel to New York City or health insurance. The intern is forbidden from taking other paid work during their two-month term, and they not allowed to apply for jobs at the UN for six months following the internship. “A possible source of employment would be the United Nations Volunteers Programme,” the UN website suggests. This programme pays no salary.

“For an organisation that prides itself on inclusion, diversity, and equality, the UN’s refusal to compensate its interns has created a system that counters those very ideals,” writes former UN intern Matt Hamilton, noting that only 5% of UN interns come from the least developed countries. Young people who care about international justice – including those who witness firsthand its erosion in poor, repressive states – cannot afford to work jobs structured on noblesse oblige.  

The United Nations is far from the only organisation refusing to pay its interns. Most human rights, policy and development organisations pay interns nothing, but will not hire someone for a job if they lack the kind of experience an internship provides. Privilege is recast as perseverance. The end result hurts individuals struggling in the labour market but also restructures the market itself.

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labour to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labour has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

Worst of all, unpaid internships in policy and human rights send the message that fighting poverty, inequality, and other issues of injustice is something that only rich people should do. Qualities that should be encouraged in society– like empathy and the willingness to stand up for others – are devalued when ordinary people are told that they literally cannot afford to care.

“I think right-wing populists hate the ‘liberal elite’ more than economic elites because they've grabbed all the jobs where you get paid to do something that isn't just for the money -- the pursuit of art, or truth, or charity, “ notes David Graeber, an anthropologist whose ideas helped shape the Occupy movement. “All they can do if they want to do something bigger than themselves and still get paid is join the army.”

Fair and just

On the day the story of the alleged $22,000 UN internship broke, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman assured us that our world is fair and just. After proclaiming that the world is “tailored for the self-motivated” and the “boundaries are all gone”, he argued, “We’re entering a world that increasingly rewards individual aspiration and persistence and can measure precisely who is contributing and who is not. This is not going away, so we better think how we help every citizen benefit from it.”

While perhaps an argument unto itself on the erosion of meritocracy – some were fooled into thinking it was created by the parody Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator— Friedman’s column sheds light on how the wealthy tend to believe our economy works. 

Friedman encourages young people to “invest in themselves”, seemingly unaware of how literal an investment this is nowadays, and how few young people have the resources to do so. He praises hard work, but he does not acknowledge the dreams deferred – the young people who would give anything for the chance to work hard and succeed, but cannot afford the cost of entry; the young people who gave everything, and are left jobless and in debt.

What happens to the American Dream deferred? The UN internship auction – whatever it may actually entail – is in the end a good thing, because it made plain a system of privilege and bias few want to acknowledge. Economic discrimination is often not visible. Nor are the people it leaves behind. 

What a relief it would be if every unpaid internship was an auction – if instead of a vague line about how the intern must “cover their own costs”, the organisation would tally up those costs and see who is able to pay them. The rest of us could watch, from the sidelines, as bias long denied plays out in public, as wealth morphs into merit before our eyes. Let them do their bidding in the open, and show us what it costs to succeed.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter:  @sarahkendzior

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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