At the time I was deeply uncertain about accepting, because I had recently finished my master's in economics, and I appreciated how tired I was. The thing about being tired is sometimes, it's the being tired that makes you not realize it. Your life can get enough overhead and and overhang that you just don't realize it. Personally, I've been swept up in enough unfamiliar experiences in Bangkok and maladaptive responses to stress that it's hard to stop and take a breath and figure things out from a basic level. Lately, the main thing I wonder is, "Was it worth it?"
I'll put down a not about my experiences right now, just as the light is beginning to show at the end of the tunnel, and I'll compare once the position is over.
The UN is a large and bureaucratic institution. Its staff are involved in any number of development projects and initiatives. They also do as much awareness and publicity oriented work as direct interventions with governments or challenged communities. Honestly it's a hodgepodge of different activities loosely held together under the same brand. For instance in the ILO, I work on a community enterprise development program where the gimmick is handing booklets to low-income entrepreneurs and having them teach one another in small groups; there is a large project addressing migrant and forced labor throughout Southeast Asia; another office supports trade unions; another addresses workplace discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS; another manages labor-intensive infrastructure projects; all the while the director uses the prestige of his corner-office position to cajole politicians into falling in line with ILO ideals and addressing workplace crises.
UN Women runs a number of separate publicity campaigns and community projects. UNDP has groups collecting and publishing statistics, digging wells, building infrastructure, helping disaster survivors. It's a hodgepodge of different activities under umbrellas.
The labor relations here is a similar hodgepodge (even at the ILO). Contracts are negotiated with people at hand. Project managers seem to be more comfortable asking for work from people who are already living in the area and about to finish another project. Interns are used for free labor. Typically your work will not be rewarded with a paid position afterwards. If you will be an intern, ask whether you are replacing another intern, and if another intern will be replacing you. Think about the kind of management that leads to those practices.
At first, the promise of an launching your career from a UN desk is tempting. Especially so if you have no other career offers, and the position is in a far-flung corner of the world. Compared to being at home, a stint at this institution sounds like a great career start. But challenge that notion. As soon as you arrive, you will be placed with grunt work that is not as glamorous as the luster of the UN name itself. Your supervisor may be away in other countries for the majority of time you are working, even weeks at a time. You will find that skills and expertise do not truly transfer so easily, and you will struggle turning this unpaid internship into a job much like you struggled with
You may struggle more based on your gender and race. Of five interns applying since November, two white European women have had no responses; one Indian woman has a job offer, one Bangladeshi woman went on to a PhD, and I, a white American man, am in the interview stages for jobs but have no offer yet.
Another main point: you are unlikely to climb into a stable job position from within the UN itself. After an internship, you may be given a short-term contract of no longer than six months, to produce some tools or publication that the employer will use. In that time, you can use your presence to negotiate your next job with someone else, or your employer may need longer-term inputs to be negotiated under another contract of no longer than six months. This process can repeat indefinitely--my supervisor happens to be one of those who survived this way for seven years, and even after that his position is in doubt as funding to his projects was cut by donors.
Meanwhile, anyone can pick up project expertise or a topic of interest and bring that into the UN. Maybe you are working on a thesis on WASH, or you are finishing a job on a women's community program. Reaching out to an office about a project is a chance to practice your negotiation skills and determine some creative control over a project you want to work on.
The happiest people seem to have a project in mind that the UN happened to be the institution to support, instead of those that take what the UN gives them. For instance, we have a migration project at the ILO addressing unpaid labor and migration throughout Southeast Asia. The program has clearly stated objectives and a vision; it's something that could thrive as a project under other institutions. The person who put this in place and manages it has more meaningful issues on her mind than the consultant trying to figure out if this project needs someone to write a report, or maybe that office down the hell, I mean down the hall....
All in all, I have a classic problem: the way I handled the internship offer, I would do some things differently. I would have looked at my existing expertise and reached out to build on that experience, not taken something on offer, as it became less about my initiative and more about what my supervisors asked of me.
The obvious advantages have been that I have lived in an Asia for some time, I have built up a small portfolio of work that I can shop around, and I have gained some references.