How to secure a United Nations internship in Africa
March 1, 2012 5:01 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for an internship with the United Nations, or a UN agency (UNDP, UNAIDS, UNESCO, UNICEF etc) in sub-Saharan Africa for a period of 10-20 weeks from September 2012. I have tried emailing application forms to country offices, with my CV and cover letter, but no luck with responses. Any tips or tricks or other help that you can provide? Thanks!

I am enrolled on a two-year International Development Master's degree, and I have a good academic and professional record, a couple of publications, and extensive travel experience in sub-Saharan Africa. I am largely focussing on English-speaking countries (my French is OK, but not great).

Is there some procedure I should be following - following up emails with telephone calls? Targeting specific people in the organisation? Stressing a particular part of my application? What specifically are most country offices looking for, and is there any procedure that the UN or UN agencies follow for internship selection? I am guessing that this may vary greatly between organisations and countries, but any 'inside information' would be very helpful, and tips greatly appreciated! (I am interested in internships focussing on health, education or economic governance, and understand that internships are mostly unpaid). Happy to provide more information if helpful - many thanks in advance!
posted by ManOfPlans to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
why is your program not helping you get internships? that is their job.
posted by parmanparman at 5:06 AM on March 1, 2012

why is your program not helping you get internships? that is their job.

Not necessarily. They might do as little as make some contact lists available or as much as arranging interviews, but often finding the interships is your own problem.

Have you reached out directly to alumni of the program who are now at the UN or working in that region? If not, why not? I get those kinds of emails all the time on my alumni email, from some person at an agency offering up intern slots. Those contacts are going to be far more valuable to you than applying blind.
posted by Forktine at 5:17 AM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

It seems like you have the CV but not the network/contacts - the good news is that this is the right way around to get these kind of jobs. You can build the contacts quickly, especially if, as you imply, you are in a top program.

If you have experience in sub-saharan africa have you managed to network with anyone working in an academic position in an african university/NGO?? I have several friends who did not get in via traditional "western internships" but who used their travel experiences to develop african connections rather than "developed world" connections and got very good experience as a result?

Also - narrow your focus but broaden your reach. Your publications will/should count for much more that "travel experience" - so focus on places or ideas that you can plausibly relate to your specific expertise. Health, education and economic governance are hugely disparate areas and trying to make CV's for each area probably means you come across as less focused than candidates who have tried to focus on one area but do not have the variety of experience you have. I understand the difficulty of your situation, it is a super competitive, low paying world you are trying to enter - but you need to remember your achievements and not the times you have been rebuffed.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:34 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Getting an internship at the UN is incredibly difficult.

I would suggest focusing on your program's career development people that can really really help you with this.
posted by k8t at 6:19 AM on March 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

As others have said, you need to tap into the people you know. In your programme, you may have people originally from the part of the world you're interested in. Ask them, and ask for contacts. People with government connections in third world countries very often have something to do with international or UN agencies, or will know others who do. They are also the sort of people who get sent abroad on Commonwealth and similar fellowships. Definitely try to contact specific people in the organisations you're interested in, and if you can find a mutual acquaintance, work them for all they're worth. Ask your professors, get involved in student activities from those countries' diasporas, etc. Even if you don't get an internship for this September - and you might well - it'll serve you well in your career in international development.
posted by tavegyl at 6:32 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

It seems to me like you might actually be too late. Prestigious organizations like those with the UN--and make no mistake, you're aiming for the stars here--frequently fill their positions a year in advance. Federal judges, for example, routinely hire in October-November for positions that start the following August-September. It wouldn't at all surprise me if the positions you're applying for now were filled months ago.
posted by valkyryn at 7:40 AM on March 1, 2012

I just want to disagree with valkyryn regarding whether you're too late or not. I'm not sure about UN agencies with formal application procedures, but (without getting into too much personal detail) I'm doing something very similar to what OP is trying to do (at a UN agency as well) and I was accepted only a couple of months prior to my start date.
Truly the easiest way to do this, from personal experience, is to find a connection at one of the organizations--with the grad program you're doing there absolutely have to be professors or other people around who have a friend of a friend of a friend who are doing X at UN-whatever. Like other people have suggested, reach out and approach people, mentioning what you're interested in doing (maybe bringing up a more specific focus--I have a pretty specific combination of interests and I think maybe this made me seem more focused and ambitious and gave my connection a better idea of how to approach their own contacts). Talk to anyone you think is interesting and that you might have something in common with! Follow-up contact with people already in the UN agency is maybe a good idea as well, maybe heads of specific departments you find interesting and inquiring whether they may be interested in some unpaid labor. I would definitely not give up this early however! And memail me if you want to ask anything more specific about my own situation.
posted by Papagayo at 8:56 AM on March 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi all, many thanks for the very helpful suggestions and comments! Much appreciated - I will continue searching accordingly for opportunities.
posted by ManOfPlans at 12:31 AM on March 3, 2012

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