August 13, 2015; Washington Post and The Intercept

David Hyde is a 22-year-old from New Zealand who showed up in Geneva to take a prized internship at the UN, figuring that it was such a great opportunity that he would work out how to make it financially when he got there. But the cost of living in the Swiss city is very high, and eventually, after Hyde tried to live in a tent overlooking the lake, the Tribune de Genève got ahold of the story, and the rest is history. A media storm ensued regarding the UN’s practice of offering extended unpaid internships to young people.

“How do the others do it?” Hyde asked before he resigned. “Ultimately, only those whose parents can afford it get a chance.” And that point, about the inequality of access, is what is likely to advance the question to a resolution at the agency.

It is maybe too ironic that the United Nations, which regularly attempts to take leadership about global inequalities, would offer internships that only people with extraordinary means could afford to take. It’s downright embarrassing. But, then, the UN is not alone in Geneva, which has been called the “world capital of the unpaid intern.” Recently, a group of interns in that city marched against the city’s plethora of internships sans pay, charging that unpaid internships violated the UN-backed Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration.”

Then comes the twist, which we think just makes the story that much better, this morning Hyde published a statement saying that the incident was a well-designed piece of performance art. Here are excerpts from his statement:

“Like so many others across the world, I have always believed that unpaid internships are unjust. But for many of us it feels like doing an unpaid internship (or two) is necessary in order to get a real job. Internships have fallen through the cracks in our moral codes and legal systems. But because it is known that there is a group of young people who have the ability to work for free, the system continues…”

“The hypocrisy was so clear to me—here are organizations like the United Nations, dedicated to human rights and fighting against inequality. Yet, the UN’s internship policy seemed to clearly contradict the values it claimed to stand for…”

“I needed a solution. The answer was fairly simple. I would live in a tent. […] It seemed that in doing so I could hit two birds with one stone: It was an affordable way to live in Geneva with my limited funds—and the fact that a UN intern was living in a tent could help to raise awareness on the issue…”

“I was happy to see that after my resignation, the media moved their focus from me to the wider issue of intern rights. And I was worried that if I came clean with my intentions right away, it would take the spotlight away from the real issue and compromise the opportunity for interns across the world to have their problems publicized and addressed. The bigger picture is what’s really important.

“However I feel that now is the moment to state these things clearly. Yes, I worked as an intern at the United Nations. Yes, I lived in a tent in Geneva. Yes, I could not afford to support myself for the duration of the internship. Yes, I wanted to raise awareness on the subject. Yes, I chose to live in the tent because of the powerful imagery I knew it would provide.

“Could I have ever imagined that this would become what it has? Absolutely not…”

“Ban-Ki Moon’s spokesperson has made a clear statement denouncing internships as a form of economic discrimination. International organizations have approached interns to discuss the possibility of introducing some form of remuneration. And many articles that examine the wider issue have been published in the media. I’m sure that intern organizations across the world will now be working to turn this talk into action.

“I know that in the coming days I may be criticized for what I did. Some may try to discredit me and make me look like an extremist. But there is nothing extreme about what I hoped to achieve: a recognition of the rights interns deserve.

“Was what I did justifiable? Perhaps it is too soon to tell. The fact is that a story like this has not come up before for a key reason: People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are unable to do these internships in the first place.

“In its response to my story, the United Nations office in Geneva shared a report that found its internship program was ‘positive for all involved.’ My story has helped to show the side of those ignored by this report who cannot afford to be involved.

“My intention was to do an internship and call attention to the issue of intern rights. I am no longer doing an internship, but intern rights have certainly been put in the spotlight. Whether what I did was justified should only be answered by young people who are affected by the current internship reality. Let them be the judge.”

One can only hope it will force the UN to make a leadership move and start to create opportunities equally available to young talented people from all income strata.—Ruth McCambridge