The inevitable inequity of unpaid internships

A few years ago, the story of a UN intern from New Zealand living in a tent by Lake Geneva made international headlines. Apparently Geneva residents, along with the rest of the world, were “shocked that the famous and much-loved institution should be connected to such a case.”

The only thing that shocked me was that so many were unaware of this ugly reality that is a persistent infection of the international development industry.

I have extremely strong opinions about unpaid internships. Part of this may stem from my generation’s collective rage toward the economic disaster into which we were dumped after finishing university, and our resulting economic desperation. Unpaid internships are certainly not unique to global health or international development, and the Great Recession left us particularly vulnerable to them.

Most of my frustration, however, comes from the fact that this trend is particularly strong in global health – a field which is ostensibly focused on building up health systems to support the poorest and most vulnerable. I discovered that, despite being the child of a first-generation immigrant with fluency in both Portuguese and French (on top of an MPH), my financial inability to work in unpaid positions (read: I don’t have rich parents) turned out to be a permanent barrier to entering a field that I was so passionate about. Dozens of applications went unanswered over the years even as my resume accumulated increasingly advanced public health jobs in the U.S. The only explanation I could think of was the catch-22 that plagues the industry. You can’t get jobs doing development work unless you already have closely related experience doing development work – which means that the first few times are unpaid. Multiple well-known development professionals have confirmed this, and most appear to have just accepted it as an unfortunate reality. My experience is not unique.

This irony of using unpaid interns to drive the entry-level work of global health is finally beginning to creep into the peer-reviewed literature. As an editorial in last month’s Lancet Global Health pointed out about WHO’s internship program:

[WHO’s] mandate, to promote the health of people worldwide, requires it to build technical and operational skills within the health systems of its 193 member states. For many of these states, particularly those of low income that face growing disease burdens, developing skills in the next generation of public health professionals is imperative.
WHO’s Internship Programme exists to support this goal. …However, less than 20% of interns come from developing countries. This imbalance in member state participation has two principal causes: an absence of financial support for interns, which precludes the participation of many from low-income and middle-income countries; and an ad-hoc recruitment process that favours candidates with connections in well-established academic institutions, typically in high-income countries. The result is a missed opportunity for WHO and inadvertently undermines its own objectives on human resources for health.

Oh, unpaid internships restrict the pipeline of global health professionals to rich people from rich countries? Shocker.

Many aspiring global health professionals (including myself) have groused about this reality, swapping anecdotes of spreadsheets of rejected applications and job boards glutted with positions requiring at least a decade of experience. But ground-level conversations between those of us on the outside looking in don’t move the needle. To have any chance of addressing the problem, the first step is establishing that it exists across the industry – and an excellent way to do that is with data.

The Global Health Jobs Analysis Project was born out of a pair of conversations I had at the 2015 Annual Meeting in Chicago with IH Section members who shared my frustrations. After exchanging similar stories of scouring hundreds of job vacancies for non-expert positions, to no avail, we resolved to put together a team to collect and analyze data on a job market that most global health MPH grads simply cannot crack. Two years, a thousand job vacancy descriptions, and six months of peer review later, our analysis was published in the open-access journal BMC Public Health. From the abstract:

We analyzed the data from 1007 global health job vacancies from 127 employers. Among private and non-profit sector vacancies, 40% (n = 354) were for technical or subject matter experts, 20% (n = 177) for program directors, and 16% (n = 139) for managers, compared to 9.8% (n = 87) for entry-level and 13.6% (n = 120) for mid-level positions.
Our analysis shows a demand for candidates with several years of experience with global health programs, particularly program managers/directors and technical experts, with very few entry-level positions accessible to recent graduates of global health training programs. It is unlikely that global health training programs equip graduates to be competitive for the majority of positions that are currently available in this field.

Our analysis is related to the unpaid internship problem because it shines a light on the “top-heavy” nature of the global health employment field. In a typical industry or discipline, you would expect to find the largest number of positions at the entry level, with increasingly fewer mid-level, managerial, and technical expert or director positions. Our data – which only included paid positions – showed the exact opposite. There were more director-level positions than managerial spots, and nearly half of the positions were for technical experts. This certainly lends weight to the Lancet Global Health editorial’s suggestion that the vast majority of the initial work needed for “developing skills in the next generation of public health professionals” is unpaid. This assumption even appeared in our peer review, when one of our reviewers asked why we didn’t include internships in the analysis:

Why not include unpaid internships in the study? Aren’t these ‘entry-level’ in a way? Knowing about the prevalence of internship jobs would help better characterize the potential mismatch between graduate programs and job markets.

Our response:

We deliberately excluded unpaid positions because they are not available to all
applicants in the U.S. global health employment market. While they may technically be entry-level positions, they do not provide candidates with the means to support themselves or their families. […] Such positions are effectively restricted to applicants with a working spouse, affluent families, and/or independent wealth.

There is something perverse about an industry that restricts careers doing meaningful work helping the poor to a small handful of extremely wealthy people, no matter how well-intentioned. The end result is that program beneficiaries cannot enter the industry and thus end up having no say in how those programs are designed, administered, or evaluated. Equally important is the consideration that an industry overwhelmingly staffed by people with the same backgrounds will inevitably suffer from the lack of diverse experiences and perspectives. Again, global health is not the only field that suffers from this cancer, but the stakes in this line of work are incredibly high. A WaPo editorial on the same phenomenon on Capitol Hill raises these very questions:

What consequences arise when Congress effectively restricts its entry-level workforce to those willing to take on debt via credit cards or those for whom money is no object? It almost certainly makes it more difficult for the child of a teacher [to pursue] the ultimate public service career.

If the only way to thrive in Washington is by way of someone else’s bankroll, how can those entrusted to find policy solutions to this country’s problems come from anything lower than the upper middle class?

How indeed.


APHA’s Georges Benjamin writes a letter on health workers in Syria

APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin has written a letter to the members of the UN Security Council to enforce a resolution to end attacks targeting health care workers in Syria. You can read the text below.

Dear United Nations Security Council members:

On behalf of the American Public Health Association, a diverse community of public health professionals who champion the health of all people and communities, I write to call on the United Nations Security Council to enforce resolution 2139 to put an end to the attacks on health workers and facilities in Syria.

In over four and a half years of conflict in Syria, nearly 700 health workers have been killed and more than 300 medical facilities have been attacked. According to well-documented reports, the Syrian government is responsible for over 90 percent of these assaults. The disruption of health services is being used as a weapon of war. This year, by the end of October, attacks on medical facilities in Syria had already surpassed the number of attacks for any other year since the conflict began in 2011.

The attacks have decimated the country’s health system. In Aleppo, only 10 hospitals remain of the 33 hospitals that were functioning in 2010. About 95 percent of doctors have been detained, killed or have fled leaving one doctor for every 7,000 residents. There are shortages of medicine and necessities such as clean water and electricity. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients needing emergency care for conflict-related injuries and patients are dying from treatable conditions.

In February 2014, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed resolution 2139 demanding that all parties immediately end all forms of violence. The resolution strongly condemned attacks on hospitals and demanded that all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality, and that medical personnel, facilities and transport must be respected and protected. Passing the resolution was a critical first step, but now almost two years have passed since it was adopted and the attacks have continued. We urge the Security Council to take immediate steps to ensure that the resolution translates into meaningful progress to protect health workers and their patients in Syria.


Georges C. Benjamin, MD
Executive Director

Making Social Justice the Ultimate Goal

In the global health field, we generally understand that investing in health is critical for a nation to prosper. But would you consider a lack of investment in health to be a social injustice?

The United Nations’ Under Secretary-General Michel Sidibe thinks so. In this short interview with CCTV News, he talks about how the Ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have exposed global health failures and explains why health is an investment, not an expenditure.

Prior to watching his interview I’d never really labeled a weak health system as a social injustice in my mind. But health is a right and a shortage of health workers, the inability to provide basic health services, and lack of infrastructure – all of which have become very apparent in the Ebola outbreak – are in fact social injustices. So I think this is a very apt way to label the current situation as it puts a broader lens on the issues and ties everything into the bigger picture of the role of health in society.

His interview made me think of universal health coverage (UHC) because the definition of UHC requires social justice. It addresses the issues of access, equity, and capacity. I wonder if there will be an increased focus on moving towards UHC for the three Ebola-affected countries as part of their rebuilding efforts.

What do you think will be the biggest social justice issues coming out of the Ebola outbreaks? And how do you think we can best address them?

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD) and the official theme for this year is “Equality for women is progress for all.”

The origin of International Women’s Day dates back to the early 1900’s and now every year on March 8, people around the world rally together to commemorate and support women. International Women’s Day is not only a time to celebrate achievements, but also a time to reflect on the progress made and call for increased changes. From women’s rights and gender equality to abuse and sex trafficking, various social, political, and economic issues concerning women are highlighted and become points of discussion (and even protest) around IWD.

The Millennium Development Goals call for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and during the IWD opening ceremony at the United Nations today, Hilary Clinton, known for being a champion of women, said “women and girls and the cause of gender equality must be at the heart” of the UN’s agenda to promote development around the world. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon echoed her sentiments, saying in his message, “This International Women’s Day, we are highlighting the importance of achieving equality for women and girls not simply because it is a matter of fairness and fundamental human rights, but because progress in so many other areas depends on it.”

This plays nicely into the ongoing debate on the post-2015 development agenda. We all know there are major issues around the access, quality, and availability of health services to women in developing countries, and that these issues are often further complicated by cultural and religious norms. I think it’s safe to say that although IWD is only one day a year, the discussion on women’s rights as a core component of global development will continue. It is essential.

Here’s a roundup of some IWD 2014 content in case you missed it:

“The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.” — Charles Malik

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? Tell us in the comments below.

United Nations Year in Review: Video

On December 19, the United Nations (UN) posted this compilation video highlighting major events, crises, and successes around the world. The video details the UN’s work throughout 2013 to “negotiate peace, instill hope, and define a sustainable future for all.” The first half of the video focuses largely on peacekeeping efforts, but around minute 10 it becomes more global health-related. From that point on, the video covers topics such as poverty, hunger, sanitation, and the environment. I would like to see a similar 2013 recap video from the World Health Organization. In the event they create one, we will post it on this blog.

What are some major global health crises and milestones that could be included in a 2013 recap video? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


UPDATE: As promised, here is the 2013 year in review video from the World Health Organization. Some topics were crowdsourced using social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

One thing I see missing is Ethiopia reaching MDG 4. And more generally, updates and progress towards the health-related MDGs. Did you contribute to this video through Facebook or Twitter? What else do you think should have been included?