- Introducing GGKP
- Career Prospects in the UN
- Social Activities
From September 2021 to March 2022, I was fortunate to conduct an internship at the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, Switzerland. This provided me with great opportunities to look “behind the scenes” of an international institution and gauge whether this is something I can imagine for my own professional path.
My internship was financially supported through the Carlo-Schmid-Programme, a German government scholarships for internships in international institutions.
In this post I want to take stock of my time at the UN and reflect on some of the things I learnt and experienced. This is a personal reflection post and therefore written from a subjective perspective.
The Carlo-Schmid-Programme (CSP) is the reason why I was able to do this internship. Usually, with some minor exceptions, internships at the UN are not paid. This has complicated reasons, but it boils down to disagreements among member states who couldn’t pass a resolution to mandate the UN to pay their interns. What this means, of course, is that only a handful of privileged individuals is able to afford 6-month long, unpaid internships.
The CSP is a German government scholarship, funded through the Ministry of Education and administered via the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Each year, it funds more than 100 students and young professionals to undertake 6-month long internships at international institutions or NGOs such as the UN, NATO, WTO, and other organizations.
There are two ways to apply for the scholarship. One way is to apply for a place at an eligible institution and in a separate application, apply for the CSP scholarship. The other way is to go to the CSP website and look through their pre-selected and advertised positions. I did the latter. This meant that if my application for the scholarship was successful, I automatically also obtained the internship place (it is 2-in-1, so to speak).
The application process is similar to that for other scholarships: Once personal statement, CV etc. are submitted, they filter through and invite short-listed candidates for interviews. After the interview round, applicants get notified whether they have received their place or not. In my case, I submitted the application materials in February, had my interview end of May and got the acceptance letter in July for start in September.
The perks of the scholarships are two-fold: First, we get a financial stipend which varies by country. For Geneva, it is 1,775 Euro a month. Second, a preparation seminar (in 2021 it was online) takes place, where one gets to meet all other CSP scholars and participates in workshops and talks on issues relevant for working in international organizations.
There was a group of around 20 scholars from the CSP based in Geneva, and I was spending quite some time with them.
Working in “The UN”
I still remember when I started taking the ‘International Relations’ module back in uni. I was learning about international relations theories, thinkers, history of the UN, its strengths and its weaknesses… That was 2018. Three years later, I actually work in the system that back then, I was studying and theorizing about. Looking back, I would say that I was a bit too idealistic about the UN.
First of all, there is no “the” UN. The United Nations is a big organization, made up by its member states and consisting of many, many sub organizations, agencies, initiatives, programmes… The UN is more an umbrella that ties these together.
Therefore, my experience working with the UN Environment Programme cannot be generalized to someone who worked in a different organization. I have friends working at the UN Economic Commission for Europe, at the Secretariat, at the Training Centre of the UN, and naturally their experiences will be quite different.
What I can say about UNEP so far is that there are very competent people, working on some interesting projects. But UNEP can also be quite bureaucratic, publishing lots of reports but not doing much on the ground. It is a shame that the organization which is well-positioned in the international sphere and literally has “Environment” in its name, actually doesn’t seem to be that impactful at times.
My internship took place with the “Green Growth Knowledge Partnership” (GGKP). As the name suggests, the thematic focus is on “Green Growth”, i.e. the idea that economic growth should be sustainable and not harm the climate or the environment.
The idea for setting up GGKP arose in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008. Back then, leading institutions such as the World Bank, OECD and UNEP were working on green growth-related topics, but they were doing so in their own siloes. This didn’t make much sense, so a knowledge-sharing platform was set up. This was GGKP.
Now, almost 10 years later after its founding date, the GGKP is a global community of policy, business and finance professionals and organizations who collaborate in the effort on transiting to an inclusive green economy.
Its three main activities are: Knowledge generation, knowledge management and knowledge sharing.
The “heart” of GGKP’s work is a database of green growth resources, which is constantly updated. This comprises the largest library of green growth-related research, tools, case studies and events. It is freely accessible to anyone.
Since 2019, the structure of GGKP has changed through the launch of two new platforms. Now there are three knowledge platforms that each target a certain community: The Green Policy Platform, the Green Finance Platform and the Green Industry Platform. In addition to that, the Green Forum is an online community space, designed for interaction amongst professionals. There, they can share and discuss topics related to sustainability, climate, economic transition etc.
Currently the GGKP team is in an expansionary phase, with new consultants and interns being hired almost on a monthly basis. The team has now around 23 members.
I got really lucky with my team. I know that in other teams, the onboarding process wasn’t very smooth. So I count myself as very fortunate to have had a competent and attentive supervisor and nice colleagues I could always approach. It also helped to have an ‘intern crew’ together, with whom to have office chats and do social activities together.
What I appreciated about my direct supervisor is that he is very structured in his management style - I get clear instructions and am able to follow his guidance. Furthermore, he really empowers his colleagues, especially interns and gives us a lot of responsibility and credit when it’s due. He always has our interests in mind and wants to hear what we think and values our opinions.
The Head of the GGKP Secretariat is naturally a busy man, but he is very down-to-earth and has a very inclusive leadership style. I appreciate a lot how he is very “close to the people” — even though I am “just” an intern, he takes time to have in-depth conversations with me on subject matter, and also feedback conversations.
During my time at GGKP, I was lucky to have had a great time with a bunch of interns that were there at the same time. They come from Ireland, Sweden, South Korea, UK, Belgium…It has been lovely learning about their respective home countries and just chatting during coffee and tea breaks in the office 😊.
List of Projects and Tasks
In virtue of being in the Research Team of GGKP, my work is often research-based. I also support on some more administrative and management tasks. I enjoy the diversity of tasks, since I tend to get a bit bored if I only do one thing for too long.
- My research work consists usually in reading through papers, articles and publications and synthesizing them into a summary piece. This will then be used for further project work, or simply for building the internal knowledge capacity of our team.
- Topics I worked on include:
- Natural Capital Accounting, the idea of taking stock of natural resources, their physical and monetary value
- The Gross Economic Ecological Product, developed by the Chinese Academic of Environmental Planning
- Sustainable Infrastructure
- Natural Capital case studies, i.e. stories where the natural capital approach was used and evaluation of how successful this was
- Natural Capital Accounting for Development Finance Infrastructure Projects
- Development of the Content Management System Guidelines, synthesizing existing internal practices of monitoring and uploading green growth resources to the GGKP database
- Weekly monitoring and uploading of green growth resources
- Planning the “Africa Green Economy Conference” with GGKP’s partners, contributing to concept notes, meeting summaries and reaching out to suppliers
The Stockholm+50 meeting is an international conference taking place in June in Sweden. It commemorates the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment, which was a watershed moment for multilateral environmentalism. I have been involved in supporting GGKP’s engagement in the context of this conference, through:
- Providing meeting notes on stakeholder discussions (stakeholder groups included faith-based groups, youth, indigenous peoples…)
- Research on existing environmental agreements and how their messages can feed-in to the Stockholm+50 meeting
- Drafting concept note for a Stockholm+50 related webinar series
- Technical Support for the Leadership Dialogues
- Coordination of the side events that will take place at Stockholm+50 on 2 and 3 June.
- Restructuring of the entire GGKP Sharepoint, which took a lot of liaising with colleagues and was quite a big project
Methods and Skills
I would like to say that working in GGKP and within the UN system has taught me a lot of things. But I don’t think I learnt that many new methods or skills. I think most of the work I am doing is writing-based. Writing concise pieces in a short period of time is kind of what I have been training throughout my university education.
Nevertheless, there are a few skills, or rather processes that I was able to learn/hone further:
- Writing concept notes: Concept notes are short written pieces that flesh out a certain idea, be it a concept for an event, or a discussion forum, or a webinar series. They address the central questions that each project manager should ask themselves before attempting a project (Why? Who? When? Where? How?). I have written plenty of concept notes and they will lead to concrete action.
- Managing ‘up’: Throughout my internship experiences, I have gotten better at signaling my own preferences and the things that I wanted to work on. This has particularly shown itself in this internship. I was able to work more on Stockholm+50 related tasks because I was proactively signaling to Ben that I would be interested. This ‘managing up’ (rather than down) is a skill I was able to hone.
Career Prospects in the UN
It was shocking to hear how many people in the UN are actually not full staff members, but working on short-term consultancy contracts.
Broadly speaking, there are the “Professional” (P) positions and “General Services” (G) positions. You are then basically like an international civil servant. In the professional category, there is P1 (lowest) to P5 (highest), after which the higher positions are given by appointment. One person working in the UN system told me that a P position is like the “golden handcuffs”. Once you have them, you won’t shake them off anymore. Why? Because the perks are great: You don’t have to pay income tax, you get a lot of social benefits, reimbursements of relocation costs and many other benefits.
However, these P positions are scarce and competition is fierce. Many work on consultancy contracts, which are usually only 3, 6 or 11 months in length. They also do not include social benefits or insurance benefits.
Thus, in order to advance in the UN, one has to be quite lucky indeed. It is normal to stay in consultancy contracts for several years, before landing a P position (if one opens, that is). After that, one also has to continue applying for the next-highest P position, there is no automatic promotion scheme.
My social life in Geneva has been blissful. I was lucky to have had the CSP network, a (largely female) group that is very active on hikes, trips and other activities.
Each weekend, I would do something, usually outdoors. My favorite activities were: Hiking in the mountains both in summer and in winter when there was already snow, bathing in the lake, Sauna, hosting dinners with friends, visiting places near Geneva like Annecy in France or Torino in Italy.
Geneva is a francophone city and basically surrounded by France. It is easy to cross the border, either by walking, cycling or with the tram or bus. This gave me the perfect environment to dust off my school French again.
My expectations weren’t high: I hadn’t spoken French for over 5 years. Originally, my only goal was to be able to communicate with the waiter in a restaurant without making a fool out of myself. But after a while, I regained some confidence in speaking French again and this motivated to actually become more ambitious.
For the first 2-3 weeks, I didn’t speak French at all. But after a Youtube marathon of watching videos in French, I suddenly realized how much of what I had learnt in school was coming back. I found myself a French tutor with whom I have been meeting once a week to refresh my memory on grammar, pronunciation and basic expressions.
At the end of the first half of the internship, I was able to hold a conversation in French with a native speaker. Strangers would understand what I wanted (most of the time)! This was a huge confidence boost and I am keen in approaching fluency level. It would be a great asset to be able to master 4 languages (English, German, Mandarin and French).
Overall, this experience has been very rewarding and insightful. I achieved my main goal, which was to get a glimpse of what it’s like to work in an international organization.
One of my main takeaways however, is that I wouldn’t necessarily want to begin my career in the UN. I feel that I would be better off honing my skills somewhere outside of the UN, maybe in the private sector, or some other larger institutation that has good programmes for young graduates and professionals…
Further, I want to have seen some “real world” and get a good training before I eventually settle in the UN. It seems to be to be a bit like a one-way street: Once you enter the system, it is harder to get out of it again. So whilst this has been great as a first glimpse and impression, I wouldn’t want to pursue it as a career straight out of uni.
In sum, I am beyond grateful to the Carlo-Schmid-Programm and to everyone who has made this experience as positive as it has been! Looking forward to seeing how these 6 months will bear fruit in the coming years.