Pursuing a United Nations Internship in a Foreign Country
My experience with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Myanmar.
United Nations offers 6-month long internships in various countries for all agencies. I pursued an internship based in Yangon, Myanmar with United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS). There is a modest stipend $650/m that can be received via cheque or direct deposit (although sometime HR likes to just give it to you in cheque). Depending on the position, you will be touching different projects and funds. I am a Partnerships Assistant — why all the other interns are referred to as analysts and this one position is not is beyond me. Per my Terms of Reference (ToR), I work within the Partnership Unit under direct supervision of the current Partnership Advisor, and Head of Programmes, Communication, and Partnerships. The latter being the overall department head.
Most of your day-to-day is whatever they throw at you. Don’t expect to have a rigid structure with projected projects and tasks. While I can’t speak for headquarters (Geneva, New York, Copenhagen, etc) the country offices tend to be more relaxed. I was lucky — first arrived in January when they were kicking off the annual Partner Survey which was the major feedback collection from donors, partners, and UN agencies. It was a combination of contacting ambassadors, country directors, and other staff to schedule interview times. Prep templates for the interviews based off of HQ directions. Even perform the interviews with some Country Directors. Feedback was collected and recorded for improvements to UNOPS processes.
Beyond that, lots of report reading and writing. Pretty typical to receive batch emails of 60-page reports that you’ll need to cross-reference with technical documents, proof-read, and ultimately prep for finalization. It may sound boring but this is the single best way to learn about the projects and programmes. As always when starting a new job, the first task is to understand the landscape and how to maneuver within it — this is how you do it. I was also lucky enough to be able to work directly with staff to streamline activity recording for the Mohinga/AIMS initiative — a web-based platform that the Government of Myanmar (GoM) requires to have all aid inputted for transparency purposes to the public. Special thanks to Catalpa for developing such an effort and being so hands-on.
We have a saying here, “…because Myanmar”. Basically this is just an explanation for any of quirky/strange happenings. Power cuts? No water? Giant rats? Howling dogs until 3 am? Because Myanmar. In the last two years, Myanmar has significantly increased their infrastructure — although it is a developing nation daily activities are not too difficult. You’ll slowly come to love the quirks or at least I hope so. The people can be both welcoming and cold. You will receive just as many smiles on the street as you will blatant glares. The key is to be the first one to initiate, say hello or nod your head and you’ll see a smile. Since I haven’t grasped the Myanmar language I can only speak to the national staff I work with and others I’ve met. In my experience, Myanmar people are a special kind of quirky in the greatest way. They are incredibly self-aware of themselves, and their country. Some hold strong opinions to controversial topics but are always willing to speak and discuss more. Please constantly challenge yourself and get to know the people around. And please, don’t be like me. Learn Myanmar language. Make connections and have amazing conversations.
All in all, I wouldn’t have traded this experience for the world. It gave me everything I needed at the right time I needed it. At 24, I was straddling the line whether or not to work back in Seattle or California as a programmer or taking the risk to come out here. I’m happy I chose Myanmar and UNOPS. It will open your eyes to the development world and the massive amount of cooperation it takes to be able to manage large programmes and funds. Everyone you meet will be equally or more passionate than you (but also bogged down by bureaucracy). Everyone will extend a hand to assist you in your search. Everyone will be interesting to talk to. At most time you’ll feel inferior to your coworkers especially in terms of intellect but it will challenge you to grow. As for me, I am not entirely sure I will follow the development route — especially at such a big organization. My plan is to settle back in California, use my experience to apply for jobs at various foundations and acquire a position to bridge the gap between the ICT world and management, ideally with a focus in development or civil society.
My biggest critique was not being able to be hands-on and feel the real impact we were doing. It was a lot of office-life but still a great experience nonetheless. Other interns were able to make field visits but depending on the position you’re in you may be more stationary than you would prefer. It was also a feast or famine environment. One day total silence, the next, everyone is running around trying to accomplish a dozen tasks at once. It’s just the nature of the beast. Sometimes the logistics of projects were hard to comprehend. Meaning, someone dumps something on your lap and goes figure it out. But that’s the challenge. You do have to be accountable for yourself and within reason do things with your own initiative. Always check with your supervisor but you would be surprised at what taking initiative leads to.
· Yangon Connection — where all the expats post listings for basically everything (events, housing, for sale, etc).
· Yangon Housing for Expats — another place people post with housing.
· Ask for the emails of current interns, and incoming ones to be able to connect and ask about housing openings.
· Make sure to bring more USD than you think — you will need to pay the full 6 months of rent in advance to your landlord.
· Request the PDF version of the Welcome Guide from HR and read it!