The internship program offered by the World Health Organization Headquarters (WHO-HQ) is regarded as a prestigious opportunity within global health. Having completed my internship in the beginning of 2015, I can confirm it is a great opportunity for young professionals to convert their global health knowledge into practical skills. As a WHO-HQ intern, I obtained hands-on experience in global health, including formulating policies, developing projects, and attending global health meetings.
Despite the fact that WHO is regarded as the central actor and ideal employer for global health professionals, none of my colleagues from Indonesia have ever applied for an internship. My anecdotal experience is validated by the fact that there are less than 10 Indonesians in the WHO Intern Facebook group, which has over 2300 members. I was surprised to learn that this problem is not limited to Indonesia, as I encountered very few interns from low- and middle- income countries (LMICs) during my internship, and an overwhelming number of interns from high-income countries. This skewed demographic distribution appears to have gone on for many years, as written about by The Network of WHO Intern Alumni (NWIA) in the Lancet Global Health. They found that in 2013, no more than a quarter of WHO-HQ interns were from LMICs, while more than half of all interns came from USA, Canada, and UK.
Coming from a middle-income country, I’ve experienced firsthand one of the major underlying causes of this inequity. WHO-HQ internships are unpaid, so only those with sufficient funding to support their living costs in Geneva can undertake the opportunity. The average costs of living for interns in Geneva is approximately 1500 CHF per month, amounting to approximately 5000 CHF for the average 3 month internship. In Indonesia, these internship costs amount to 144% of the GDP per capita. Whereas for a candidate from the USA, Canada, or UK, costs of a WHO-HQ internship represent approximately 10% of GDP per capita. In addition to the sky-high expenses interns have to bear, there are still very few grants available to support global health internships. These financial obstacles hinder potential interns from LMICs from even considering applying for a WHO-HQ internship, let alone accepting an internship offer and traveling to Switzerland to live in Geneva for 3 months.
Due to these financial constraints, I could only complete a 6 week internship at WHO-HQ, which was too brief to fully benefit from such an invaluable opportunity. Regardless, I tried to make the most of my short time by attending department meetings, library courses, lunchtime seminars, and many of the other enriching events held in WHO-HQ. I broadened my professional network, having met professionals and peers who share my aspirations to improve the world’s health. Moreover, my participation in the WHO Intern Board (WHO IB) has led to my continued support of intern projects through the NWIA.
For over two years, the NWIA has been liaising with WHO IB and external stakeholders on the issues I have described above, to promote Equitable Access to Global Health Internships. We believe all young professionals should be able to participate in a global health internship, regardless of their country of origin.
If you support this cause and believe that LMICs should be better represented amongst interns at global health organizations, you can help by donating to our campaign here. Together we will achieve Equitable Access to Global Health Internships!
Laura Harris, MD, MSc.
General Practitioner in Indonesia
Former WHO-HQ Intern 2015
Health Promotion Unit – PND Department