United Nations intern Rakib Hossain, a student of urban planning at the University of Hawaii who hails from Bangladesh, works in his office at U.N. headquarters in New York.
U.N. interns find a mutual respect
A University of Hawaii student is among the 210 working on various global projects
UNITED NATIONS » Rakib Hossain, who grew up in Bangladesh distrusting the United Nations because of a water project gone wrong, is now evaluating programs funded by the world body.
Oroma Joe comes from an area of Nigeria where hostages have been seized over the past several years by groups seeking a share of the region's oil bonanza. She's doing management research at U.N. offices and trying to find a way to mediate an end to the violence back home.
Hossain and Joe are among 210 students chosen for U.N. internships from more than 1,300 applicants enrolled in graduate or postgraduate programs. The interns work in many U.N. departments and agencies, mirroring the organization's breadth and its reach around the world.
Like the organization, the interns do more than they're given credit for. Invisible to some, apparent to others, they have a symbiotic relationship with the world body.
"Most in the U.N. are aware that interns are doing important work, especially the ones supervising them," said Stefanie Barabas, internship program coordinator.
Since coming to the United Nations, Hossain's opinion of the organization has changed dramatically and Joe says she's realized the global body's strengths and limitations.
Hossain's distrust of the United Nations stemmed from a 1970s program funded by international agencies, including the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, to drill deep wells and use hand pumps to extract fresh water in Bangladeshi villages. In the short term, these tube wells provided easier access to safer drinking water, but in the long term they led to arsenic poisoning in nearly 40,000 people, according to a 2007 report by UNICEF.
The same report said that arsenic-contaminated drinking water was first detected in Bangladesh in 1993. So far, 5 million of nearly 10 million tubewells in Bangladesh have been tested and 1.5 million were found to be unsafe.
"Everybody thinks the United Nations has something to do with this and that they are responsible," Hossain said. "Many people tend to blame this on UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the government of Bangladesh for not considering everything before making the decision to install tubewells."
Hossain, 26, is a Ph.D. student of urban planning at the University of Hawaii. While working for the U.N. Fund for International Partnerships, he found a report in a thick manila envelope about a project to combat arsenic contamination in his country.
"I found one project of UNICEF addressing this water contamination in Bangladesh. Then I found more components in that project for addressing awareness-building and providing alternative sources of drinking water and thought 'Oh my God.' I didn't know that they were doing this," he said. "Now I know they are doing much more than I thought."
Joe, 31, who grew up in Rivers state in Nigeria, agrees that the world body does a lot of beneficial work, but says it can't do much about the hostage situation in her country.
"The U.N. does not interfere with the sovereignty of a nation or the right of a nation to handle its internal affairs," she said.
Lilian Haney, one of the few American interns, comes by way of Kyung Hee University in South Korea, where she is a graduate student at the Institute of Peace Studies.
The 23-year-old originally from Palo Alto, Calif., works in the public administration division of the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. She is a personal assistant to her supervisor.
"As an outsider, you hear only about specific things -- a specific success or a specific failure -- but when you're here at the U.N. and you have access and see how much is going on, you have greater respect," she said.