There is a large modernist painting in the vast main hallway in the headquarters that shows a frenzied tree of colours branching off in different directions, paints criss-crossing other paints and dripping down the canvas. Someone once commented, only half-jokingly, that the work is an accurate representation of the WHO’s organizational structure. As my time at the WHO wore on, the message of the painting became increasingly lucid – this organization was big, and it was important to make sure someone could explain it to you.
On a personal dimension, my internship was everything I had wanted for the brief 9 weeks I had available for the summer. My work was goal-oriented, interesting, challenging, and ultimately satisfying. But working briefly in a large organization, I can only begin to see the issues associated with working in a prominent international public health organization in the world. The cogs of the machine gradually become visible with time.
My internship built on previous work I had done related to universal health financing coverage. Here, the systematic review I carried out was an important work for calibrating the current literature on univresal coverage, and was a fantastic overview that anticipates the 2010 World Health Report (which will be on universal coverage). Of course, reading through a collated list of the literature on universal coverage was also extremely enlightening for me. Being a novice in health financing and health systems, I was greatly privileged to have a very intern-friendly supervisor who was open to giving me impromptu lessons on health insurance from his own courses.
The role play within global health is a WHO’s limitations by politics are a highly contentious issue that many have documented in criticisms (and demonstrations) elsewhere. To work within Geneva requires the acceptance of and patience with such a structure. This year there were 250 interns within an organization of 3000, making the intern numbers quite large compared to the number of staff.
This year, the interns decided to organize themselves into an Intern Board and lobby for intern rights. Several petitions for intern equity and working conditions were submitted to the Director General, and we sought for significant outreach to other UN intern groups for solidarity in our lobbying.
Two things you need for a successful WHO internship:
1. Look for opportunities. Future WHO interns will be pleased to know that the majority of WHO staff are open to a 30 minute meeting or coffee (at their convenience of course) and are always up for telling you about their background and experiences. It is highly advisable to take advantage of this fact to learn incredibly interesting perspectives. Set up conversations with interesting staff (in reality, virtually everyone there is worth having coffee with). Attend lunch seminars – there must be at least 2 every day. Go to intern events and connect with other people, who all have amazing things to tell you about if you only ask.
2. Work hard. You must set realistic expectations – you’re not going to save the world with a report that you’ve completed in 8 weeks. But working through those thousands of articles, or translating the 50th report for the library, gives you that different understanding that you would have not found otherwise.
In short, I loved my WHO internship. It was a fantastic experience and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in furthering their understanding of the key issues in global health.
Diane Wu is a second year medical student at the University of British Columbia in Canada