The World Health Organization (WHO) is to offer paid internships for the first time to boost access for those applying from developing countries, the BBC has learnt.
About 1,200 interns are accepted by one of the UN's largest agencies each year to support its work improving public health and tackling global diseases. Yet fewer than one in four of those chosen are from low-income countries. For the past 50 years, the WHO has expected its interns to move to their headquarters in Geneva, or one of its six regional offices, and work unpaid without travel expenses for up to six months, costing each person around £5,000 ($6,540).
But after a campaign led by a former intern, the UN agency has agreed to provide full financial support for its young workers by no later than 2020. It told the BBC that targets are also in place to ensure that 50% of interns come from developing countries by 2022. "It's unacceptable that 80% of WHO's work goes into supporting people in developing countries, yet only 20% of their interns come from them," says Ashton Barnett-Vanes, 29, a British doctor of English and Jamaican heritage from Wolverhampton, who started the campaign after his internship in 2012.
He spent six years rallying the international community before eventually working with ministers across the Caribbean and Africa to persuade the 194 members of the UN to reach the agreement. "All it took was for one country to say 'no' for it to be stopped," Dr Barnett-Vanes said. "If you don't have trained staff, you can't develop an effective health system," he added. "This change could see more than 500 young people each year from developing countries receive professional training that they can invest back into their communities."
The WHO has admitted its selection process is not "merit-based" and told the BBC that it recognised its unpaid internships were unfair. It said that funding for 50 interns per year had already been secured from the Wellcome Trust, a London-based medical research charity, but said "more support was needed". "If we are to nurture the next generation of global leaders who truly come from all four corners of the earth, we need to facilitate them spending time with us," the WHO media team said.
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